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 one is applying to master’s and PhD programs in engineering. Whether you’re applying in software engineering, chemical engineering, computer science, civil engineering, systems, mechanical engineering, or biomedical engineering, you will benefit from 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 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. It’s extraordinarily difficult to write such a statement when your only purpose is to obtain a graduate degree!
There are far more substantive reasons that you should have, and you’ll need to 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 education they gained as an undergraduate
- To specialize in an engineering discipline
- To further define or to change 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 one to two years in length, you don’t have as much time to “find yourself” as you did in undergrad. 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 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 target academic department, such as the following:
- 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) have a strategic vision, with a set of values they use to 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 earlier, you will be required to write a statement of purpose as part of your engineering application. You are expected in this essay to describe your short- and long-term goals. What do you see yourself doing for three to five years after graduation? If you want to work for a company, you will need to describe whether you want to join a start-up, consulting firm, or large firm. 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 chemical Fortune 500 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?
Two steps to discovering your goals
If you are unsure of your direction, the following steps will help you determine this element of your application:
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. Pose a series of questions to those individuals, including 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.
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?
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. 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. Some schools rely mainly on the grades an applicant earned in their junior and senior years in making their admissions decisions. However, if your GPA is below a 3.0, you might 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 can consider taking a few courses prior to beginning your application and earn A grades to show that you are ready and able to manage the curriculum. Classes 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 seek GRE math scores in the 164-167 range. 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 schools’ minimum score requirements. Some schools accept IELTS scores, though Stanford does not. Determine which tests you need to take 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.
As for your undergraduate major, most people applying to graduate engineering programs are seeking a graduate degree in a program that aligns with their undergraduate engineering studies. However, I have had clients with a liberal arts major successfully apply for graduate engineering programs. They enrolled in the prerequisite engineering and math courses prior to submitting their applications and earned grades that showed they could handle the technical and quantitative subjects. Some schools offer “bridge” programs that cover the prerequisite courses necessary to apply to their graduate programs (e.g., Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, NYU).
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.
Choosing engineering programs based on your goals
To determine whether a graduate program will help you achieve your goals, examine its curriculum to see what you would be studying and doing during that 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 its students and alumni have launched more than 32,000 active companies. The school describes its culture as stressing 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.
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 accept every applicant. Apply primarily 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 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, in addition to these two primary factors, include location, personal preference for an urban versus a rural environment, climate, large versus small programs, and 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 the peers in their class 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.
How to REALLY get to know a program
While thoroughly reading a program’s 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, . How? Some schools list contact information for student club officers on their website. You can also contact the admissions office and ask if there are students 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 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 reflecting what you learned from these contacts, which will show the admissions committee that you made a concerted effort to obtain firsthand 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 called 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 discussed on its website or in the specific application.
Write a sizzling statement of purpose
Most undergraduate students in engineering are practiced in mathematics, modeling, design, robotics, AI, thermodynamics, and/or simulation but have had 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 because it is an opportunity to persuasively tell the admissions committee your story. That story 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 this school and program will help you accomplish your goals. And the story should have both an interesting beginning and an ending that relates back to the 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 upon graduating, and what impact you ultimately want to have on your community or society.
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 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 promotions, if applicable. Engineering resumes usually include a brief list of technical/software skills, as well.
Again, to maximize your 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 two to 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 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 need to ask potential recommenders whether they are willing and able to write strong letters of recommendation for you. If they hesitate, ask someone else.
Whom should you ask?
Most graduate schools request letter 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 will usually need another letter 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 for a more effective letter.
When choosing recommenders for your master’s in engineering application, it is vital that they have the following:
- The background and perspective that your target schools require (If a school wants academic recommendations, you need to talk to professors. If it wants professional recommendations, ask supervisors at work or from your internships.)
- The ability (that is, the time) and willingness to write the letters
- The inclination to write a strong, positive letter on your behalf
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 recommendation 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 of the following:
- A copy of your resume
- A copy of your master’s of engineering SOP
- A paragraph or two about the school’s program
- A bullet point list of what you would like them to highlight in their letter
- The deadline for submission, with the appropriate website 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 it. This is not acceptable to schools. If this happens, inform the writer that you will instead provide all the information needed to make writing the letter as painless as possible.
For an application to be reviewed by your target schools, all information requested by them must be in the admissions committee’s hands by the deadline, 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:
- Analytical skills
- The ability to work well in a team setting
- A desire to learn
- Leadership, communication, and management skills
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
All engineering assignments require the ability to problem solve. Even when an assignment seems straightforward, unexpected situations can arise, and the engineer needs to analytically approach the problem. You might estimate that a work project will take 20 weeks to complete, but then you are 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 who will be assigned to complete which tasks. 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 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 sometimes, you will follow the lead of others, and at 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 Four Ways to Display Teamwork in Application Essays.
A desire to learn
Some new engineers believe they must prove that they are confident and know their subject matter. Yet to understand and solve a problem you are assigned, it is often 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 expectation that they will become leaders in the organization in the future. 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 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 could 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 timeline was changed and the deadline made earlier. 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 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, he worked through the issues and successfully delivered the work 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.
Demonstrating your personal attributes in your application essays and letters of recommendation
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 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, allowing 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 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 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 application components to ensure that you are submitting your most competitive application. One of the reasons 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 to include in an SOP and even provide an outline for the essay, as well as give feedback on and edit 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 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!
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 those of your target programs, secure the best recommenders possible, and then submit a winning application that will get you ACCEPTED! Learn more here.
With 30 years of career/admissions experience at four universities, including Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Business and College of Engineering, Dr. Karin Ash has met with thousands of recruiters seeking to hire the best students from leading schools. She has served as a member of the admissions committee, ensuring that the applicants who ultimately enroll are a good fit for the program and prime candidates for employers. Karin has been a Consultant with Accepted for 8 years and has facilitated students’ entry into top engineering, data science, MBA, and other STEM graduate MEng, MS, and PhD programs. Her clients have been accepted into MIT, the University of Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, UPenn, and USC. Want Karin to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
- Get Your Game On: Prepping For Your Grad School ApplicationGet 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, podcast Episode 460