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. Whether you’re applying in software engineering, chemical, computer science, civil engineering, systems, mechanical, or biomedical engineering, you will need the following tips:
- Determine your graduate school and post-grad school goals
- Understand GPA and test score requirements
- Explore a wide range of graduate engineering programs
- Know the research requirements
- Write a sizzling statement of purpose
- Prepare a relevant resume
- Snag first-rate letters of recommendation
- Reveal appealing personal qualities
- Create an application schedule…and stick to it
Determine your graduate school and post-grad school goals
Why is it important for an applicant to define short- and long-term goals in an engineering application?
The most basic reason is that most engineering programs require a statement of purpose. It’s extraordinarily difficult to write such a statement when you don’t have a purpose beyond obtaining a graduate degree!
But there are far more substantive reasons that you should want to have and demonstrate clear goals in your application.
Many undergraduate engineering students decide to do further study in their field for the following reasons:
- To develop their skills beyond the general skills developed as an undergraduate
- To specialize in an engineering discipline
- To further define career direction
These are all valid reasons for pursuing a graduate engineering degree, but they really don’t go far enough. Schools have learned from experience that applicants who understand the type of work they want to do post-graduation are more focused while studying and are better prepared for the job market upon graduation. Because applied engineering master’s programs are only 1-2 years in length, there isn’t time as in undergrad education to “find yourself.” If you enter school with a clear goal in mind, you are more likely to do well academically and be better prepared to interview with hiring organizations when studies are completed.
Aligning your goals with the vision of the program
When applying to schools, you will be accepted by the school and by the department usually with titles such as:
- Aerospace engineering
- Applied physics
- Biomedical engineering
- Chemical engineering
- Civil and environmental engineering
- Electrical engineering and computer science
- Industrial and operations engineering
- Mechanical engineering
Top engineering programs (and their departments) also have a strategic vision, with a set of values that help determine their curriculum. Often, the schools want to produce engineers who will pave the future 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 either in business, defense, healthcare, or any number of fields. You need to understand the department’s vision and strengths as well as how those qualities will help you realize your goals.
As mentioned above, you will be required to write a statement of purpose as part of your engineering application. Included in this essay is an expectation that you will describe your short-term and long-term goals. What do you see yourself doing for 3-5 year after graduation? If you write that you want to work for a company, you need to describe if your goal is a startup, consulting firm, or large company. What industry do you want to work in, and in what job function? Do you want to be a project manager in the operations department of a large chemical Fortune 500 company? Or do you want to be a technology entrepreneur in a startup focused on machine learning educational services, eventually owning your own company?
2 steps to discovering your goals
Taking the following steps will help if you are unsure of your direction:
- Meet with professionals in fields that hold your interest.
Make a request to your undergrad professors for referrals to their former students to have a conversation about their work. Ask a series of questions, including what projects they work on and what they find most satisfying about their work. You will gain valuable information that could even help you write your eventual statement of purpose.
- Self- assess.
Look at the projects you have participated in, the internship positions you have held, and any relevant work experience. What kind of work is just too tedious for your liking? What kind of work do you love? What kind of environment do you thrive in?
Your goals should be 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. And, you will have a much better chance of acceptance 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. Some schools mainly rely on the grades earned in the junior and senior years for their admissions decisions. However, if your GPA falls below a 3.0, you may be able to compensate with 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 could also consider taking a few courses prior to beginning your application and earn A’s to show that you are now ready and able to manage the curriculum. Courses to consider taking include: calculus 1, 2, and 3; physics; chemistry; linear algebra and differential equations; biology; computer science; and statistics.
The top-ranked engineering schools prefer GRE math scores in the 164-167 range. Although, the verbal score is not as critical in importance, the schools like to see a score above 150. Not all engineering programs list their minimum standardized test score requirements on their website. Check with the U.S. News & World Report Best Engineering Schools to determine if the schools you are interested in have reported their average scores.
If you are an international student, you can be assured that most of the best engineering schools accept the TOEFL scores for the English Language requirement. If you have scored 100 or higher, you have satisfied most schools’ minimum score requirements. Some schools accept the IELTS scores; however, Harvard and Stanford do not. Determine which tests are needed by reading the admissions requirements for each of your target schools. You will need a 7 or higher score on the IELTS to meet the requirements of quality engineering programs.
A few words about your undergraduate major: Most applicants to graduate engineering programs are applying for a graduate degree in a program that aligns with their undergraduate engineering studies. However, I have had clients with a major in the liberal arts successfully apply for graduate engineering programs. They enrolled in the prerequisite engineering and math courses prior to submitting applications, and earned the grades that showed they could handle the technical and quantitative subjects.
Explore a wide range of graduate engineering programs
Now that you’ve established your goals and measured up your competitiveness in terms of GPA and test scores, it’s time to select the best programs for you to apply to.
Choosing engineering programs based on your goals
To determine if a program will help you achieve your goals, examine the curriculum – what you’re going to be studying and doing during your graduate program. If it prepares you for your future career in the way you want to be prepared, it’s a program worth considering.
MIT Engineering, for example, boasts that their students and alumni have launched 32,000 active companies. They describe the culture as stressing innovation from day one on campus. Berkeley Engineering emphasizes study abroad and global partnerships. The Cornell Tech program in NYC emphasizes entrepreneurship and technology.
Choosing engineering programs based on your qualifications
It makes little sense to apply exclusively to programs where you have little chance of gaining acceptance. Caltech and MIT can’t take everyone. Apply mostly to programs where you have a decent chance of acceptance, and if you have one or two dream schools and are willing to spend the time and money to apply, go for it. And not all applicants aim for the top engineering schools; some applicants – like those who have lower GRE scores or GPAs – are smart enough to apply only to those schools where they believe the odds are more in their favor. However, most clients who I have worked with have wanted to earn their degrees from an institution they believe will open more doors for them in the future. But remember to be realistic.
Other factors you should consider when researching graduate engineering programs, in addition to these two primary factors, include: location, personal preference for urban vs. rural, climate, large vs. small programs, diversity of the student body, etc. Just as you are aiming to find the perfect match for you, the schools are also searching for the applicants they believe will help to complement the peers in their class. Although all schools seek applicants with credentials that reflect past success and the abilities to do well in their academic program, there are nuances among the qualities sought by different schools.
How to REALLY get to know a program
While thoroughly reading the website is important, it is not enough. To truly learn about a school’s culture, it is best if you can visit the campus and meet with students, professors, and admissions ambassadors. If it isn’t possible for you to arrange a campus visit, then reach out to students and alumni. How? Some school websites list contact information for student club officers. You can also contact the admissions office and ask if there are students willing to speak about their academic experience with applicants. You can also head to LinkedIn where you can perform advanced keyword searches to find each school’s students and alumni, and connect and contact them there.
If you network with those who are studying or graduated from the institution of interest, you will learn more about classes, internship opportunities, professors, and student organizations than you will from reading only what is included on the school’s website. You can also include a sentence or two in your essay reflecting what you learned from these contacts, which shows you made an effort to obtain information, proving your interest in the school.
Know the research requirements
Many engineering candidates apply to applied engineering programs where prior research experience is not required. These are usually titled Master of Engineering programs. If you are applying for a Master of Science in Engineering, the schools will look for an interest in research and will want to know what research you conducted as an undergraduate and whether you first and/or second authored publications. These details will be discussed on the school’s website or in the specific application.
Write a sizzling statement of purpose
Most undergraduate students in engineering are practiced in mathematics, modelling, design, robotics, thermodynamics, and/or simulation, with little opportunity to take courses that require essay writing. Thinking about what content should be included in a statement of purpose (SOP), and writing a coherent and persuasive essay, can be daunting.
The SOP is a critical component of the graduate application as it is an opportunity to persuasively tell a story. That story should explain what motivated the applicant to major in engineering (or any other chosen major) and why a graduate degree is important now, as well as how this school and program will help you to accomplish your goals. And, the story should have an interesting beginning, as well as an ending that relates back to the starting content.
Once again, it is imperative that you understand the critical importance of clarifying short-term 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 upon graduating, and what impact you ultimately want to have on your community or society.
It is equally imperative that your statement of purpose address your reasons for wanting to attend this particular program. You can exhibit genuine interest in each program by discussing how courses, professors, extracurricular activities, 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 the format desired by the school and include the necessary content, usually one page in length, and organized so that it quickly informs the reader of your most recent work, educational, and volunteer accomplishments. You should describe, with action verbs, engineering experiences during internships and full-time jobs, highlighting promotions if applicable. Engineering resumes also usually include a brief list of technical/software skills.
Again, to maximize chances of acceptance, make sure 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 2-3 letters of rec. The purpose of the recommendations is to provide the schools with other perspectives on your candidacy. The letters should complement the other elements of your application and at the same time add to the reader’s knowledge of you.
To earn great letters of recommendation, you first have to develop excellent relationships with professors and supervisors. In both cases you need to have done outstanding work under their supervision. Then you need to ask potential recommenders if they are willing and able to write strong letters of recommendation for you. If they hesitate, ask someone else.
Who should you ask?
Most graduate schools request letters from at least one if not two former professors who can attest to your ability to succeed in a graduate program, including your depth of knowledge of technical skills and/or research you have conducted or products you have developed.
Another letter is usually from a work supervisor who can discuss examples of your work accomplishments, as well as how you collaborate with team members, clients, and supervisors. If they can describe your leadership roles or how you handle conflict situations and discuss areas of weakness that they believe you will strengthen with time and further education, it will make a more effective letter.
When choosing recommenders for your master’s in engineering application, it is vital that they have:
- The background and perspective that your target schools require (if they want academic recommendations, you need to talk to professors. If they want professional recommendations, you need to ask supervisors at work or from your internships)
- The ability (that is, time) and willingness to write the letters
- Inclination to write a strong, positive letter
When should you ask your recommenders?
As you know, professors and employers do not have much free time. It is your responsibility to request their assistance with sufficient time for them to submit the letters. I recommend that you make your request at least six weeks in advance of your target schools’ deadlines. Once you have agreements from three writers, it is important to provide them with the information they need to write a detailed letter.
How can you assist your recommenders in writing good letters of recommendation?
You should consider giving them any or all the following:
- Copy of your resume
- Copy of your master’s of engineering statement of purpose
- A paragraph or two about the school’s program
- A bullet point list of what you would like this person to highlight in their letter
- Deadline for submission, with the appropriate website address
It is important to send reminders as you get closer to the deadline or their good intention to help you out could get lost in the daily grind. Some of your contacts might ask you to draft the letter yourself, and then send it to them to be reviewed and signed. This is not acceptable to schools. Instead, inform the writer that you will provide the information needed to make this as painless as possible.
For an application to be reviewed by your target schools, all information requested by them must be in their hands by the deadline, including 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 capabilities:
- Analytical skills
- Ability to work well in a team setting
- Desire to learn
- Leadership, communication, and management skills
Let’s take a closer look at each of these qualities.
- Analytical skills
All engineering assignments require the ability to problem solve. Even when an assignment seems to be straightforward, unexpected situations can arise and the engineer needs to analytically approach the problem. You may estimate that a work project will take 20 weeks to complete, but you are told by the client it must be accomplished in eight weeks. This means you must develop a plan that lays out every step within that eight-week timeframe and decide who will be assigned to complete which tasks. It may mean that you must be very creative in how you approach the problem, to ensure that no time is wasted and mistakes are avoided.
- Ability to work well in a team setting
Most engineering problems are not solved by one person, but by a team or even by using a multi-team 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 at times you will follow the lead of others, and other times that you will take the lead. It is important that you can be a leader, but equally important that you can follow directions and follow through on details. For more advice, see 4 Ways to Display Teamwork in Application Essays.
- Desire to learn
Some new engineers believe they must prove they are confident and know their subject matter. Yet, often, to understand and solve the problem you are assigned, it is important to ask questions and acknowledge a lack of knowledge or insight. Having curiosity and the willingness to make inquiries of your peers and superiors will often yield critical information. It also shows that you have the desire to learn and that you 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 thought that they will become the future leaders in the organization. Good leaders know how to communicate well with their teams. They understand that communication is a two-way street and that employees need to know they can be heard, and that by participating 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 may include multiple teams that include chemical engineers, computer scientists, electrical engineers, and mechanical engineers working in different divisions of the company. A leader must ensure that the teams are communicating 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 timeline was moved up to an earlier deadline. My client was the youngest and least experienced of the three, but he was the project lead. One colleague was known to have an attitude, and the other was not sufficiently focused 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, leading to missed internal deadlines. With more open and honest communication, he worked through the issues and successfully delivered the work within the requested timeframe. He ended up with a promotion.
This is the kind of teamwork, leadership, savvy, and impact that graduate engineering programs are looking for.
Demonstrating your personal attributes in your application essays and LORs
As you write your essay(s), make sure 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 they also include an assessment of your personal qualities, especially as compared with 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, allowing sufficient time to take standardized tests, write a revealing, informative essay, send academic transcripts, refine a resume, line up recommenders and provide them with the appropriate information for them to submit outstanding letters on time, and lastly put it all together.
How you arrange your schedule is a personal preference and is dependent on your study, work, travel, or family considerations. But no matter the timetable, it is vital that you thoroughly reflect upon and think through each of the application components to ensure that you are submitting a most competitive application. One of the reasons that applicants hire consultants is to do just that. Many applicants find it helpful to talk through their bio with an objective listener who can help strategize which information or experiences should be included in a statement of purpose, and even provide an outline to help you begin, not to mention provide feedback and corrections to an SOP draft.
Putting 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 turn to the pros to ensure that you take all of 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!
Check out our Master’s Application Package and work one-on-one with an expert admissions coach to help you determine your career goals, research the best programs for you, align your strengths with the strengths of your target programs, secure the best recommenders possible, and then submit a winning application that will get you ACCEPTED! Learn more here.Want Karin to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
• Get Your Game On: Prepping For Your Grad School Application, a free guide
• How to Write Your Master’s in Engineering Statement of Purpose
• How This Student Got Accepted to MIT’s Engineering Program and Landed a Job at Apple, a podcast episode