How to Get Accepted to Graduate Engineering Programs

By - May 10, 07:38 AM Comments [0]

With years of experience preparing engineers for their careers – and as an Accepted admissions consultant since 2015 – I’ve seen what works and doesn’t work when applying to master’s and PhD programs in engineering. There are many academic departments within the broad engineering field, but no matter your choice, you will benefit from the following tips:

  1. Determine your graduate school and postgrad school goals
  2. Understand GPA and test score requirements
  3. Explore a wide range of graduate engineering programs
  4. Know the research requirements
  5. Write a sizzling statement of purpose
  6. Prepare a relevant resume
  7. Snag first-rate letters of recommendation
  8. Reveal appealing personal qualities
  9. Create an application schedule – and stick to it

Also, don’t miss my Admissions Straight Talk podcast episode, in which I chat with Accepted Founder Linda Abraham about how to get accepted to graduate engineering programs.

Determine your graduate school and postgrad school goals

Why is it important for an engineering applicant to define their short- and long-term goals in their application?

The most basic reason is that most engineering programs require a statement of purpose. And it’s extraordinarily difficult to write such a statement when your only purpose is to obtain a graduate degree!

Many undergraduate engineering students decide to pursue further study in their field for the following reasons:

  1. To develop their skills beyond the general education they gained as an undergraduate
  2. To specialize in an engineering discipline
  3. To further define – or change – their career direction

These are all valid reasons for enrolling in a graduate engineering program. However, schools have learned from experience that applicants who understand the type of work they want to do after they graduate are more focused while studying and are better prepared for the job market upon finishing their degree. Because applied engineering master’s programs are only one to two years long, you don’t have as much time to “find yourself” as you did as an undergrad. If you enter school with a clear goal in mind, you are more likely to succeed academically and be better prepared to interview with hiring organizations when you’ve completed your studies. If you are pursuing a research program, the department will want to know what specific area of research you are targeting and with which professors.

Aligning your goals with the vision of the program

When applying to schools, you need to be accepted not only by the school but also by your academic department, such as the following:

  • Aerospace engineering
  • Applied physics
  • Biomedical engineering
  • Chemical engineering
  • Civil and environmental engineering
  • Computer science, including artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Electrical engineering 
  • Industrial and operations engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Robotics

Top engineering programs (and their departments) have a strategic vision, with a set of values that help determine their curriculum. Some schools want to produce engineers who will pave the way in research, creating new products and services that are daring and innovative and that serve society. Other programs are more focused on practical and immediate application or problem-solving, in business, defense, health care, or any number of other fields. You need to understand the department’s vision and strengths as well as how those qualities will help you realize your goals.

Include specifics

As mentioned earlier, you will be required to write a statement of purpose as part of your engineering application. In this essay, you are expected to describe your short- and long-term goals. What do you see yourself doing careerwise for the first three to five years after you graduate? If you want to work for a company, you must describe whether you want to join a start-up, consulting firm, or large organization. What industry do you want to work in, and in what job function? For example, do you want to be a project manager in the operations department of a large Fortune 500 chemical company? Or do you want to be a technology entrepreneur in a start-up focused on machine learning educational services and eventually own your own company?

Discover your goals

If you are unsure of your direction, the following steps will help you determine this element of your application:

1. Meet with professionals in fields that interest you.

Ask your undergrad professors for referrals to former students of theirs with whom you can have a conversation about their work. Ask these individuals questions on such topics as what projects they work on and what they find most satisfying about their job. You will gain valuable information that could eventually help you write your statement of purpose.

2. Self-assess.

Consider the projects you have participated in, internship positions you have held, and any relevant work experience. What kind of work is too tedious for your liking? What kind of work do you love? What kind of environment do you thrive in?

Keep your goals top of mind

If you can describe your goals with some specificity, especially if they flow from your experience or academic education, your story, essay, and entire application will be more compelling. Also, you will have a much better chance of being accepted to a school that is aligned with your goals and credentials.

Understand GPA and test score requirements

Most top engineering schools require a minimum GPA of 3.0. In making their admissions decisions, some programs rely mainly on the grades an applicant earned in their junior and senior years. However, if your GPA is below a 3.0, you might be able to compensate by earning a higher GRE score and with excellent research and/or work accomplishments.

Every school you apply to will require an official transcript that only your undergraduate institution can provide. You might consider taking a few additional courses prior to beginning your application, making sure to earn A grades in them to show that you are ready and able to manage the curriculum. Classes to consider include calculus 1, 2, and 3; physics; chemistry; linear algebra and differential equations; biology; computer science; and statistics.

The top-ranked engineering schools seek GRE math scores in the 164 to 167 range (in recent years, however, some schools have actually eliminated the GRE requirement). Although an applicant’s verbal score is not as critical, schools generally like to see a score above 150. Not all engineering programs list their minimum standardized test score requirements on their website. Check U.S. News & World Report’s list of Best Engineering Schools to see whether the schools you are interested in have reported their average scores.

If you are an international applicant, you can be assured that most of the best engineering schools accept TOEFL scores for the English language requirement. If you have scored 100 or higher on the TOEFL, you have satisfied most programs’ minimum score requirements. Some schools accept IELTS scores, though Stanford does not. Determine which tests you need to take by checking the admissions requirements for each of your target programs. You will need a 7 or higher score on the IELTS to meet the requirements of quality engineering programs.

Most individuals applying to graduate engineering programs are seeking a degree that aligns with their undergraduate engineering studies. However, I have had clients who were liberal arts majors be accepted to graduate engineering programs. They enrolled in the prerequisite engineering and math courses prior to submitting their applications and earned grades that showed that they could handle the program’s technical and quantitative subjects. Some schools (e.g., Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, NYU) offer “bridge” programs that cover the prerequisite courses necessary to apply to their graduate programs.

Explore a wide range of graduate engineering programs

Now that you’ve established your goals and evaluated your competitiveness in terms of GPA and test scores, it’s time to select the best programs for you.

Choose engineering programs based on your goals

To determine whether a graduate program will help you achieve your goals, examine its curriculum to learn what you would be studying and what practical experience you could gain. If a school’s courses and offerings will prepare you for your future career, the program is one worth considering.

MIT Engineering, for example, boasts that its students and alumni have launched more than 30,000 active companies. The school describes its culture as one that stresses innovation from day one on campus. Berkeley Engineering emphasizes study abroad and global partnerships. The Cornell Tech program in New York City emphasizes entrepreneurship and technology.

Choose engineering programs based on your qualifications

It makes little sense to apply exclusively to programs where the probability is low that you will gain acceptance. Caltech and MIT can’t accept every applicant. Apply primarily to programs where you have a decent chance of getting in, and if you have one or two dream schools and are willing to spend the time and money applying to them, go for it. Not all applicants aim for the top engineering schools; some candidates – such as those who have lower GRE scores or GPAs – apply only to schools where they believe the odds are more in their favor. However, most clients I have worked with have wanted to earn their degree from an institution they believe will open more doors for them in the future. Do your research, and make a list of “reach” and “safety” schools.

Other factors you should consider when researching graduate engineering programs include location, preferred environment (e.g., urban versus rural), climate, program size (large versus small), and the diversity of the student body. Just as you are aiming to find the perfect match for you, the schools are searching for the applicants they believe will complement their fellow students and represent the school well in their respective fields. Although all programs seek candidates with credentials that reflect past success and the ability to do well in their academic program, there are nuances among the qualities the different schools seek.

Really get to know a program

Thoroughly reading a program’s website is an important first step, but that does not qualify as enough research to make an informed decision. To truly learn about a school’s culture, you should – if at all possible – visit the campus and meet directly with students, professors, and admissions ambassadors. If visiting campus isn’t possible for you, look for contact information for student club officers on the school’s website. You can also contact the admissions office and ask whether certain students are available and willing to speak with applicants about their academic experience. Another option is to use LinkedIn, where you can perform advanced keyword searches to find each school’s students and alumni.

If you network with individuals who are studying at, or graduated from, the institution you’re interested in, you will learn more about its classes, internship opportunities, professors, and student organizations than you will from reading only what is presented on the school’s website. You will also be able to include a sentence or two in your essay about what you learned from these contacts, which will show the admissions committee that you made a concerted effort to obtain firsthand information, proving your genuine interest in the school.

Know the research requirements

Many engineering candidates apply to applied engineering programs that do not require prior research experience. These are usually master of engineering programs. If you are applying for a master of science in engineering, the schools will look for evidence of an interest in research. The admissions committee will want to know what research you conducted as an undergraduate and whether you first- and/or second-authored any publications. Details about what the school wants will be available on its website or in its application.

Write a sizzling statement of purpose

Most undergraduate students in engineering are practiced in mathematics, modeling, design, robotics, artificial intelligence, thermodynamics, and/or simulation but have had little experience with courses that require essay writing. Deciding what content should be included in one’s statement of purpose (SOP) and writing a coherent and persuasive essay can be daunting tasks.

The SOP is a critical component of the graduate application, because it is an opportunity to persuasively tell the admissions committee your story. In it, you should explain what motivated you to major in engineering (or whatever your chosen major was) and why earning a graduate degree now is important, as well as how the program you are applying to will help you accomplish your goals. The story you tell should have both an interesting beginning and an ending that relates back to your starting content.

Once again, it is imperative that you understand the importance of clarifying your short- and long-term goals. Schools want to know that you are clear about your purpose for desiring a graduate degree, how you will use that degree, and what impact you ultimately want to have on your community or on society more broadly.

It is equally important that your SOP address your reasons for wanting to attend the particular program you’re applying to. You can exhibit genuine interest in each program by discussing how its specific courses, professors, extracurricular activities, and/or geographic location will enable you to realize your educational and professional goals for graduate study in engineering.

Prepare a relevant resume

You will need a professional resume at some point in the application process. It should be in the format desired by the school, include the necessary content, be one page in length (usually), and be organized so that it quickly informs the reader of your most recent work, educational background, and volunteer accomplishments. You should describe, using active verbs, any engineering experiences you had during internships and full-time jobs, highlighting any promotions you received, if applicable. Engineering resumes usually include a brief list of technical/software skills, as well.

Again, to maximize your chances of acceptance, make sure that you have the kind of experience (and resume) that your target programs are most interested in.

Snag first-rate letters of recommendation

Most schools require two or three letters of recommendation. The purpose of these recommendations is to provide the admissions committee with third-party perspectives on your candidacy. The letters should complement the other elements of your application while also adding to the admissions reader’s knowledge of you.

To earn great letters of recommendation, you first have to develop excellent relationships with your professors and supervisors. In both cases, you need to have done outstanding work under their supervision. Then you must ask your potential recommenders whether they are willing and able to write strong letters of recommendation for you. If they hesitate, ask someone else.

Determine whom to ask for letters

Most graduate schools request letters from at least one former professor, if not two, who can attest to your ability to succeed in a graduate program, including your depth of knowledge of technical skills, research you have conducted, and/or products you have developed.

You might also obtain a letter from a work supervisor who can offer examples of your professional accomplishments and discuss how you collaborate with team members, clients, and supervisors. If they can describe your leadership roles, how you handle conflict, and/or any areas of weakness they believe you will strengthen with time and further education, that will make for an effective letter.

When you are choosing recommenders for your master’s in engineering application, look for individuals who have the following:

  1. The background and perspective that your target schools require (If a program wants academic recommendations, you need to ask professors to write on your behalf. If it wants professional recommendations, ask supervisors at work or from your internships.)
  2. The ability (i.e., the time) and willingness to write the letter
  3. The inclination to write a strong, positive letter on your behalf

Properly time your recommendation requests

As you know, professors and employers do not have much free time, so you must be sure to request their assistance with sufficient time for them to draft and submit the letters. I recommend that you make your request at least six weeks before your target schools’ deadlines. Once you have agreements from three recommendation writers, it is important that you provide them with the information they need to write a strong, detailed letter on your behalf.

To assist them in this way, consider giving them any or all of the following:

  • A copy of your resume
  • A copy of your SOP
  • A paragraph or two about the school’s program
  • A bulleted list of what you would like them to highlight in their letter
  • The deadline for submission, with the appropriate website/email address

It is important to send your recommenders reminders as the deadline gets closer; otherwise, their good intentions to help you could get lost amid their daily grind. Some of your contacts might ask you to draft the letter yourself and send it to them to review and sign. This is not acceptable to schools. If this happens, inform the writer that you will instead provide all the information they need to make writing the letter as painless as possible.

Your target schools will not review your application until all the information they have requested is in the admissions committee’s hands, including all your letters of recommendation. So stay organized!

Reveal appealing personal qualities

Through your essays, resume, and letters of recommendation, admissions committees will ascertain your personal qualities. Programs want to know that you have the following:

  1. Analytical skills
  2. The ability to work well in a team setting
  3. A desire to learn
  4. Leadership, communication, and management skills

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Analytical skills

All engineering assignments require the ability to problem-solve. Even when an assignment seems straightforward, unexpected situations can arise, and an engineer needs to be able to analytically approach any problems. You might estimate that a work project will take 20 weeks to complete but are then told by the client that it must be accomplished in just eight weeks. This means you must develop a plan that lays out every step within that eight-week time frame and decide whom to assign each task to. You must be creative in how you approach the problem to ensure that no time is wasted and mistakes are avoided.

The ability to work well in a team setting

Most engineering problems are not solved by a single person acting alone but by a team, or even by using a multiteam approach. In graduate school and on the job, you will be expected to work well in teams. This means having the ability to listen well to others and really hear what they are saying, without prematurely judging the content. It is important to ask questions to clarify statements to ensure that you understand the intent or meaning of another’s contribution. It also means that sometimes, you will follow another person’s lead, and at other times, you will take the lead yourself. So, you need to be able to not only act as a leader but also follow others’ directions and follow through on details. For more advice, see Four Tips for Displaying Teamwork in Your Application Essays.

A desire to learn

Some new engineers believe that they must prove that they are confident and know everything about their subject matter. However, to best understand and solve a problem you are assigned, it is often important to ask questions and acknowledge a lack of knowledge or insight. Being curious and having the willingness to make inquiries of your peers and superiors will often yield critical information while also showing that you have a desire to learn – and are not afraid to ask questions. Most bosses will appreciate that quality, and so will your team members.

Leadership, communication, and management skills

Companies hire engineers from top schools with the expectation that these individuals will become leaders in the organization. Good leaders know how to communicate well with their teams. They understand that communication is a two-way street and know not only that employees need to be heard but also that when employees participate in the process, they become more invested in the outcome. Leaders know when to ask questions of others, when to listen and provide feedback, and when decisions must be made to move forward.

In large companies, projects sometimes involve multiple teams that include chemical engineers, computer scientists, electrical engineers, and mechanical engineers working in different divisions. A leader must ensure that all teams communicate with each other to ensure a quality product or process that is completed by the deadline.

One of my former clients was assigned two colleagues to help him complete a project when the original timeline for the project changed and the deadline made earlier. My client was the youngest and least experienced of the three, but he was chosen to be the project lead. One colleague was known to have an attitude, and the other was not sufficiently focused on the task at hand because of family issues. My client had to figure out how to lead this team without exacerbating these tensions. At the start, there were conflicts, which led to missed internal deadlines. With more open and honest communication, my client worked through the issues and successfully delivered the project outcome within the requested time frame. He ended up getting a promotion.

This is the kind of teamwork, leadership, savvy, and impact that graduate engineering programs look for.

Demonstrate your personal attributes in your application essays and letters of recommendation

As you write your essay(s), make sure that you are telling your story in such a way that the admissions committee is informed of your personal attributes. When providing information to the individuals who will write your letters of recommendation, you might suggest that they also include an assessment of your personal qualities, especially as compared with those of your peers and as desired by graduate engineering programs.

Create an application schedule – and stick to it

Developing a competitive application for graduate programs in engineering takes strategic thinking, thoughtful organization, thorough execution, and of course, time. It is important to start early and allow yourself sufficient time to take (and perhaps retake) standardized tests, write a revealing and informative essay, send academic transcripts, refine your resume, line up recommenders and provide them with the information they need to submit outstanding letters by the deadline, and lastly, put it all together.

How you arrange your schedule is a matter of personal preference and depends on your study, work, travel, and family considerations. But no matter the timetable, it is vital that you thoroughly reflect on and think through each of the components of your application to ensure that your submission is as competitive as possible. One of the reasons applicants hire an admissions consultant is to have support in doing just that. Many candidates find it helpful to talk through their bio with an objective listener who can assist them in strategizing which information or experiences to include in their SOP and even in creating an outline for the essay, in addition to giving them feedback on and editing their SOP draft(s).

Put it all together

You’re almost there! You know what skills you need to have, what traits you need to present, which people you need to reach out to, and each component you need to prepare for the admissions board. Now it’s time to connect with the pros to ensure that you take all these ingredients and put them together successfully to create a compelling, slam-dunk graduate engineering application. We’re here to help with any or all of the steps mentioned here!

Work one-on-one with an expert admissions coach to help you determine your career goals, research and identify the best programs for you, align your strengths with those of your target schools, secure the best recommenders possible, and then submit a winning application that will get you accepted! Learn more here.

Dr. Karin Ash

With 30 years of career and admissions experience at four universities, including Cornell University’s College of Engineering and Johnson Business School, Dr. Karin Ash facilitated students’ entry into the world’s best companies. As an adcom member, she also evaluated applications and therefore knows what schools and employers seek. Want Karin to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch! 

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