Personal Projects, Music, Passion

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Hello Mr. Phillip!

I'm a 16 year old school student living in Doha, Qatar (from India
natively). Sorry if my post is unprofessional or lacking in some way,
I'm quite young and inexperienced.

Since when I was 10 I've been deeply interested in computer science,
programming, mathetematics, physics. I've worked on games and
game-related projects (game entity, level management systems, physics
wrappers etc.). This has taught me a lot about 3d mathematics
(vectors, matrices, quaternions etc., used a lot in graphics and
physics), classical physics, application design, software engineering
principles. I've also used Linux (my primary work environment now),
delved into the kernel source, tampered with it, tried languages like
Haskell and Lisp using alternative principles, written a few programs
in x86 assembly to understand things at the low level.

Also, I'm very much 'into' music, I play the Tabla (an Indian
percussion instrument).

You can read more at my site: It has
information about my projects (do please check it out, I'm hoping you
will, especially GraLL 2 (, and
my short biography (

In school I get pretty good grades (usually around 93%) and am among
the top 10 in class.

Recently I've been thinking about college. I've heard that computer
science education is generally pretty good in the US. I wanted to
check for myself, and have watched quite a few videos, read papers,
notes, tried assignments, and I find it interesting. I see that
students in Caltech, MIT, CMU and the like come up with things that
people can only come up with if they're passionate about it. It's not
just computer science. When I work on a project, I don't think about
the result. It's about the process. I do it for doing it. I 'love'
doing what I'm doing. I hope to be surrounded by, and collaborate
with, people who do the same. And from what I've researched so far, it
seems that these places do have such people.

My question is, what next? What kind of, or which, university should I
apply to? What do I need to do to get there? Does the admissions
department like personal projects? If these are the wrong questions to
ask, then please do tell me what is important for me to think about
right now. If there's something else I need to give information about,
do ask.

Also, of course, I do understand that as an international student,
there may be some more things I have to keep in mind. Do give me some
advice on this topic.

Thanks a lot for your reply, I'm hoping I haven't taken too much of
your (precious) time! :-)

-- Nikhilesh Sigatapu, September 22, 2009


It does sound as though you're set to have a good career as a software developer. If you love building application programs, you should enjoy your work. A traditional CS curriculum in the U.S. is, unfortunately, not organized around projects. The Olin College of Engineering, a new school in Needham, MA, is probably the closest thing to what you're looking for. The fun and interesting projects at schools such MIT are done in research labs, where undergraduate students may work.

It is difficult for an international student to get into the best U.S. schools due to the lack of a meritocratic process. There is a lot of discrimination in favor of U.S. residents and then further sorting is done by race and sex (being a male Indian sadly does not put you into one of the favored groups). So don't get your hopes up. You might have better luck at a school in England (where your Haskell experience will come in handy too).

What would an admissions officer at a U.S. science/engineering university like to see? First and foremost, they would want you to be a female, born in the U.S. to Native-American and African-American parents. Second, they'll want you to have good standardized test scores. Third, they'll want to see a recommendation from a teacher who has a degree from their own institution or similar. It would help a lot if you came over to the U.S. for a one-year high school or at least summer program and get a recommendation from a teacher here.

As far as personal projects go, if you can develop something that is successful and easy to explain, that would probably help. Don't expect a university bureaucrat to be able to read your Haskell code, though. The deans at Yale could not even answer correctly when a South Korean university asked if Shin Jeong-ah had recently received a Ph.D. at Yale. If, on the other hand, you've built a popular consumer Web application or game that they can try out from a standard browser, they might look. Or if you're the author of a popular smartphone application, for example, that would show some independent energy.

-- Philip Greenspun, October 31, 2009