I know what I want to do this summer

But do I have the skills?

Having performed similar work in the past is a good predictor of ability to perform such work in the future. Even better is work on the suggested project: if you can show that you’re already doing the work that needs to be done, and doing it successfully, you have solved the problem of convincing me you can do it. You might still burn out, have a personal emergency, or get hit by a bus, but I have high confidence that you’re capable of doing the work. Another excellent way to convince me in your ability to do the work is to present a detailed plan for doing it, with a good schedule. Such a plan is a great complement to any other ways. All applications we accepted had good plans, and not having a good plan was grounds for rejection even for people with very impressive resumes.

As you read this advice, I’m sure you’re thinking “That’s a lot of work for an application.” Exactly. That’s the point. You prove your ability to do work with work. The more work you put into an application, the better are your chances of success. As the number of submitted applications increases, your chances of being accepted for at least one project actually decrease. Put all the work into one (or, at most, two) applications. Be prepared to spend at least two full days preparing your application. If you want to make sure you succeed, spend a week. Study the literature. Read the code. Prepare a plan. Ask questions. (No, I won’t be annoyed. Not even a little bit. OK, I might be annoyed if you’re too lazy to look something up, but never if you want to ask about the best approach or the meaning of something.) Write code. Can you write a prototype that implements some part of the system that I am asking for? If not, you probably won’t be able to do the project. If you can, and do so, you stand out from the crowd immediately. If you can, and don’t, you’ve just harmed your chances. The more work, the better. This isn’t wasted work, either. If you put a week into preparing your application (and if you’re any good), it won’t be rejected. So, you simply did the work ahead of time.

How to Write the Best Application in the Pile

The best applications?

It was almost as easy as the first round of rejection to select the few top choices. These were the people who did what I advise above to do; they submitted outstanding applications. You want to be in this part of the pile, where we’re not talking about whether to take you, but about the exact deliverables or other minor tweaks to your project.

“Excellence is the norm, once you quickly filter out the really bad applications. Excellence, thus, isn’t enough. Aim higher.”

That’s a great quote.

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