How to get into Vanderbilt’s master’s degree program in computer science

BY Nicole Gull McElroyOctober 04, 2022, 2:08 PM
Vanderbilt students in September 2022 at FirstBank Stadium in Nashville. (Photo by Michael Wade—Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

Not all students enrolled in Vanderbilt University’s online master’s program in computer science have followed a traditional path in the industry. Degree candidates come from a wide variety of life experiences and professional backgrounds: the auto industry, banking and finance, music and entertainment, education, engineering, and more. Still, Vanderbilt’s admissions team is looking for some knowledge of computer science, an undergraduate degree, and a proven success record in a given field.

“The folks in our program that don’t have a strict computer science background, have been working in an industry and have already been successful there,” says Jules White, associate dean of strategic learning programs at the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. “It is very competitive. The worst thing we can do is let someone in who isn’t prepared.”

The program, which ranks No. 1 on Fortune’s list of the best online master’s degree programs in computer science, accepted 52% of applicants for the 2020–21 school year. It currently has between 110 and 120 students per graduating class, offering up to 10 courses to choose from each semester. 

Through interviews with two administrators from Vanderbilt, this article will help guide you through the steps you’ll need to take to get into this top-ranked computer science program:

  1. Make sure you’re ready for a rigorous program.
  2. Focus on crafting a well-rounded application.
  3. Consider what differentiates you from the pack.
  4. Demonstrate flexibility in your application.

1. Make sure you’re ready for a rigorous program

Going back to school for a master’s degree proves to be worthwhile for thousands of students each year, but it does require a commitment of time and money. Vanderbilt’s computer science master’s is a robust program, demanding up to 20 hours per week outside the classroom in related work. The online curriculum is a direct mirror of what’s offered to students who attend in person on campus. 

“There’s an average of eight years experience in the program,” says White, noting that the Vanderbilt coursework aims to meet the needs and experience level of an experienced student body. “They are more senior and looking to move on to that next step. We have a really superb set of students.”

In the classroom, Vanderbilt faculty aim to offer students hands-on learning through the school’s 30-credit curriculum over three to six terms. Coursework in cloud computing, computer science theory, software engineering, cybersecurity, and more make for an interdisciplinary approach with top-notch professors in a highly academic setting. 

What’s more, master’s degree students in computer science should be prepared for additional commitments outside the classroom. Vanderbilt’s program hopes to help students build a network and peer group to foster sharing of ideas; help with job hunting after graduation; and further build the Vanderbilt alumni community. 

2. Focus on crafting a well-rounded application

Like many graduate degree programs, Vanderbilt requires several elements in the application, including letters of recommendation and essays. While the school’s selection process doesn’t rely on GRE scores, it does require a solid 3.2 GPA in undergraduate work for admission—but life and work experience carry a tremendous amount of weight, too. 

“If someone is the CTO at a major company, I couldn’t care less what their GPA was,” says White. “There’s always a balance of how you compare across age groups, experiences, and education levels. We are trying to find people who are going to be engaged, and it’s the right time and right fit.”

Overall, Vanderbilt is looking for students who have a solid educational background, life experience, and a clear sense of what’s next in their careers. 

3. Consider what differentiates you from the pack

To secure an acceptance letter from Vanderbilt, it’s important to focus on what makes you a unique asset to the program. Applicants come from all age groups, industries, and experience levels, so being able to share research, side projects, or internships during the application process help would-be students stand out from the competition, according to White. 

Demonstrating an innovative or entrepreneurial spirit can accomplish the same. “If someone hasn’t had a strong academic background or internship, having an entrepreneurial background is another thing,” says White. “They are going beyond what they are learning or taking what they learn in class and applying it in unique and novel ways; that’s a great indicator.”

More students are coming to the online program from nontraditional and unconventional professional and academic backgrounds, according to Joanne Wang, assistant dean for professional and external education programs at Vanderbilt. “The online program gives people an opportunity they wouldn’t have had,” she says. “Maybe they know how to code or did a boot camp. This gives them an opportunity to formalize their degree.” 

That’s why, Wang adds, being able to show the way you think, what sorts of projects you’ve worked on, and how you solve problems in the application process is increasingly important. 

4. Demonstrate flexibility in your application

People pursuing a career in computer science must be comfortable with the continuous learning that’s inherent to this field—and your application is a good opportunity to demonstrate your flexibility. 

“As a computer scientist, there’s one thing I can guarantee you: The specifics, the languages, the technology, it will be completely different in 10 years,” says White. “You’ll have to relearn if you want to stay relevant. You’ll have to be retraining yourself to advance.” 

Leveraging your essay or letters of recommendation to show how you’ve learned and capitalized on new skills throughout your career or undergraduate work will show the Vanderbilt admissions team that you can not only handle the rigor of learning new skills in the program, but that you’ll carry that effort over time as technology and innovation continue to shape the industry as a whole. 

White says computer scientists who’ve advanced over time in their careers are already at an advantage. “If you see someone progressing professionally—it’s unlikely you can’t manage that,” he adds. “There’s always the person who is a 10x software engineer. They are always retraining themselves but also understand the fundamental principles. That type of person is very successful in this program.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in person and online), nursing, computer science, cybersecurity, psychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as the best doctorate in education programs and MBA programs (part-time, executive, full-time, and online).