Get into Your Dream Program with a Great Grad School Application Package

Tips and a checklist for a complete, dynamic application.

So, You’ve Decided on a Grad School – Now What?

The process of deciding on which grad schools and programs you want to attend is an important one, but once you’ve narrowed down your top choices, the question becomes, “what do I do now?”

The answer: It’s time to submit your grad school applications.

To give yourself the best possible chance, you need to craft the best possible application package.

“The primary value of an engineering degree, on graduation, is the opportunity it creates,” said Douglas Reeves, associate dean of the Graduate Program at North Carolina State University’s College of Engineering. “Employment rates, starting salaries and quality of employment are all measures of opportunity – not the only ones, but important ones. To get these opportunities, you want to position yourself as the best candidate for the program that you believe will lead you to the future you want to pursue.”

The application process will be a bit different for each school, either in terms of required information and documentation, or the timeline for submission. 

However, even though you will generally use the same set of application materials each time, just as you would customize a job application to the individual position, you should customize your grad school application materials to the individual program.

Below are some tips and other details to keep in mind when preparing and submitting your graduate school applications, starting with two common questions:

1.       How many grad school programs should I apply to?

2.       When should I apply to grad school?

1) How Many Grad Schools Should I Apply To?

Most advice on grad school applications suggest that you should apply to between 3 and 8 graduate programs, depending on availability and your own interests and goals.  This may not seem like many, but most experts agree that you’re better served by putting more effort into fewer applications to programs you really care about.

Start by prioritizing your list, and aim to apply to your top choices as early as possible to ensure that you have lots of time to prepare and submit everything required.  It is especially important to know all deadlines, since you can use them to help you prioritize.

It’s also worth considering whether to include some online degree programs in your batch of applications.

Many renowned institutions offer full master’s degree programs online, covering multiple engineering and engineering-adjacent fields of study, such as Engineering Management, Cybersecurity, Systems Engineering, or Lean Manufacturing.

These online programs are attractive to many engineers, especially working professionals, because of their benefits including typically lower costs than an on-campus program and significant scheduling flexibility, as noted by Marc McCready, senior associate dean for research and graduate studies at University of Notre Dame.  “There is the additional benefit of ‘attending’ a program from a prestigious university that is located in a city remote from a person’s workplace,” McCready added.

So even if you’re not looking to move, don’t discount sending an application to a distant program if it offers an online degree that will help you meet your goals.

Should I Apply to a Backup or “Safety School”?

If you’re worried about not getting accepted and having go through another application cycle—which can take up to a year—then it might be worth identifying at least one backup option, or “safety school,” to apply to along with your top choices.

However, don’t let worries about needing a safety school lead you to apply to sub-par programs or institutions.  “Accreditation is widely accepted as evidence that an institution or program has met certain academic standards,” said Kathryn Caggiano, director of master of engineering studies at Cornell University. 

“And while the converse is not necessarily true–if an institution is unaccredited, its academic quality is not necessarily lacking–if you do choose to attend an unaccredited institution, it can mean that when starting out in your career your options may be more limited, and a heavier burden may be placed on you to provide evidence of the value you bring to the table.”


2) When Should I Apply to Grad School?

There are a lot of deadlines you will have to keep track of, both before and during the application process.  It’s a good idea to have a calendar devoted to your graduate school applications, where you can record all your deadlines, submission dates, contacts and other relevant information. 

The exact deadlines for each program will determine your overall application and submission schedule, but there is a general timeline that you can keep in mind.

12-14 Months Before Program Start (Summer Prior to Senior Year of University)

  • Research and identify your top school and program choices.
  • Study for and arrange to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), an admission requirement for almost all US-based engineering programs.
  • Decide on your references and ask them for letters of recommendation.
  • Determine your timetable for taking any standardized tests, requesting transcripts and getting your letters of recommendation, and get your calendar filled out to help you keep track.

8-12 Months Before Program Starts (Fall of Senior Year)

  • Narrow down your list to the top 3 to 8 program choices, and note their application requirements and deadlines.
  • Prepare your application documents, i.e.: statement of purpose, academic resume or CV, personal and academic statements, transcripts, etc.
  • Complete and submit all applications on or before the deadlines, and send your transcripts, letters of recommendation and GRE scores to your prospective schools.

4-8 Months Before Program Starts (Spring of Senior Year)

  • Waiting for your acceptances.
  • If you can, try to visit your chosen schools in person, to see the academic environment, campus facilities, and if possible take the opportunity to talk to professors and students in your prospective program.
  • Usually graduate schools review applications during January and February, with most admissions decisions and notification of students being completed by March.
  • Deadlines will vary, but most programs will require you to confirm your acceptance of their offer by the end of April.

Tips for Creating a Stellar Grad School Application Package

In order to stand out, you need to make sure you submit the best application package you can put together. Most graduate schools require more or less the same things:

  • An academic resume or Curriculum Vitae (CV)
  • Personal and/or academic statements of purpose
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Copies of your transcripts
  • Your standardized test scores

However, depending on what type of master’s degree you’re applying for, you can still customize your application materials in a way that emphasizes specific attributes that showcase your suitability for the program.

According to Cornell’s Caggiano, the general division of degrees falls into research-oriented degrees, which are typically sought by engineers who thrive in academic environments, and professionally-oriented degrees that aim to prepare engineers for business and leadership roles, such as engineering management or operations management.

In applying to a research-focused degree program, Caggiano suggested emphasizing your academic skills and knowledge, including:

  • Academic excellence and understanding of the core theories of your discipline
  • Curiosity and creativity for problem solving
  • Knowledge of lab operations, equipment, resources and research methods
  • Collaboration and communication skills for sharing and articulating ideas, and working on diverse or interdisciplinary teams

Applicants for professional degree programs should focus their emphasis on highlighting attributes such as:

  • Practical problem solving in real-world situations and environments
  • Leadership, teamwork and communication skills
  • Your understanding of what professional benefits your graduate degree can and can’t provide
  • Realistic expectations of future job opportunities in your field, and how the degree program can position you for these opportunities in the professional arena

The Academic Resume

Many programs will want an academic resume included with your application package, which should be tailored to the specific school and program you’re applying to. 

Be sure to check the formatting and content guidelines provided by each program or school to ensure that your academic resume conforms to their expectations.  As a general rule, organize your information clearly, use a professional font and layout, and proofread to ensure there are no grammatical errors or spelling mistakes.

Your academic resume should include sections detailing your personal, academic and professional skills and experience relevant to the program you’re applying for.

Name and Contact Information

Your name and details should be clearly visible, and must include both a phone number and professional email address at minimum. However, it is advisable to include your mailing address, as well.


In this section, include your past and current university or college degree information, anticipated graduation date, and your GPA.  You should also include relevant minor degrees, international study opportunities, and educational accomplishments such as Honors List or Dean’s List. Any additional training, certification, co-ops, volunteering or internships that are relevant to your prospective program can also be included in this section.

Research Experience

Detail any relevant research projects that were part of your undergraduate coursework, as well as any non-academic paid or volunteer research experiences.  Be sure to use descriptive professional titles for the role you held, and name the academic course or the lab and faculty members you worked with.

To illustrate how these experiences make you a good candidate, describe the research skills you developed, how your work contributed to the project, and any external funding your project received or brought in.  Also, make sure to list any specialized or relevant software and hardware you know how to use and work with.

Professional Experience

This is where you will list any professional engineering experience you have acquired.  Working professional engineers who are looking at grad school after a few years of employment will likely have more details related to their employment to include here. 

For engineering students going straight from an undergraduate degree into a graduate program, be sure to include any internships and co-op positions, and any paid or volunteer engineering and technical work you engaged in during your undergraduate years.  List the technical, research and engineering skills you developed, and describe how your work contributed to the organization and what you learned from these experiences. 

Teaching Experience

This section can be optional, but if you have significant experience as a teacher or teaching assistant, you should include it in its own section.  Teaching experience can include positions within your academic institution, such as being an undergraduate T.A. or working as a tutor, as well as any non-academic teaching, tutoring, training or mentoring you may have been involved in.

Publications and Presentations

Having publications and presentations to your name is crucial to helping your application stand out from the pack. The more published work you have under your belt, the more attractive you will look as a candidate for your prospective grad program.  Include any and all of the following that you have to your name:

  • Journal papers
  • Conference presentations
  • Workshops
  • Webinars
  • Co-op or internship presentations
  • Technical papers


If your graduate program is looking for candidates with specific, specialized skills, it is a good idea to set these apart in their own section of your academic resume.  These skills can include knowledge of specific equipment or processes, software and hardware platforms, and other abilities and processes specifically relevant to the program you’re applying to. Describe how you have used these skills to contribute to a project, improve a process or solve a problem to highlight the ways you can benefit your prospective program.

Outreach and Community Service

Well-rounded candidates are always attractive, so you should include any additional leadership and volunteer work you are involved in, both at your undergraduate campus and out in the community. This is an opportunity to differentiate yourself from other applicants with descriptions of interesting and exciting events or projects you worked on, and how you can be creative in sharing your engineering knowledge with others. Some examples of outreach include experiences such as mentoring a local FIRST Robotics team, or working with groups pursuing K-12 STEM education initiatives.

Honors and Awards

Details of any awards and honors you have received can merit their own section to highlight these achievements.  Include things such as notable scholarships you have earned, engineering competition wins, grants you earned and academic awards such as Honors or Dean’s List.

Not every application will require you to include all of these sections in your academic resume.  Depending on space and what information the program is asking for, you can also combine or break out these information sets as needed to emphasize the most relevant details for the individual program you’re applying to.

Statement of Purpose or Letter of Intent

Your academic statement is where you present your case for why you’re a good fit for the program to which you’re applying.

This section of the application should include a concise description of what your plans are during your graduate studies, what your future career goals are, and how the grad program in question will help you in your pursuit of these objectives.  While there will be slightly different information required depending on the programs and application requirements, your academic statement should generally contain the following information:

  • A brief description of the experiences which led you to pursue graduate studies and why you want to study the particular program in question.
  • Specific and relevant examples of the skills you have developed as a result of these experiences and how these skills will make you a successful grad student.
  • Explanations for any gaps, discrepancies or changes of study focus in your academic record.
  • Details of your future and long term career goals, and how your graduate studies program will support this.

Overall, this document should be no more than 2 pages long, and formatted with a standard, professional font and layout style. Have someone else proofread all your application documents, as well, to ensure they are well-written and free of errors such as spelling mistakes and other typos.

The Personal Statement

Not every school or program will request a personal statement with your application. Slightly different in focus from the academic statement, the personal statement is where you describe the personal details of your experiences, interests and goals which contributed to your decision to pursue graduate studies.

In essence, this is where you “tell your story” regarding why you are attending grad school, and why you want to enter this specific school and program.

Ideally, you want your personal statement to catch the interest of the admissions officer or professor reading your application. However, you should be sure to steer clear of gimmicks and clichés.  You can still have a bit of fun with this by choosing an interesting or touching story to share, just remember to keep your language and tone fairly professional.

Your personal statement should include information about yourself as a person and as a student, including:

  • Your background and life experiences which motivated you to pursue a graduate degree.
  • Descriptions of skills you possess, such as leadership and teamwork, which will make you a valuable addition to the program.  Be sure to include examples of how you have employed these traits in your personal and academic life.
  • Describe your personal history, such as any barriers or obstacles you overcame while pursuing your education, such as social-economic challenges, health challenges, or family obligations.
  • Any other distinguishing traits you possess that will help you stand out from other applicants, and which will make you a valuable addition to the grad program.

This document should also be no more than 2 pages in length, professionally formatted and error-free. 

Letters of Recommendation

Most graduate school application processes will require you to supply references that speak to the skills and knowledge you possess.  

Many faculty are more than willing to provide letters of recommendation for students pursuing grad school, but it is a good idea to make the request as early as possible in the process, so that they have adequate time to write and return the reference to you, or send it to your prospective school themselves, depending on the application process requirements.

You should also be sure to provide all the necessary information for the reference writer, so that they can write you the best letter of support possible:

  • A copy of your resume, transcripts and relevant deadline and submission instructions
  • A statement describing the program you are applying to and why you want to attend
  • The grade you received in the professor’s class, and examples of your work for that class if necessary

Choose professors who know you well, and who can honestly and concisely offer support of your abilities. A common mistake is for students to request references from well-known professors who do not know the student personally, resulting in a vague or otherwise uninformative reference.

It’s also a good idea to keep in mind that while most faculty members have no problem writing a letter, there will always be a few who prefer not to provide letters of recommendation. If one of your requested references declines, don’t waste time trying to convince them otherwise. Simply pick another professor, and move on.

GPA and Transcripts

All graduate programs will need to see your grades, in the form of your Grade Point Average (GPA).  This is an easy way for admissions officers to compare students’ academic abilities and level of knowledge in the courses most relevant to a graduate program. While you should include your GPA in your academic resume, you will also need to have an official record of your GPA sent to your prospective schools in the form of a transcript.

Your official academic transcript lists all the courses you were enrolled in during your undergraduate degree, as well as the grades you earned and your overall GPA.  During the application process, you will need to have your undergraduate institution’s Registrar’s Office send copies of your transcript to the Graduate Admissions Office of the graduate schools you are applying to. 

You may be able to put in your request for transcripts online through the Registrar; otherwise, you will have to visit your Registrar’s Office in person to make the request or pick up physical copies to mail yourself.  Either way, you need to have all the submission information and grad school admissions offices’ addresses handy.

Make sure you know all your transcript submission deadlines, as these can vary between schools, and get your transcript requests in to the Registrar as early as you can to make sure there is lots of time to process them before the deadline.

Remember: until your official transcript is received by the Graduate Admissions Office of a prospective school, your application is not complete.

Standardized Test Scores

Standardized test scores are the most common way for schools to easily compare candidates, which means your score can help you make the cut.

The one test that is required to study at most U.S. graduate schools is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).  This is a standardized exam that tests students in three areas: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing.

Any minimum scores required by your desired program will likely be noted with the other application requirements, though not all schools make their expectations explicit.

As with other application materials, there will be submission deadlines by which time the school will need to have received your scores. It is essential to study for and take the test early on in your application process, so that you have your scores available well before the deadlines.

The other standardized test score that could be required is an English language proficiency test, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).  This is primarily required of students coming to study from outside the U.S., or whose first language is not English.  These scores are used as a benchmark for being able to understand, read and write in English at a level sufficient to pursue graduate studies at an English-speaking university.

Check with your prospective institution if you think you may need to provide a TOEFL score, and if so, be sure to schedule and complete the test well ahead of your submission deadlines.

Standing Out from the Competition

Graduate school is competitive, from the application process onward. However, this just means you need to develop informative, engaging application materials that highlight the strengths and interests that will make you a great addition to the graduate program you have your eye on.

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