The key thing that gets under my skin about graduate applications is the personal statement. All too often, applicants see this as an opportunity to tell their life story, especially about some experience they had with computers as a kid. "Since I was nine years old..." is the most common opening line in these statements. Frankly, I don't care about any of that. I am looking for potential grad students who have a mature and serious outlook about research. Of course, the best way to demonstrate that is to actually have done some research as an undergrad -- and putting together the Web site for your a cappella group doesn't count. My suggestion is for students to model the personal statement as a mini-research proposal: tell me about a problem you want to work on, have done some thinking about, and how you would approach it. And, convince me that you have the technical experience necessary to do graduate level work.
By the same token, I don't care about how enthusiastic a student comes across in their application to work with me. A lot of ass-kissing goes on in the personal statements sometimes and that drives me crazy. Just tell me how awesome you are, not how awesome I am, or awesome Harvard is. We know that already :-)
Here is my rough algorithm for screening Ph.D. applications:
- Make sure the GRE scores and GPA are reasonable - not necessarily stellar. (I only had a 3.4 GPA when graduating from Cornell, and was told later that this almost sunk my application to most grad schools. Fortunately, I had also published three papers by the time I applied to grad schools, which offset that. As a result, I tend to use a lower threshold for the GPA than some others, to catch the diamonds in the rough.)
- See if the student has any evidence of research experience -- supervised by a faculty member. Publications don't really matter but are helpful.
- If there is any black mark on the transcript (say, making a C in an important CS class), see if there is any explanation of that in the personal statement or elsewhere. (We once had an applicant who failed most of his classes one semester, but retook them and made A's the next term. Until I read the personal statement, it was not clear that this was because he had been hospitalized for a substantial portion of the term.)
- Finally, read the recommendation letters. These are the most important part. Steps 1-3 are just pre-screening to save myself the trouble of reading the bulk of the applications. Letters from people I know (or know of) are given higher weight. Letters from academics get priority over letters from industry - most industry letters (even from places like MSR) paint a very rosy picture. Letters that simply say "so-and-so took my class and made an A-" with no other content actually hurt an application, all else being equal. If a student is really stellar, even faculty who don't know the student well should be able to say good things.