In August this year I will move to San Jose, California and start a Master’s degree in Software Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. I accepted the admission offer last week and so far I cannot yet really grasp what this actually means for me and my future. Back a couple of years, I would have never anticipated that I will ever be able to study at such a prestigious university. But now I will and I briefly wanted to share how I got there.
In November 2011 I got invited to judge the Magic: The Gathering World Championships in San Francisco. At this point I have been a judge for a bit more than a year and I have never left Europe in my life before. This trip certainly was a turning point in my life. On the airplane I sat next to an elderly man, traveling home to Los Angeles from a conference in Zurich. We started chatting and I mentioned that it would be great to study abroad for a couple of years – and he started talking about Carnegie Mellon University. Turns out he was a history professor emeritus from CMU. I had never heard of this university before and honestly thought that it must be some sort of low-reputation university compared to the big names like Stanford or MIT we hear in Europe more often. But he really encouraged me to apply to US universities in general, explaining to me that Swiss universities might have a better reputation that I’d expect. Later in San Francisco I visited the campus of Berkeley University and was overwhelmed by the size and atmosphere of the campus. That is when the idea of “it would be nice to study in the US” became a goal. I had about two to three years to achieve this goal.
Back home I did a lot of research. Programs, universities, degrees, options – and I got scared quite quickly. Not only did it seem insanely expensive (a masters degree in Switzerland costs me about 3’200 USD in tuition and fees, in the US it starts from 30’000 USD), but more importantly my grades seemed nowhere near what was needed for these high profile programs. I estimated my GPA around 3.0. Although the conversion from Swiss grades to US grades is still somewhat a mystery to me, that is clearly below what the usual applicant for such programs has.
In late 2012 a friend of mine who was working at the US embassy told me about the Fulbright Program and in 2013 I went on and applied for it. This application was quite a hassle for me: I was not used to such tedious and time confusing application procedures. Statements of Purpose, Letters of Recommendation, Research Objectives and all that was news to me and I had to gather it in a rather short time period. I am very grateful for all the people that helped me review and correct the various texts I had to send in. Also of course to the people that wrote me excellent letters of recommendation. I consider them the strongest part of my application. All this really helped me nail down my future study plans in general – even if I would get rejected, I still benefited from the whole application process. And at this point I was sure, that I would apply to the universities regardless of whether I receive the grant or not.
In fall 2013 I got the acceptance letter from the Fulbright Program. Not only did this drastically increase my chances for the actual applications with the universities, but this would also help covering these insanely high costs. I remember being in a state of constant euphoria for about a week. Together with the people from the state department I worked out a application plan for several universities, including Carnegie Mellon. By now I had heard a lot about this particular university, read papers published by their researchers and in the process their master’s program quickly became my preferred option. But I remained skeptical. Although I thought I scored quite high in the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), my placement officer asked whether I could retake the exam to score a couple of points higher. So I retook the exam and despite a lot of effort I only scored two points higher – I didn’t expect this to help much. I remember the train ride home from Geneva, where I took the exam, as one of the most frustrating moments in these years.
In January and February I sat for my last exams in my undergraduate program. Meanwhile, the application dates for the universities closed and I was just waiting for the results to come in. All the time people kept asking, where I would now move in the US and I just kept replying: “Well, I just know that I will be going, but I have no idea yet where…”. Then in March I finally got my first admission offer – from Carnegie Mellon. I got there!
Now I am looking forward to the last couple of months in Switzerland. I will have my official graduation in June and then I have to plan the details of me moving to the United States. Many questions are still unanswered. I didn’t imagine me moving out from home would include a 6000 miles trip. But I will get there and I am very much looking forward to a completely different and new period of my life.