Jonathan Nolfi, a 33-year-old supply planning leader who bounces from city to city for work, didn’t want to get into just any online graduate engineering program – he wanted to get into one of the best programs in the country. The only problem: his undergraduate GPA was 2.8, just below the 3.0 he needed for most of the top programs.
“I was worried,” says Nolfi, who emphasized his experience with General Electric Co. after college in his personal statement. In the end he got good news, earning a company-funded spot in the program on a provisional basis.
[Compare online and on-campus graduate programs.]
While pursuing a graduate degree in engineering can be a great career boost, admission at the most highly ranked online graduate engineering programs can be competitive. Acceptance rates at the top 10 online graduate engineering schools can be anywhere from 44 percent to 90 percent, according to U.S. News data.
Knowing what to emphasize in your application can increase the chances of getting in. Below, admissions officials share what they are looking for in prospective online graduate engineering students in terms of academics, test scores and personal essays.
1. Work experience: Most people who apply to online graduate engineering programs are older, have significant professional experience and work while going to school. The work experience is an asset, admissions officials say, and prospective students should not be shy about touting their work-related accomplishments.
It doesn't matter if students have worked at a Fortune 500 company or a smaller enterprise – the key is emphasizing your contributions.
"Don't worry about whether your company is GM," says Dale Harris, professor and executive director of engineering professional education at Purdue, which has the No. 6 online engineering graduate program. "The company you work for doesn't carry any particular weight one way or another. It's what you do and have done and what you have accomplished."
Students such as Nolfi whose employers offer to pay their tuition may be at a slight advantage, experts say, because they have earned a vote of confidence from someone in the industry.
“That indicates that the student has done something right,” says Albert Shih, director of the global automotive and manufacturing engineering program at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, which ties for the seventh-best program among its online peers. “It’s less risky to take on that kind of student.”
[Discover why engineers have good job prospects.]
2. A solid GPA and decent GRE scores: At many of the top online engineering schools, most students will need a GPA of at least 3.0 or higher, according to admissions officials. Although that's not necessarily a deal-breaker, officials say.
Nolfi, for example, used the essay portion of his application to explain his less-than-stellar GPA.
“I wanted to address it,” he says. “I explained why the grades weren't great and how I adjusted as an undergrad. I talked about how about probably up until junior year, it was a lot of C's, and if you look from junior year on it was A's and B's.”
When it comes to the GRE, admissions officials give more weight to the quantitative score than the verbal score, says Kelly Goulis, senior associate dean of graduate and professional programs at the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering, ranked the No. 4 online graduate engineering program by U.S. News.
Some school officials recognize that online students, who tend to be older and out of school longer, often have lower GRE scores than their younger counterparts.
“Different programs look at this differently,” says Harris of Purdue. “We take into consideration when we interpret GRE scores that the students may have been away from using advanced math for a number of years.”
If students are particularly concerned about their GRE scores or GPA, they have another option at Viterbi, Goulis says. There, both online and on-campus students can apply for limited status classes – a maximum of four courses students can take without officially enrolling. If students do well in those classes, which have lower admission standards, then they have a better chance of getting in the full-time program, she says.
[Discover tips for GRE success.]
3. Convincing essays: If a school requires an essay, prospective students should do their best to emphasize their work experience – an advantage online students may have over their on-campus counterparts.
Students should also take the opportunity to address any issues in their application that might cause a red flag, as Nolfi did, and to clearly express why they are interested in the program.
“Make a case for why you want to have an advanced degree,” Shih of Michigan says. “It’s very important. And people don’t do that.”
4. Good letters of recommendation: When it comes to gathering references, online students should follow the same advice as their peers in a face-to-face programs, experts say: find supervisors to speak to your work performance, avoid having friends write the letters and try to find at least one academic letter of recommendation.
Harris, at Purdue, says he realizes the latter may be particularly hard for older students who have been out of school a while.
"I would encourage them to try to get one," he says. "It's worth the effort."
While applying to a top online graduate engineering program can be daunting, it’s well worth the effort, says Nolfi.
“You won’t know unless you apply,” he says. “The worst thing they are going to tell you is, 'No.'”
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