engineering grad school application

20 12 2007

[By Shawhin]  In the past few weeks, we’ve had the pleasure of getting questions on applying to grad school in the US and particularly Berkeley.  Most questions came from friends we made during our visit to Iran, blog readers, some family, etc.  Since I was sharing a lot of the same information, I thought it would be useful to put an entry here on tehranshake.  My timing is a bit off because most applications we were helping with were due sometime in the past few weeks.  Nevertheless, I’m sure applicants for next year could still benefit from this info – especially given that some advanced planning, in terms of getting familiar with professors, should be done well before the application.

As a background, I’ve been through the undergrad application for civil and environmental engineering (CEE) at Berkeley (as well as a few other schools), the MS application process for CEE at Cornell, and just this past month, the PhD application process for the college of environmental design (CED) at Berkeley.  Shideh’s done the undergrad application for CEE at Cornell (and about 8 other schools), the MS application for geotechnical engineering at Berkeley (and 2 other schools), and the PhD application again for geotech at Berkeley. 

Note: the info in this post and comments are just opinion and by no means official or necessarily correct!  So take it all with a grain of salt.  That said, feel free to post questions and we’ll be more than happy to respond with our thoughts.  We also invite anyone else to respond to others’ questions as well.  Also note, that requirements may differ greatly between departments and universities, so our experiences with the CEE and CED departments may not hold for other fields such as mechanical engineering, etc.

So to start this thing off, I’ll concisely list things we’ve discussed with friends and provide more detail in later comments to this post:

+        If applying for the PhD in engineering, it is very important to get familiar with the faculty you want to work with – go to the department website and read about faculty research and pinpoint a few people you want to work with.  Establish contact with them ASAP and express interest.  This is hard given that a lot of professors rarely respond to email!  If you can call by phone, I think that’s a good idea too. 

+        Figure out application requirements (essays, exam scores, resume?, etc) early on and plan to spend months getting everything in order.  The essays can take weeks or more and should be pretty perfect in terms of grammar and style.  (I’d be happy to read your essays and provide feedback to the best of my ability.)  At Berkeley the essays are very important.

+        If you don’t think your GPA is high, don’t let that stop you.  Good essays and established contact with a professor at the department can go a long way.

+        If you get accepted, or leading up to your application, be sure the faculty or the research you will be involved in will provide funding for your education and living expenses.  Shideh, could speak better to this.  If they offer something very basic in terms of funding, you should negotiate.  Kelaas bezar!

+        Depending on the department, they may not allow you to communicate with faculty after submitting your application.

These are summaries of a few conversations I’ve had that come to mind right now.  Like I said, please feel free to ask whatever comes to mind.

 Hope this helps!




10 responses

20 12 2007

I wanted to add a few other points (which I think only apply to Engineering):

– The letters of recommendation that you send from your current university or job are very important (in many cases the most important factor).

– GRE matters, especially for the department’s decision on your funding. However, if you don’t have good GRE scores and don’t get a funding proposal in your acceptance letter, don’t stop trying. You can always negotiate as long as you don’t announce your decision; there’s nothing to lose, so you can politely bargain for a better offer. The process of funding is sometimes very similar to salary negotiations for a job.

– It is getting increasingly more difficult to get funding for PhD research projects as there is less budget in non-war related research topics. It’s frustrating and extremely sad for the future of this country. Many are currently leaving school after getting their Master’s degree and plan to work in the industry until they get an offer with funding. I don’t think the situation is more promising in Europe since their funding is mostly limited to the EU citizens unless you get a scholarship. I don’t know too much about their schools though.

– Your GPA matters. Do not think that no one will care about your undergrad GPA in grad school and you can blow up your grades as long as you have a good resume and a great number of difficult classes in your transcript. That’s not true. It’s wisest to take less classes each semester and do well. However, again, if you don’t have a good GPA, try to provide a reasoning in your application such as the average GPA in your class is generally low (difficult grading system) or if you had any special circumstances that prevented you to do well that year, etc. Your reasoning should be backed up with good evidence though, especially when you provide grade statistics for your department.

– Include your extra-curricular activities in your applications, especially those that show you are creative and have leadership capabilities (i.e. if you were a part of a sports club, any artistic activity, political group, …)

– As Shawhin mentioned, it’s crucial to have your essays written in perfect English. It looks very bad to see grammatical or spelling errors in those essays.

– Lastly and most importantly, do not underestimate your own capabilities. The most common pattern I see in Iranian students applying for grad school here is the following: they have zero self confidence in their own abilities and in their background; they also think it’s a virtue to be modest in their applications (as it is normally valued in our culture). The education system in Iran is truly outstanding (at least up to PhD) and there is no reason to think that you cannot compete with others from around the world. If there is anyone who should worry, it’s others from other schools when they have to compete with you (especially if you went to Sharif, Tehran U, or basically any public university in Iran or Azad U in Tehran). You are qualified to apply to any school you want and let them make the decision for you instead of refusing to apply to good school. You will see that you will have the best offers and you will be one of the top students any where you go. So, please apply to your dream school regardless of your current degree of self confidence. Additionally, being modest is no virtue here in the United States. You have to sell yourself and must talk highly of yourself in every step of your application process. This doesn’t mean that you should be snobby and unrealistic, but confident, decisive, and strong. Asking for funding and financial aid in your application is also nothing to be embarrassed about. You are a great student coming from another country and need financial assistance. If they agree that you are a great student and can contribute to their department, they will provide you with funding just like they do for others. If they don’t have funding, they will simply accept you without funding, instead of discriminating between you and rich students. At least here you have tried. You also have a chance to negotiate with them before you accept their offer.

20 12 2007
Hooman Hosseinpour

Dear Shideh and Dear Shawhin,

You both are indeed thoughtful. Thank you very much for the new post and great information.

If anyone has any questions, I also will be more than happy to share my own experience and will do my best to help my friends who are interested in continuing their studies abroad.

If something important comes to mind that can help applicants in their application process, I will definitely mention here in my next posts.


6 01 2008

hi guys!!! to be honest, I am from India so don’t exactly know if my asking this question here is in anyway an issue….if so I am really sorry! I am just finished with the phase of applying!! To be honest, my problem is a bit unnatural as I am sure it would seem to you guys as well. I decided on a PhD just 3 weeks before my GRE exam (i had been contemplating an mba before that but suddenly realized where my true calling was….kindof divine intervention :-)..). So consequently, I was unable to establish contact with professors in the universities I applied to. I wish to go for a PhD in petroleum engineering….so now comes the big dilemma I face….I am really unsure as to what my chances are now that I was not able to proflet! So just wanted to know your opinion as you have experience in these matters as would seem to be the case. thanks a ton in advance for your kind indulgance!!!
Just to add, probably not that important I guess, I have a very good gpa (univ topper) and decent scores (atleast that’s what others tell me…)

7 01 2008

Dear Saintdeb! thanks for your post. I’m so happy you have found your calling (it’s a huge step and most people aren’t fortunate enough to reach this step ever). Your question is by no means an issue and I really don’t think your problem is unnatural or a problem at all. In my opinion, depending on the schools you have applied to, it’s not necessary to establish contacts with professors. It may only be an advantage in some cases. In a few cases though professors don’t seem to welcome any contacts before the student is admitted (some schools do that). Were you able to write good essays and send good recommendation letters? Having a good GPA from a good school in India as well as decent GRE scores would make your chances very high. Having a good statement of purpose and personal statement as well as good rec letters would make it almost certain that you’ll get admitted to top schools with funding. However, keep in mind that not getting into a good school doesn’t mean that you didn’t qualify. Sometimes they have limitations like their department is suffering from lack of budget and having inactive professors who can’t guarantee funding or research in your area of interest, etc. Good news is that there is usually decent funding in Petroleum Engineering, sponsored by many rich international companies.

So, in summary, I think you’ve got a good chance, especially if you could spend time on writing good essays and sending good rec letters. Please don’t hesitate to ask if you have other questions or if we can help with anything.

8 01 2008

i guess I should tell you a bit more! I have a 1410 in the GRE general test with 800 in quant. Though I do concede that my verbal score was not that good I was able to achieve a 5.5 in analytical essay writing! Now I have so many of my friends who say that the essay scores are more or less useless whan it comes to admissions!! Anyways I guess it is just another score… reco’s were from my undergrad college profs…..they were pretty decent in the sense they have given me the highest recommendation! I am not that confident with my essay though! when I had scripted it, I had the feeling that it is very good! However it a general essay as I am from a chemical engineering background and I feel I was unable to substantiate my desire to get into the petroleum field to any appreciable degree!! However I guess it is mostly my sense of insecurity talking!! Anyhow I am grateful for your response and your pointers!!!

14 01 2008

I wanted to add another comment regarding the application process (as I just talked to one of our professors and heard his complaint). I hear many students email the professors when they submit their applications and they sound quite enthusiastic about working for that particular professor and department. However, they make the mistake of sending the same email to all the professors in that department and to other schools. This is a common mistake and professors talk to each other and notice this, even though they receive many such emails each day. So, I suggest: only try to communicate with professors that you are truly interested in working with and mention your reasons professionally, without using an exaggerating tone. In my opinion, an honest, humble, yet strong approach gets the attention of most professors only if it’s truly honest. In most cases though, I think the professors prefer not to receive emails from the applicants until after they are recommended by the admissions committee.

5 02 2008

hi….I actually wrote a post on proffing! It would be really great if I could get your views (since you are experienced when it comes to applications)…
It would mean a lot to me if you could add your valuable suggestions!

6 02 2008

Hi Saintdeb, great blog. I would be honored to contribute and share my views. Only bear with me and give me a few days (as I’m in the middle of a few deadlines).
best of luck and thanks so much for telling us about it

6 02 2008

Hi Shideh,

Thanks a lot for your appreciation and wishes, it means a lot! I would be honoured if you contribute! I understand how busy it can get for you! Thanks again……..and take your own time.

22 02 2008

Hi everyone,
I just wanted to tell you about Saintdeb’s weblog, where you can find an amazing load of useful information and important guidelines about applying for graduate school:

Make sure to visit this site.

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