FAQ - Application Process-Civil and Environmental Engineering - Carnegie Mellon University

Frequently Asked Questions about the Application Process


Applying to graduate school is an important and hopefully enjoyable part of one's education and growth. It is a chance to explore new educational and career objectives as well as new homes, landscapes and cultures. However, it is much more enjoyable when you get in. As such, you should apply with high hopes and a willingness to push your boundaries, tempered with an appropriate measure of realism.

To help guide you through this process, we have compiled the following list of frequently asked questions. We hope that this information will help you better understand the application process and ease some of the concerns you may have about the processing and review of your application materials.

May the supporting documents be received after the application deadline?

Yes, it is acceptable for your transcripts, letters of recommendation and GRE and TOEFL score reports to arrive after the application deadline. Receipt of these reports a week or two after the deadline will not affect your chances of being admitted or of receiving financial aid. We request however, that you monitor the on-line tracking screen and proceed as necessary to expedite the submission of these documents, as applications will not be reviewed until they are complete and all supporting documents have been received.

What do you look for in an applicant? How important are grades, the quality of undergraduate or previous graduate programs, recommendations, work experience, and the candidate's statement of purpose?

In making admission decisions, we look for a balanced record of previous preparation and accomplishment, and indications of high potential for future growth and development. We look for a significant amount of overlap between what you say you want and what we believe we can provide. We do not look for the same measures of accomplishment and potential in each student. We value a diversity of skills, backgrounds and outlooks in our department. We do expect all applicants to have the required courses listed on the CEE website. These courses are the foundation of our field and provide a firm footing for starting graduate coursework. Our experience with current and previous students has shown it to be true: a diverse group of students, faculty and staff leads to a more creative, innovative and productive place to work, teach and learn.

We do attempt to learn as much about applicants as possible to aid in our decision. Your previous schooling provides some indication of whether or not you are adequately prepared to succeed and thrive in the very rigorous academic environment in CEE at Carnegie Mellon University. Your grades indicate your ability and willingness to work hard and benefit from courses and related learning opportunities. Beyond grades we look for indications of breadth of interests, good motivation, and good verbal skills. Recommendations provide insight into research skill, work habits, creativity, and interpersonal skills, especially if we know the people writing them. Pertinent work and other "real world" experience is very valuable, and many of our recent students bring the maturity, insight and motivation gained from applying their knowledge and skills in the real world.

Do my recommendations need to be from Professors?. . . in engineering or science?

The most informative recommendations are written by those for whom you have done coursework, technical projects, or research similar to the type you will do as a graduate student in our program. Most often, this will be a professor in engineering or science with whom you have taken a course, especially those with a significant project component, an undergraduate (or MS) thesis advisor, etc.  It may also be a professor in the social sciences or humanities, but references from professors in an engineering program will usually be more effective.  Supervisors or even co-workers in current or recent jobs are also often able to provide useful insight, however, we do expect you to include some academic references. Depending on how long it has been since you have been out of school, some combination of one or two (usually two) professors and one or two work supervisors (usually one) is the most common choice. Recommendations from people with whom you have not studied or worked are generally not considered informative and should not be included.

May I defer payment of the application fee until after I am admitted?

The application fee is required in order for us to process your application. We do not waive or defer the fee since we use the fee to help cover the application processing costs.

How important is the Statement of Purpose?

The Statement of Purpose is a very important part of your application. Graduate Admissions Committee members review these statements of purpose during the admissions process. The statement of purpose should be concise, informative and relevant to the student and their desire to attend CEE at Carnegie Mellon University. It should be written in crisp, clear English and about one standard page long (about 250 words; 12pt font, one inch margins preferable). It should demonstrate that you have thought about what you want to accomplish in graduate school, and why CEE at Carnegie Mellon University is a place in which you would thrive and that you believe would enable you to meet your objectives. Long descriptions of past history are usually not effective. Descriptions about career objectives and the aspects of the CEE program and specific research areas or projects that address these objectives are found in most effective statements of purpose. However copying whole sections of the CEE catalogue or faculty bios, web pages, etc. into the statement of purpose is not effective. Statements of purpose that suggest a few possible projects of interest but are not limited to a single, narrowly defined project are much more effective. 

How important are the GRE scores?

GREs provide a standardized measure of some aspects of the math, verbal and writing skills of applicants. In making our admission decisions we do consider GRE scores along with all of the other information we receive about our applicants. The GRE writing exam tests your ability to frame and communicate written arguments and analysis, and we require that students take this exam. Writing skills are very important in graduate school (and in virtually any job you will want to have after graduate school) and we believe that this test will indicate some of the skills necessary to succeed in this activity. A perfect application is excellent in all aspects discussed above, including strong GRE scores for the quantitative, verbal and written parts of the exam. Few applications are perfect. Lower performance in one aspect (e.g., GREs) can, and often is, compensated for by better performance in other aspects (such as strong grades and outstanding recommendations).

How do I register for the GRE and TOEFL exams?

Registration for the GRE and TOEFL exams is available through the Educational Testing Services (ETS).

What are the minimum GRE and TOEFL scores required for admission?

There are no 'cut-off' scores for the GRE examination, which is evaluated in the context of your entire application package. The minimum acceptable internet-based TOEFL total score is 84 and the subset scores are reading, 22; listening, 22; speaking, 18; and writing, 22. TOEFL scores are required of all applicants whose native language is not English, regardless of how long they have been in the US or in which other countries they have previously studied. We no longer accept paper-based or computer-based TOEFL scores.

What is your GRE and TOEFL school (and department) codes?

The GRE school code for Carnegie Mellon is 2074 and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering department code is 1102. The TOEFL code is 65.

What if I have not, cannot, or will not take the GREs?

We require you to take the GRE exam and have your scores sent to us for your application to be complete. However we do recognize that under some circumstances, such as illness, it will be impossible to take the exam in time to have your scores sent to us during our application review period.  We may under extreme circumstances admit a student conditionally in this case, but the student will not be permitted to continue beyond one semester without submitting GRE scores.  Conditional admissions are at the discretion of the Admissions Committee. 

Do I have to take the TOEFL exam?

You must take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) if your native language is not English. We do not waive this requirement even for applicants who have previously studied in the United States or another English-speaking country. If you have taken the TOEFL in the past and feel your English has improved, we strongly recommend that you retake the exam. This is especially true for Ph.D. applicants, where strong English skills are required. We may also arrange for a Skype videoconference (or have someone else do so) to evaluate your English. Depending on where you live, this may be at an odd hour, since we usually will do the videoconference during our regular work hours. Should we consider a Skype interview necessary, you will be contacted by email beforehand to arrange a mutually agreeable time for the interview.

How many apply? How many get in?

We receive approximately 600 applications each year, and enroll approximately 120 new graduate students in the fall.

What are my chances of being admitted?

The Graduate Admissions Staff (who answer e-mail messages and phone calls) do not determine who will be admitted. The Graduate Admissions Committee makes decisions about which students are admitted. This committee only makes these decisions after reviewing your completed application package along with all of the other applications. Hence, please do not ask the graduate admissions staff to estimate your chances of being admitted. 

Please note that individual faculty likewise cannot comment on an applicant's chances. For this reason, we ask that you do not contact faculty directly regarding your admission status.

Have you received my application?

You can track your application status on-line. This site is updated as decisions are made, so please feel free to check your status frequently during the peak admission season.

What is the status of my application? When should I expect to receive a decision?

Every year the Graduate Admissions Staff receive hundreds of inquiries about the application process. The Graduate Admissions Committee begins reviewing applications shortly after the application deadline. Depending upon the number of applications received, this process can take several weeks. Please note that all applications are held for review until after the application deadline; thus, there are no early decisions except in the case of an extenuating circumstance. Incomplete applications will not be reviewed until all documents are received. Please contact ce-admissions@cmu.edu should you have an extenuating circumstance which requires an early decision.

Admission letters are viewable on-line and an email notification is sent to the applicant. We do not send paper copies of decision letters via postal service for environmental reasons. Decision letters may be printed online and enrolled international students may use the printed copy to apply for the I-20.

The on-line tracking system states that my GRE and TOEFL scores (or transcripts) have not yet been received, but I sent copies (or uploaded my transcripts). Why have they not been accepted?

In most cases, this means that we have not yet received your official transcripts or score report from ETS. If you have already requested ETS to send your official scores and have uploaded all of your transcripts, you need not take any further action. You will be contacted directly should additional information be required.

If I am admitted, but subsequently decide I am not yet ready to enter graduate school, may my admission offer be deferred?

Admitted students may defer enrollment for one semester, however, offers of financial aid may not be deferred. We must re-evaluate our ability to provide you with financial support in the semester of planned enrollment, since project and funding conditions do change. Final transcripts are required once the enrollment deferral is accepted. Admitted students wishing to defer enrollment for more than one semester are required to reapply.

I am reapplying. Can I use my old materials?

In most cases, we are willing to carry over GRE and TOEFL scores submitted with your original application, however, an updated resume, statement of purpose and final transcript must be submitted with the new application. If you have enrolled at another university since your original application, a transcript from your current school and 1-2 letters of recommendation from current professors are also required.

When must my official transcript be submitted?

All admission offers are conditional upon receipt and verification of your final and official transcript. Admitted students who commit to enrollment will be required to provide all final, official transcripts with degree certification as soon as available, but no later than the first day of classes.