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Applying to engineering master’s programmes abroad

Katie Schenk - April 10, 2019

Applying to engineering master’s programmes abroad

Modern engineering demands and increasing number of engineers (especially given that so many worldwide are reaching the age of retirement). Engineers are usually exceptionally well-paid - and having a master’s degree in engineering will make your salary even more attractive

Choosing the right engineering master’s programme

Engineering is also an enormous field. The umbrella word is barely large enough to cover all of the different disciplines that fall underneath it. And that makes applying for master’s programmes in engineering exciting and challenging.

There are several established fields of engineering study - and although you’ll find several areas of overlap, you’ll also find that many of the top schools tend to offer degrees in many of these departments:

Specialised engineering degrees

Several emerging disciplines offer exciting new job opportunities.

Energy engineering: Though it may develop into a major field on its own, energy engineering is usually still considered a specialised degree and you’ll find programmes at Arizona State University, the University of California at Davis and the University of Rochester.

Construction and architectural engineering: You won’t have any trouble finding universities offering MS degrees in civil or structural engineering. It’s one of the major faculties in engineering departments across the US and the world. But, if you’re hoping to centre your career around construction or architecture, it’s worth considering the specialised engineering master’s programmes in one of these areas.

You’ll find engineering master’s programmes at Arizona State University, New York University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Vanderbilt University.

Robotics engineering: This specialisation falls under a couple of different fields, including mechanical and electrical engineering. Indeed, there’s also a great deal of computer engineering that plays a role. If you’re really geared towards the electrical or mechanical engineering side of robotics, then you can easily pursue one of these generalised degrees.

But if it’s robotics or bust – and you want to cover a lot of ground, then you may want to consider pursuing a specialised degree at Johns Hopkins University, New York University, Northwestern University, the University of Maryland at College Park, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor or the University of Pennsylvania.

If engineering management is the path you want to take, you’ll need to consider whether you want one of these specialised degrees or a business crossover is better for your career progression. Having a tough time deciding between the two? You’ll want to check out our guide to business and engineering crossover degrees

MS Engineering versus Master of Engineering

As engineering is such a wide field, with so many disciplines, it should be expected that there’s a number of different degrees available. You’ll find MSc, MS Engineering degrees and MEng degrees among the diverse disciplines.

Some universities offer just MS degrees, others only award MEng degrees and you’ll find some that offer both - even in the same departments. With different outcome expectations, there are often different admission requirements depending on the programme. 

What’s the difference between MS Engineering versus Master of Engineering?

  • The Masters of Science in Engineering is usually research-oriented.
  • The Masters of Engineering is often more focused on coursework.

If you’re a little confused about the difference between all these degrees, you can check out this guide to clear it all up and ensure you’re following the right engineering application guidelines. 

Do you need work experience for engineering master’s programmes?

No, you don’t need work experience for most engineering master’s programmes.

You can go straight from undergrad into post-grad education with little hassle (and there are programmes that combine the two). You’ll get plenty of hands-on practical experience while studying engineering at US universities.

However, a little work experience goes a long way to ensuring you’re on the right path. It allows for a clear target that you can hit (with, perhaps, a little less strain on your finances).

The choice is usually yours, unless your chosen degree, department or university demands it. 

Applying to US engineering programmes

Depending on the universities on your short list, it can be crucial to know where you want to specialise. At Columbia University, for example, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) prohibits applications to more than one programme at a time. Submitting two applications negates both of them.

They’re not so strict over at MIT where it is possible to apply to two different departments. However, applications to each department are treated separately; no information is shared, and you’ll need to pay the application fee for each application.

What are the application deadlines for engineering master’s at US universities?

Application deadlines almost always vary by department - even when the university has its own set deadlines.

While a deadline is definitely the last minute for application submission, you may have some flexibility at schools that offer spring enrollments.

In the United States, the academic year begins in August or September and wraps in May or June. Traditionally, grad students begin their studies during the fall term, continue through the spring semester, and then pursue an internship or special products during the summer.

Many universities also accept spring enrollments which may be more convenient for some international students.

While not an exhaustive list, these are a few of the universities offering spring enrollment:

Other universities don’t accept international students for the spring semesters. Often these universities, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California—Berkeley, the University of California—Los Angeles and Northeastern University, have significant numbers of international students and want to keep visa and recruitment processes streamlined.

There are a few engineering departments that will accept spring admits under special conditions or only for certain degrees. In some cases, you may be able to apply for a Masters in Engineering, but not a Master of Science in Engineering.

You’ll want to take a close look at the requirements; colleges that accept but strongly discourage spring applications will only consider special circumstances to make it happen.

Writing an awesome Statement of Purpose for your engineering master’s application

Your statement of purpose is critical because it’s the only aspect of your engineering application that provides the admissions team with an understanding of you as an individual. 

As you can imagine, engineering schools can’t admit all the talented students that apply; they’re looking for a mix of talent, the ability to exceed expectations, and a good fit in the university culture. And, throughout this essay, you should demonstrate your ability to research.

In some cases, the admissions team (which varies from programme to programme), can make an instant judgment call on an application. 

But, there are always cases where the statement of purpose pushes an applicant into the yes pile

A sloppy statement of purpose, on the other hand, may end in a rejected application. 

So, even if the other submitted materials speak for themselves, you must put plenty of effort into writing an awesome statement of purpose.

What is a statement of purpose?

Even though a statement of purpose (SoP) essay is the only time you get to differentiate yourself, you don’t want to confuse it with a personal statement (PS).

Grad-level engineering programmes request statement of purpose essays which focus on your research interests

The inclusion of personal experiences should relate directly to research, engineering, and the way your brain manipulates information. You’re not taking yourself out completely, but demonstrating that you can interact with the school and department for mutual benefit.

Personal statement essays are more frequently requested by undergraduate programmes than grad schools; they focus on your personal experiences and serve to highlight your interests, show how you’ll fit into the school’s culture, and how active you’ll be in and outside of the classroom. 

As you’ve not had any practical experience and it’s unlikely that you’ve performed any practical research, personal statements can only be about yourself and your interests.

What should you expect?

The admissions process varies between programmes. Many will provide a list of questions they hope to have answered

And, they’ll provide parameters such as word count and spacing instructions. 

It’s important that you ensure you meet the mechanical specifications in the editing of your work. But, focus on answering the questions firstQuestions, whether explicit or implied, can be grouped into a few categories:

Why do you want to study? 

Questions in this group relate to your reasoning behind your choice of degree, department, university, country - and what attracts you to each aspect.

Do you have any experience in the field? 

Engineering masters programmes are less likely to look for work experience than some advanced degrees. But, if you have any related experience, you’ll need to demonstrate how it informs your choice of degree or adds to it. 

And, if you have a lot of practical experience under your belt, be sure to describe what you hope to gain from your studies.

What are your post-graduation plans? 

This is really a way of asking whether the degree you wish to pursue is critical to your future and success. 

Try to respond with the industries, positions, or research you plan to pursue while demonstrating that your education is a key part of that plan.

What do you expect from the programme - and how will you contribute to the university? 

The answers to these questions should demonstrate that you’ve done your research. It’s not enough to say you look forward to broadening your horizons. 

You should note specific labs, professors, and research groups - and how you plan to use or interact with these resources. 

Skipping the details in this area can really detract from your application; it shows you’ve skipped the research stage of your SoP.

Who are you? 

While you may see questions about your personal interests and characteristics, keep in mind that the admissions team whats to know how you’ll fit into their community

What skills will you bring? How active will you be in campus activities? And, again, it should show whether you’ve taken the time to research the engineering programme and the university at large.

What do admissions teams want to read?

Above all, you’ll need to answer all the questions asked in the brief. But, you don’t want to list the answer to each one and then push them into paragraphs. 

If the admissions team still has questions after reading your statement of purpose and reviewing the other aspects of your application, you probably won’t get a positive response.

You want to demonstrate passion for the field, the programme, and the university without gushing

So, feel free to make your accomplishments shine, but avoid boasting. It’s better to convey pride in your work rather than brag. Nothing says that better than quantifiable successes. But, don’t stick only to facts and figures; indeed, much of that will be gleaned from your CV and transcripts.

When you can, use stories, themes, and metaphors to link the aspects of your essay and your application. 

For example, when discussing your work experience, don’t just talk about your responsibilities; rather describe your experience. How did it make you feel? What inspired you? What did your workspace feel like when you realised you needed to return to school to achieve your goals? 

Even if your undergrad or work experience was miserable, remain upbeat and never denigrate the organisations you have been affiliated with.

TIP: If you have a less-than-stellar undergraduate record, or there are other aspects where you feel you make be lacking, don’t avoid talking about these gaps

Admissions teams would rather know why you didn’t achieve top marks in core classes than be left wondering. 

Try to make it positive by showing how you persevered or what you learned from a negative experience.

When it comes to tone, try to strike a balance between talking to a friend and writing to a head of state. Write as if you are speaking to someone you know, but avoid being too casual. 

If you’re having a difficult time getting this right, pretend you’re writing to the most senior person that you have a relationship with such as a dean of your undergraduate university.

Every department at every school in each university has its own review process. While they may place a different weight on the SoP, they all expect to see a polished, detail-oriented work

Every paragraph should relate to your experience, research, or the future the university can provide. So, be sure to illustrate the research you’ve done with on the programme and university.

Statement of Purpose examples engineering departments are happy to share

Need a few Statement of Purpose examples engineering departments expect to see? The first place to check is the website for your school and programme. Not only do they provide the outline, often these provide samples and examples. 

Each of these were provided on the websites of these universities (even though they may be examples sent to admissions departments at other schools):

A few DOs and DON’Ts

Don’t pretend this degree or line of work has always been your “purpose” in life. It may have been something you dreamed of from a young age, but it wasn’t always your purpose, and that’s what you need to stick to in this essay.

You do want to add specifics as much as you can, but you need to have your facts straight. 

If you speak about a professor, make sure he’s still at the university. If you speak about work in a field, make sure they’re included in the school’s recent research portfolio.

Try to avoid quotes from famous people. A quote from a professor in your department is, however, not a bad idea as long as you can demonstrate that it inspired you to pursue a field or further research in some way.

Don’t add humour for the sake of it. 

If you’re relating a comical experience that prompted you to pursue your field of study, feel free to make it a little funny. 

But, there’s no point in adding jokes… really.

Editing your statement of purpose

Your first draft is never your final draft. When editing, you’ll need to do several passes, and it may be easier to look for one or two errors at a time.

Look for ideas and or self-descriptions that you missed in the first edit. 

It’s now that friends and family may be of some use. They may be able to provide you with examples of how you approach work, times when you were inspired (or inspiring), and whether you’ve described yourself accurately or not.

On your second pass (or third… or fourteenth), take a look for common grammar mistakes. 

  • Look out for passive voice, comma and semicolon errors, contractions, spelling mistakes. Don’t rely on your word processing programme to point out mistakes (though a free resource, such a Grammarly will point out issues with passive voice as well as spelling.)
  • Write out the entire name the first time you use it. For example, statement of purpose rather than SoP or World Health Organisation instead of WHO. 
  • Check for varied sentence structures - starting too many sentences in a row with “I” will detract from your work. 
  • And, remember that simpler sentences that are clear and concise are better than long, unwieldy ones.

TIP: You really should write a unique statement of purpose for every you apply to, but if you copy and paste or do a search and replace for parts, always make sure that you’ve got the right information in every essay

And, don’t expect your proofreaders to pick up on that; they haven’t spent weeks researching the universities as you have.

When you’re secure with your statement of purpose, have someone else look at it. Indeed, you should ask a few people to look at it. Ask for grammar and sentence structure assistance - especially if you’re writing in a language that’s not your mother tongue. 

More importantly, turn to your undergraduate professors or engineering advisors on the job. They’ll be able to offer technical insight and may have insights to your work and approach that you may have missed.

After your final changes, wait a few days to do a final proofread where you check for grammar, omitted words, and double check that it all reads smoothly. Check the word count and formatting instructions before submitting; you really don’t want to put in all that work to be ruled out on a technicality.


Average GRE scores for top engineering programmes

To get an MS Engineering or Master of Engineering degree, you’ll almost always need to take the GRE exam.

More than most master’s-level degrees, your GRE test scores are an important part of your engineering application. The quantitative work needed for most fields almost demands a good score.

The GRE is so critical to your application that we’ve created a guide to ensure you’re on top of this aspect of your application. You’ll want to check it out here, especially if your top choice school specifies a minimum GRE score for admission.

If you’ve already taken the GRE - or want to shoot for the average GRE scores for specific universities, have a look at this list

What else will you need for your MS Engineering application?

In addition to the all-important GRE exam, you may need to take a test of English proficiency. TOEFL and IELTS are two of the most common tests and are widely offered in many countries.

But, they’re not the only two English-proficiency tests out there - and, more importantly, each university has their own preference on the test scores you submit. It’s always best to check the application pages for your top choice programmes before studying for your language test as the formats vary.

Need to know more about English language proficiency tests and which one is right for you? We’ve got you covered with this guide.

Reference letters are another key aspect for your international MS Engineering application. Because work experience isn’t critical for admission to many engineering master’s programmes, it’s not always clear who should provide the references for you.

The best references are always direct supervisors or advisors - either at occupational or academic. But, if you can’t ask them or don’t believe they’re the right person, you can check out this guide on getting the right references for your engineering application. 

QUICK TIP: The best references for your engineering master’s application are direct supervisors or advisors.

Have you already submitted your MS Engineering application? 

Well done! Take a moment to celebrate! Just remember, you’ve still got a few things to tick off before you take off.

Most universities send their students a packet of information on acceptance. It’s likely to include everything you need to know about accommodation, campus activities and your finances. Why not get a first-hand view of life on campus through the eyes of these international engineering students?

And, even though your F-1 study visa will be the last thing you get, it’s the best place to start – if only because it will provide you with a checklist of everything you need to accomplish before you head to the embassy - and this guide will get you through it.

Once you’ve gotten everything in order legally and financially, it’s time to start thinking about classes and getting a job after completing your engineering master’s degree

Need an engineering master's study loan?

Prodigy Finance provides loans to international masters students attending the top engineering programmes in the United States. See if your school is listed and what your loan terms might be.


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