Carnegie Mellon University

Student Testimonials

Read what our students have said about applying for graduate school.


Here are some things I found about my graduate school selection:

I wish I knew that for most schools the deadlines are slightly flexible.  I missed the deadline to Stanford and other California schools, so I didn't even submit my application when it was nearly complete.  I thought if it wasn't in on the exact deadline it wasn't worth it, but I found that the application process is very long and if you get it in within a few days it is fine.  Of course meeting the deadlines is ideal, but the process is more flexible than I thought. 

I wish I had remembered to look up where the various professors I had as an undergrad went to graduate school.  A professor who knows the people at a school can write a much better letter of recommendation generally.  I chose my letters based on the professors who knew me best, but other professors could have written more relevant letters for specific schools. 

I waited too long to take my GRE's and write my statement of purpose.  I should have done both in the summer before my senior year when I had a lot of free time.

Also, I did not know that there were some deadlines for applications in early December.  I thought they were all in January, and I had to submit one late. 

One thing that worked very well for me was that I talked to a professor (with whom I had similar research interests) about which professors I should talk to at the schools I visited.  It was very beneficial to have an opinion on someone's personality and quality of work before I met them.  This guided me to select whose lab I would join and who I wanted to work with. 

I selected schools to apply to by my personal preference.  I wanted to have a different graduate experience than undergrad, so I applied to mostly larger schools.  I applied to six of the top ten schools in my field and then three other schools with good general engineering reputations that were large state schools. 

I wish I knew this all last fall, but I hope it can help out the future students.

Brian Freeman


Hi Professor Kitchin,
Sorry for the delay!

The most valuable information I wish I knew beforehand would have been applying to diverse departments. I had a good idea of what I wanted to do research in, (alternative energy: Solar or Wind, or CO2 Capture), but I was under the impression that this type of research was only being conducted in Environmental Engineering departments. So, from the beginning I only looked at Civil and Environmental or Environmental Engineering departments at a plethora of schools and was realizing that few universities offered research in these specific their CivE departments at least! So, eventually I almost put all my eggs in one basket, settling for a university that did somewhat relevant research in alternative energy more so on CO2 Capture (which was my third choice). However, thank goodness, I applied for several fellowships, the fellowship opened my eyes to so many other universities that I hadn't even considered and in various departments. Later in the semester, they began giving me updates or email notifications of universities they thought I would be interested in. However, I was learning about these schools a little too late. I ended up applying to a total of four schools for three different departments: CMU for a master's in ChemE (just in case I didn't get anything else), an Earth and Environmental Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Materials Science Engineering department. I'm so grateful and fortunate to have found a university that I love out of these four; I actually really loved two of them! But I can't help but wonder what other universities I could have fell in love with, had I focused on my interest and searched various departments at a single university instead of only Environmental Engineering. My advisor did a great job with providing names of universities I should consider, but he didn't know that I was searching in the wrong department. Thankfully it worked out for me and I'm really happy with the university I decided to get my PhD at, but I strongly advise prospective graduate students to focus on their desired research and not limit their search to a single department.

Other Advice: I started researching universities the summer before my senior year while I was interning at my "dream" job. I realized that I wanted to learn more and industry wasn't right for me or what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I was sooo late in the process, but actually I was just fine. I emailed my ChemE advisor several times over the summer about my desire to go to graduate school and if he had any ideas for potential schools I should apply to. He was a great resource and very helpful. If you find a department you're interested, find the specific professors conducting the research you're interested in and email them over the summer. Let them know you're interested and would love to learn more and attach your resume too if you want. It's good to let them know that you plan to apply so they can be on the lookout for your application or give you useful information. For one university I applied to, a professor suggested that I have my application in by January 15 even though the deadline for that university was March 15, the earlier is always better! Don't feel bad if they don't respond, especially highly sought after professors, they are usually really busy, but be sure you are able to communicate with someone in the department so they know you are a potential applicant.

The summer is a great time to get ahead in the process so use your summer effectively. Also, SAVE your summer money because applying to graduate school is not cheap. Keep in mind you have to pay for the GRE, maybe a GRE class, some fellowships may not be free to apply to (I didn't come across that but you never know), and the grad school application. Depending on the number of schools you plan to apply to this can add up to a lot!

I also began studying for the GREs the summer before my senior year so that I could take it at the end of the summer. I strongly suggest taking the GREs in the summer before your senior year in ChemE. First semester senior year for ChemEs is VERY busy and you will barely have time to study for the GREs amongst all the other work you have to do, so PLEASE take the GREs in the summer and study hard for it so you won't have to worry about that during the school year. Also, research and apply to fellowships, even though most ChemE PhD programs fully fund you and provide you with a stipend, you are a more attractive candidate if you are able to bring in additional money. (Some universities will allow you to add the fellowship money to your stipend, while others will only let you keep a fraction of it.) Having a fellowship is also nice because you are given more flexibility in the direction of your potential research.

Admissions deadlines vary so make sure you know what the deadline is for each university. Give your potential recommenders enough time to write a good recommendation (and make sure they can write a GOOD one, seriously, make sure you specify a "good," "positive," "great," "strong," etc. recommendation), so inform them during the middle/end of the summer or at the very beginning of the school year. Try to have your schools narrowed down by the end of the summer. Also, especially if you're applying for a PhD, make sure at least 2 out of the 3 recommenders are professors. I didn't find that out until a little late in the process, I had my boss from the UC, my volleyball coach, and my ChemE Advisor (who is also a professor) initially, but eventually asked two additional professors who agreed. Don't be afraid to ask a professor to write a good recommendation for you, they can either say yes or no and most of the time they are very willing to write it.

When I wrote my personal statement (college essay) I had several people look at it and it wasn't until the last two universities that I really perfected it, so try to potentially get it down over the summer or early in the school year so that you can get enough revisions of it made. I was fortunate to have two different perspectives used for editing my statement. An HR representative at my mom's job made sure it was succinct and to the point and my ChemE advisor made sure it was what a university would want to see and was technically correct. Stay on top of all deadlines and documents needed for the universities and keep your recommenders informed to ensure you have a stress-free admissions process.

Apply to at least three universities, even if you found your dream university and don't want to go anywhere else. Don't be deceived by a good website; no less than three! Good luck!

 Prof. Kitchin,

I definitely have advice for students planning to apply for graduate school.  I hope you don't mind the following novella... 

What I have found applying to grad school requires:
-finding schools you want to apply to
-personal statement
-possible other statement
-some money

I cannot emphasize enough to start looking for which grad schools they would like to apply to and start writing as early as possible.  My experience is we take the most time-consuming classes during the first semester of senior year (I believe most of my classmates felt the same), which is also when students typically apply for grad schools and jobs.  Honestly, if I did not do a co-op that allowed me more time to focus on my grad applications then I would most likely not be going, since I had not applied the fall before.  Of course many students are able to successfully apply to grad school and do well fall semester of senior year, but it could be a deterrent for those who are considering graduate school but interviewing for jobs is less time consuming and introspectively draining (since a personal statement is needed for grad school applications).  Most applications are due during or a bit after winter break, and I would find it difficult to wait until break to apply.  I would suggest doing as much as possible during the summer, including taking the GRE, which does require a lot of studying for some.

For the GRE, if the student is only interested in engineering programs, then subject tests are generally not needed.  If they are at all considering applying to science programs, then take appropriate subject tests, but as far as I know they do not benefit the student unless they are required by the university they are applying for.  All of the schools I applied to required the general exam, but not subject tests.

The best practice for applying to graduate school was applying for NSF, because I got more used to writing about myself and research.  The student is required to think about what they would like to research, or at least the process of writing about research.  Additionally, the requirement of affiliating oneself with a university, facilitates searching for appropriate universities that perform similar research to your interests.  Plus, there is less pressure to get the grant than to get into a grad school, but it is a bonus if they do get it.

Strategies for looking for universities.  I included looking at recent publications for research that I was interested in, going to university websites and asking people in science and engineering.  Publications may not be the most indicative of what is really going on, but being aware of who is publishing in what they are interested in will add to their body of knowledge of the field in general, and may point them a good direction.  Most of the universities I looked up were based off of rankings.  I used US New and to give me a frame work of 'good' schools, although this may also not be the best way to go either since many of the lists have been said to be biased or based on only certain criteria, which the student should be aware of when using rankings to help them determine schools.  Additionally, it may be a useful exercise to consider what rankings really mean to the student and what they may imply about the experience the student may have at a specific program.  It is difficult to advise how to pick schools because there are many factors the student may or may not consider, like location, size, ranking, etc.  I would also suggest being aware of what facilities, such as companies and labs, are in the area or that are affiliated with a university since collaborations can be sought.  Also, they should consider schools that have more than one potential advisor they are interested in working for.  Overall, however, talking to professionals and even students that are familiar with certain universities is a great way get an inside scoop on what these universities are about, but this can also be biased.

Writing personal statements can be difficult, so I would suggest practice as much as possible.  No one saw my first drafts, and I believe no sentence from those drafts actually made it into my final statement, although some of the concepts did.  It is a process; it is important to get their ideas into paper and constantly refine.  This is another important step to start on early.  Also, ask as many people as possible to edit their statement, even if it is to just go over the content.  Start on this early, because it is easy to work a lot on a statement and make it into something you really like then finally sent it to someone and get feedback about how it does not make any sense.  I have found asking others to edit to be a way to improve my general writing skills as well.  One of the most useful things Debra did for me was sit down and go through my proposal line-by-line and correct it, so I could see what was working and what was not.  If a student can find a mentor to help them in this way it would help them immensely.  Also, Jeff Pierce and Harry An sent me their grad application personal statements; it was helpful to see what successful grad students had submitted to at least get an idea of what to cover.  Additionally, I read some books that Harry gave me about writing personal statements.  I think it is best to cover as much of their bases as possible and get lots of advice when it comes to writing.

Recommendations, transcripts and other parts of the application are pretty straight forward.  For recommendations, you actually gave me pretty good advice about providing referees a resume and a summary of skills and what I would like them to cover.  There are good resources from the career center on asking for recommendations.  I usually requested a recommendation at least a month before it was due.

Finally, they should be aware of the expense that comes along with applying to grad schools.  Around $70 or $80 per application seems to be popular.  I would advise seeking out fee waivers as much as possible.

When it comes to choosing the school they ultimately will attend, I would suggest going to every school they are accepted into even if they do not think they will go to that school.  They may get ideas about what to inquire about at other schools they visit.  They should ask as many questions as they can think of, I found preparing questions before the trip to be useful.  Some of the best advice I received about visits to get a feel for potential advisors is to talk to the students and those who work for them, which includes post-docs and past students.  I've been told it is a bad sign if an advisor is unwilling to give you information about how to contact past students.  Also, it was useful to inquire about frequency and availability of publishing, conferences and opportunities abroad and in industry.  Although funding may be a touchy subject, at least inquiring about their philosophy I found to be informative.  Consider the stipend with respect to the location in the country, whether or not they will be using a car or be needing to travel off campus.  Some schools will have great opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary programs, most of which I learned about during my visits to schools.

Overall, I would suggest starting the process during the summer, at least take the GRE and consider what school they will apply to before the start of fall semester classes.  The more they can get done during the summer the better.  Apply for NSF or other fellowship; write A LOT; request recommendations, transcripts and GRE scores early; visit every school they are accepted into; ask many many questions and seek advice from as many people as possible.  Hopefully I am not missing anything.  If I need to be more clear or you would like me to expound on anything please let me know, I obviously think I have a lot to say about applying to grad school.  I hope this was helpful.