What International Applicants Should Know About U.S. Engineering Programs

Even as Hari Vasudevan was earning his undergraduate degree in Bangalore, India, he was already planning to complete a further advanced degree at an engineering school in the United States.

“On my campus in India, it was considered the natural progression of things: If you want to do higher studies, the U.S. is a more natural choice,” says Vasudevan, who’s now a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science. “In general, I think it’s agreed upon that the research environment and capabilities to do research are much better here.”

Vasudevan is far from alone in his goal to pursue graduate engineering studies in the United States. In fact, international interest in a U.S. engineering education is increasing, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Applications from international students to graduate engineering programs increased 12 percent from 2010 to 2011, the organization’s 2011 International Graduate Admissions Survey found.

Engineering is one of the most popular fields for international students to study in the United States. Along with physical and earth sciences and business, the fields enroll 62 percent of all international graduate students at U.S. institutions, according to the study. Across all U.S. graduate programs, the highest percent increases of student applicants came from China; the region encompassing the Middle East and Turkey; and India, producing 18 percent, 12 percent, and 7 percent more applicants in 2011 than in 2010, respectively.

If, like Vasudevan and many other international students, you’re interested in pursuing a master’s or Ph.D. engineering degree in the United States, here are some things to know as you begin your school search:

Know whom to contact: U.S. engineering schools can vastly differ in areas of specialization and emphasis on research or pre-professional training, so researching programs is critical to matching your academic interests and career goals to the right school for you.

The best way to glean specifics about a particular school is to reach out to officials there, but seeking out the right contact can be a challenge, says Stefan Bielski, managing director of admissions consultancy site 2bschool.com.

“Unlike, say, established pre-professional graduate programs like an M.B.A. or law, the admissions is kind of divided up between a centralized initiative the university runs for its graduate programs that processes paperwork and…the actual academic department, so candidates don’t know where to go for what,” says Bielski, who advises prospective graduate students worldwide.

“Do they speak to admissions, who don’t really know much about the program itself because they deal with so many different programs, or a person in the department who either is overloaded with work…or doesn’t have the same sort of accountability that a dedicated admissions department staff has? I think that’s where things tend to get lost.”

And for some international students, outreach can be even tougher, since language barriers and cultural differences may make some students reticent to contact school officials, says Chinese student Yuhan Zhang.

Still, Zhang says contacting U.S. schools through the mail and over international calls was a critical step in her application process to a joint engineering and business program at the University of Rochester, where program director Andrea Galati answers prospective applicants’ questions herself. Other schools provide detailed application and contact information online for students who put in the time to search for it.

Don’t be shy to contact people,” Zhang recommends. “They’re more willing to help than you think.”

Connecting with a school representative is especially important for prospective Ph.D. students, who will work closely with a faculty adviser through the entirety of their education, says Yale’s Vasudevan.

“It’s much easier if you’re in the United States, because you actually get to go and meet professors around the country [who] know once they meet you if it’s the right fit,” says Vasudevan, who recommends international students try to contact faculty from abroad. “If you just apply to a graduate program without contacting anyone there or without knowing anyone there, I think your chances are lower.”

Understand the application process: Unlike admissions processes at international schools, U.S. graduate schools require a variety of materials that showcase a student’s strengths—not just a test score.

Instead, engineering applications typically require letters of recommendation, usually written by former professors or employers, as well as an essay known as a personal statement (or statement of purpose).

“It took me a lot of time to figure out that the statement of purpose is really important to apply to grad school in the U.S.,” Vasudevan says. “You have to spend a lot of time writing a statement of purpose and showing that you balance many other things than your scores on tests to apply. That’s the most difficult thing to negotiate if you are coming from another country to the U.S.”

Prepare early: Though your entrance exam is only one component of your application, it’s still crucial to study well in advance for the GRE. The test’s vocabulary and quantitative skills sections require advanced preparation by most students, and can pose an even tougher challenge if you’re not a native English speaker. Still, studying for a significant amount of time—six months, some students recommend—can markedly improve your test taking ability.

“I think the GRE is more about practice than what you know on the date of the test,” Vasudevan says. “If you have six months of practice, you’ll probably do better than if you have one month of practice.”

Unlike domestic students, international applicants may also have to take the TOEFL examination that evaluates English proficiency and will need to allot enough time to apply for and obtain a visa.

Still, the end result of attending a U.S. engineering school is likely worth the time it takes to navigate the front end of the process, according to University of Rochester graduate student Raghav Mohan, who hails from India.

“Always, the value you get for a master’s degree from a recognized school in the U.S. is really good to go for, even though you have to pass these hurdles, like the visa process and the GRE process,” he says. “That doesn’t matter [when,] finally, you’ll get what you wanted to get.”