You've probably made your graduate school selections by talking to your professors, reading grad school literature and surfing web sites. You've taken GREs, requested letters of reference and submitted your applications. What's left to do? Plenty.
Most universities don't have the resources to maintain a staff dedicated exclusively to processing graduate applications, so following up on your submissions is essential. Your application materials are usually sent to a university from three or more separate sources, and the odds that something won't end up in your application file are considerable. I recall a case where one of my advisee's GRE scores went astray. By the time the problem was sorted out, the deadline for assistantship applications had passed and this student had to delay enrollment for a year.
Your references are likely to include professors you've worked with or have had as instructors. Warning: They often live up to their reputations for being absent-minded. It's a good idea to follow up with them. Some departments will contact you to tell you that everything has been received or that material is missing, but a polite e-mail or call to the administrator handling graduate applications is useful if the receipt of your application isn't confirmed.
You're likely to spend two to five years at the university you choose for graduate school; it's worthwhile to make an effort to visit your top choices. During a visit you want to learn more about the program and get a feel for the atmosphere in the department. Equally important is to discuss your accomplishments and goals with faculty. If you plan to visit, you can start by contacting the graduate administrator. In some cases, the university will help support travel costs; in other cases, only students accepted into the program are encouraged to visit. Policies vary widely, and you need to inquire.
If you have a contact with a faculty member in a department where you've applied, you should try to communicate with that person. Contacts often come through professors at your undergraduate institution. Contacts may also come through a fellow student, perhaps a class or two ahead of you, who has enrolled at a grad school in which you're interested. Attending a local professional society meeting can also provide contacts with faculty from other departments. A professor at your prospective grad school is often in a good position to influence the decision-making process.
The selection process is strongly driven by economic considerations. >From the departmental viewpoint, the primary consideration in determining class size is the availability of funds to support graduate students; a relatively small percentage of engineering grad students pay their own tuition and living expenses. The main sources of support are teaching and research assistantships. The latter are derived from "soft money," funds provided to universities through grants and contracts. The availability of soft money can vary over a few month's time, and the ability of a department to support a grad student can also vary over short periods of time.
Because of these financial constraints, departments will sometimes separate the processes of student acceptance and financial support. Most departments do not have the financial resources to offer support to more students than the department can afford with projected funding. Often a department will offer support to their highest-ranked students. If these students decline offers, additional financial offers are made to their next highest-ranked students and so on.
From your viewpoint, you should look for an offer that includes guaranteed tuition and stipend for a time period that will allow you to complete your degree; this is obviously the best situation.
If you are offered admission but not financial support, strongly consider a personal visit. During a visit you have a chance to discuss your research interests. It's also your best opportunity to highlight your skills and show your enthusiasm for attending that particular graduate school. If you are able to communicate these qualities to faculty, your odds of receiving financial support increase.
Your work experience is likely to be discussed. Work that is related to research is particularly valuable in distinguishing you from other prospective graduate applicants, but any kind of industrial or laboratory experience showing that you performed conscientiously can be a plus; a reference letter from an employer can also be helpful. If you worked with a professor on a research project, knowledgeable discussion of that project will demonstrate an understanding of the research process. Many financial aid offers require service as a teaching assistant. Any experience in this field should be emphasized.
The recruiting literature will reveal departmental strengths; most departments have one or more areas of research concentration. Often departments participate in research centers that indicate research specializations. This information is available in numerous resources including Peterson's Guide to Graduate Programs in Engineering and Applied Science, ASEE Directory of Graduate Engineering and Research Statistics and individual departmental web sites. Clearly, it's advantageous to apply to universities where your research interests coincide with departmental strengths. Because you may not be able to choose the exact project you want to work on, faculty will look positively on a degree of flexibility on your part.
The departmental literature may highlight a high proportion of Ph.D. candidates. You should think about your goals with regard to your desire to continue in a doctoral program and be prepared to discuss them. Keep in mind that research-oriented universities prefer Ph.D. students; compared with master's degree students, Ph.D. candidates spend a higher proportion of their time performing research. If you are unsure about your ultimate degree goal, your best strategy is to express interest in the doctoral program.
Graduate students working in a professor's research group are an excellent source of information regarding research style and atmosphere. The degree of guidance and personal attention that a professor provides is best evaluated by graduate students. You can get a sense of several important factors: degree of independence, average length of residence in a program and employment prospects. A separate meeting with graduate students should be a high priority during a visit.
If you receive negative decisions from the schools you are interested in, don't despair. You can re-evaluate other universities; some departments will consider applications on a rolling basis, and applications can be submitted at any time. Call or e-mail departments to see if they have openings, especially in the weeks after April 15, the deadline for notification of acceptance by many schools. Some schools will not meet their recruitment goals and will likely have openings at this time. Reconsideration for a later term at universities where you initially received negative decisions is also possible.
Most universities will consider some combination of grades, test scores and recommendations in the initial graduate student selection process. Beyond that, your best opportunity to influence the process is to make a visit. Successful application to graduate school requires many of the same skills used in job hunting. Highlight your qualifications, describe your relevant experience and make the personal contact.