Is it important to publish research papers to get into a top university for MS?

It is not necessary to have publications, but having them can definitely help you to make your way into top universities very easily.

Is it important to publish research papers to get into a top university for MS?

From my experience, I am listing the important elements which are needed in an application which gets selected in top universities.

1) Good GPA*
2) Good projects/ Internships/Training
3) Publications*
4) Work experience
5) Rank in Competitions, Olympiads, and other authentic events
6) SOP
7) recommendation letter
8) Extracurricular
9) Test scores like GRE, TOEFL, etc.

Let us see each one of these in detail:

Having a good GPA is always an advantage but only having a good GPA will lead you no where. If you are score 9.5/10 or 3.9/4, but the other sections of your application are blank, your chances are not at all good. If you have a low GPA but other sections of your resume are extraordinary, you might selected. So GPA is important but not the only important thing. But there is some threshold you should follow like 7/10 or 2.5/4 because below this everything becomes very very difficult.

Good projects are something which can lead you anywhere. Some of my friends have very low GPA like 5/10 or 2.2/4, but they are in top universities because of their projects and past internships. But here comes a twist. With a GPA this low, you can get into a top university as a one year intern or in posts like a research assistant. But it will still be difficult to get degree programs like MSc. Once you work as a full time intern/assistant for a year in such universities, you can get recommended by some great professors for admissions. So you can get into top universities for MSc even with very low GPA if you have very good projects or internships. The only problem is that you have to spend more time and have to take one or two year gap to work as an intern/assistant for getting MSc.

Now coming to your question. Is publication necessary?

There are some complications. I have seen many of my friends who have faked a lot in their resume. People make a simple line follower and present it like a high end Autonomous bot... Blah blah blah. Now the admission panel has no means to check the authenticity and level of your work. Whatever you have written in your resume, they accept it as the truth. This is where the role of publications, competitions and events comes in. If your work has been published or secured position in any good competition, then that makes it very easy for the admission panel to check the authenticity of your project. The program committee of any good conference or journal or competition will check your research closely by asking you to show working demos, experimental data, etc. The admission panel can now simply check the authenticity of the conference or journal or competition which indirectly reflects the quality of your work.

So publications, competitions and events help you to bolster your claim that your projects are good. They also reflect your quality as a research scholar who knows about writing papers, reading papers and current research topics.

So these things are important but not unavoidable. There can be simple alternatives. For example you can provide links to your project report, working demo/videos and codes in your resume. This authenticates your work and proves that you have not faked things in your resume. You can use YouTube, Google drive, blogs or websites to upload your work and give links in your resume.
Another important alternative to publication is work experience in some good company or project (after your academics).

Good SOP and recommendation letters also have a huge weightage in your selection.

Some US universities like Stanford gives a lot of weight to sports and other extracurricular activities.
But most important thing is quality. Don't go for quantity. You can have one publication of good quality in good conference or journal or you can have 10 publication in any other conference or journal. Having publication is not tough. There are many local journals which will accept any poor quality work for earning money. So you have to ensure that conference or journal you select is good and authentic.
Similar rule works for Work Experience. You can have 5 years work experience or 2 year work experience. The important thing will be that what you have done in those years. If you have 10 years work experience but you have done same thing for 10 years, it will not be counted as 10 year work experience. If you have 2 years but you have done something innovative than it will be counted as better than 10 year work experience.

To summarize: Publications can make your way easy and have a great importance but you have many other sections in your resume or application which can give you the same results.

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