Engineering Graduate School: Applying to a Program

A few days ago, a friend asked me for some advice regarding admission to a graduate (Master’s) program. I thought this could be the perfect occasion for me to put together my thoughts and experience into this brief post.

Choosing a program

Although choosing a graduate program in some particular place is not in the scope of this text (this could be a complete post for itself), I will just suggest you to have a clear idea of what type of program do you want to apply for and where. The content of the program should adjust to your current and, most importantly, future professional interests (I wrote a post earlier that might help if you still haven’t decided between an MSc or an MBA). Besides, the institution/university you choose should be able to fulfill your interests as both, student and professional engineer. This includes, but is not limited to, academic level, reputation, graduate profile, job opportunities, etc.

Applying to a program

Perfect, so now you have chosen what to study and where to study it. What’s next? Well, actually applying for it. Here are a few tips and tricks that, hopefully, will be helpful for you.

  • Do every step of the application process in advance. In other words, don’t leave anything for the last minute. This might sound pretty basic, but you would be surprised at how easy we tend to leave important tasks for the last call. Specially when we are given lots of time (weeks, months) to accomplish this task. I recommend to start all the application procedure one year before the first class day of your tentative graduate program. For the rest of the deadlines I recommend you to always be at least four to six weeks ahead of schedule, specially for the submission of your application package. I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but remember there is a general tendency of things to go wrong at the last minute.
  • Check the program’s/university’s webpage (frequently). Nowadays, internet allows us to have fresh information just a few clicks and keystrokes away. Graduate school is no different. Most of the times, you will find exactly what you need to apply for a program on their webpage. You will also probably find some contact information (email address, phone number) where you can ask any additional questions you might have for the whole application procedure (there is usually an Admissions Department that will more than gladly help you with this kind of matters). Also, be sure to check the site often: you never know when the application procedure might change.
  • Fill the application carefully. As simple as this may sound, you should really pay close attention when filling the actual application form. I recommend you to read the form at least once before writing something on it. Be sure to completely understand what they are asking you in each point. Again, if you are not sure or if a question is not clear for you, don’t hesitate to contact the institution/university (Admissions Department). Remember to follow the instructions carefully. E.g.: if the form tells you to describe the two courses you enjoyed the most in your BSc, write only about two courses: not one, not three, but two. You may be surprised about how much importance these small details may have in the impact of your application.
  • Watch out for additional application requirements. Usually the application form is not the only thing that you will need to submit. Once again, make sure to prepare any other additional documents in advance. These might include:
    • Personal statement/Letter of motivation. This document might have a different name depending on the place, but in the end it is a kind of essay written by you where you express why must you be chosen from a (probably big) group of applicants for your program. This could also be a topic for a complete new post, but in short I can give you a couple of suggestions. First, try to be original: your personal statement has to be able to make you stand out of the crowd and leave an impression in whoever is reading it. Also try to show why are you interested in that program in that particular place. However, avoid being over-flattering since this is only straw and hay. Always remember to proofread your manuscript several times. Spelling and/or grammar mistakes are unacceptable in your statement. It would be great if you had the chance to get feedback from other people since usually they see things that you might have just skipped. Listen to their feedback, it will improve your statement more that what you think. Finally, never, never copy a personal statement either from another person or, even worse, from the internet. Believe me, after going through hundreds, maybe even thousands, of statements, people in charge of reading these documents are able to distinguish between an original statement and a Frankenstein-statement with non-original parts from different sources.
    • Transcripts from your home university.  This will give the university you are applying to an overall view of your academic performance. I know this is not the only way to prove it, but is it indeed the most common one. Besides, your transcript will also provide  information regarding your academic interests in the field (specially concerning any track or area you might have chosen in your BSc).
    • Different tests results. It is very common for universities to ask for additional tests that may further support your academical status. Nowadays, more and more institutions and universities are asking for the GRE Test. However, this is not the only one. Some might ask for the SAT Test, specially in the US. Furthermore, if the program you applying to is abroad, you will probably be asked for a proof of language. For English programs, the most popular test is the TOEFL Test, being the TOEFL iBT Test its most recent version.
    • Recommendation letters. Usually you will be required to submit a couple of recommendation letters. These might come from a professor, your tutor, your boss, or anyone that can actually say something (hopefully positive) about your interests and performance. Usually they must be in English, although this might change according to the teaching language of the program. Depending on the place, submission of the recommendation letters might be as a part of the application package or separately via an electronic form send to the people that will actually recommend you. Once again, if you need these, make sure to ask them in advance. I would suggest to ask for them at least two months before your application submission. Remember other people actually have things to do, so don’t expect to ask for a recommendation letter today and have it ready tomorrow morning. However, if you asked for it a month or two ago and haven’t heard of it, don’t be afraid to ask for the status of it.
    • Be prepared to pay. Some places requires you to pay a fee for your application. Usually credit cards (Visa, MasterCard) are accepted. Check at what point of the application procedure you are required to pay. Most of the times you will be required to attach proof of payment to your application package.
    • Applying for financial support? If you are applying for any type of financial support, usually you have to submit both applications together. However, be sure to check any additional requirements that might be requested. You will find all the information you need in the program’s/university webpage as well, although it will probably be in a separate section different from the “Admission” section.

I tried to write these tips in the most generic way I could. However, please keep in mind that the application and admission process might change a lot between universities and even between programs in the same university. Just try to take the best of them 😉 .

If you have any comments, questions or feedback, leave them in the comments below or drop me a line on Twitter (@amoncadatorres). Moreover, if you found this useful, fun, or just want to show your appreciation, you can always buy me a cookie. Cheers!