Graduate Schools Looking for Thoughtful, Well-Rounded Students

The decision to pursue a degree in financial engineering is an important step in advancing your career. Congratulations! Whether you are seeking to switch careers or advance within the financial services industry, the skills you will acquire are vital to mastering the strategic and analytical demands of the industry.

Applying to graduate school is a big decision—as well as a significant investment of time and resources—and the emotional and rational aspects can influence candidates’ applications and interviews. Those students who prepared in advance have the advantage of conveying a clear and compelling idea of what is motivating their application . . . which is not only important for admission counselors but a worthy exercise for students themselves!

The process of researching, applying to, and interviewing at graduate schools does not need to be a daunting task. Just as there is no “one best” school, there is no singular formula for gaining admittance into the university of your choice. Often, the most challenging aspect of the admission process is the personal due diligence prospective students must conduct. Ask yourself the important questions regarding your priorities and expectations. What is most important to you? How do you weigh the pros and cons of each school? What are you seeking from the career services staff? Do you expect networking opportunities from a well-connected alumni network? You should expect the process to be a helpful back-and-forth between you and the school(s) into which you’re seeking admittance.

The Balancing Act
The admissions process is holistic. Ultimately, the admissions staff is seeking candidates with the potential for success academically as well as professionally. Academically, financial engineering programs are seeking candidates with strong quantitative backgrounds who have shown strong performance in a depth of mathematics courses including calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and a calculus-based probability course. Many quantitative finance programs have differing degrees of programming requirements, but often are looking for candidates to have some introductory programming experience. Check with each individual program to determine the requirements set forth. If you are lacking a prerequisite course for your program of study, it doesn’t mean that you are out of consideration. However, a strong foundation is the key to academic success, so you should consider taking any prerequisite course(s) that you are missing in advance of applying in order to strengthen your candidacy.

From a career perspective, while having relevant experience is preferred, it’s not always required. Those lacking experience or those who are switching careers should start taking steps to understand the field of quantitative finance. For some it might be the daily reading of The Wall Street Journal or informational interviews with those in the field. Stay abreast of current market trends as well as changes occurring within and among companies, and you’ll strengthen your career goals and trajectory.

Finally, any manager and executive will tell you that the less quantitative skills—communication, presentation, team leadership, and interpersonal skills—are also important indicators of success. Admissions counselors and recruiters alike expect that financial engineering graduates have the ability to communicate effectively both orally and in writing in English.

The Essay: Clarity Is Worth a Thousand Words (or Less)
It’s not surprising that many financial engineering candidates are less than enthused about tackling the essay accompanying their application. After all, GRE and GMAT scores speak for your qualifications, right? Wrong. It’s important that you convey your aspirations in a way that helps admissions counselors familiarize themselves with you . . . outside quant.

Be sure to answer the question you’re being asked. There’s no need to infer and unnecessarily read between the lines. Often candidates will try to be wordy and elaborate in the essay, and they ultimately lose sight of the question the program is truly seeking to answer. Be clear, concise, and direct and avoid any misinterpretation.

Evaluate your career goals. Take time to read and talk with others in the industry, including students and alumni of the programs to which you are applying so that you can present a clear career plan. Also, take the time to understand the programs. No two are alike, and, in fact, many are very different. Take those strong quant skills and use them for your own benefit by assessing the differences among programs. It is your responsibility to understand each program’s unique differences and which differences best support your career goals. Within your essay, show the admission counselor that you understand the program and are familiar with its mission and distinctions . . . and how it aligns with your goals. As admissions counselors, we are trained to spot pat answers that appear to be “one size fits all” essays. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking one essay will meet the needs of all applications.

Proofread! There is no excuse for typos and obvious grammar errors. Employers expect strong verbal skills, and schools are no different. Use your computer’s spell-check function and be sure to proofread your essays. I always advise candidates to pass along essays to friends and family and ask them to guess what question preceded the essay question. If they guess correctly, you’ve done a terrific job of providing a clear, direct response . . . and they may also spot the errant typo!

Don’t fall prey to the temptation of presenting yourself as something you’re not. Programs are seeking authenticity—admissions counselors want to know who you are . . . not who you think you are. Be sure to write an essay that is honest and don’t second-guess yourself. Allow your personality to come through, and tell the story of who you are, your interests, and goals within the field of quantitative finance.

Making the Most of the Application Process
There are a few aspects of the application process in which candidates make common errors. Because you’ve been thinking about grad school for quite some time, it’s easy to assume that admissions reps understand what’s on your mind. But, not so! There are many thousands of applicants each year, men and women who have varying motivations, backgrounds, and expectations. Just as there is no one “typical” financial engineering program, there is no one “average” student.

The tips below will assist in avoiding some common application mistakes:
  • Treat the admissions interview as if it were a job interview. The level of professionalism you lend to gaining admittance into graduate school is no less than the standard you would lend to a new job. Be sure to arrive on time, even a bit early. Dress appropriately in business attire. Allow the meeting to proceed as a dialogue (with two people), not a monologue (featuring only your comments).
  • Be prepared. Understand your goals and be ready to communicate how your aims for a graduate school education support your career plan. Rather than say, “I want to get a job in finance,” share your knowledge of the industry and how the school in which you are interviewing will advance your career objectives.
  • Often, there is a lot to be learned via the questions that are asked, so be sure to ask questions of the interviewer as well. School websites may not have 100% of the information you are seeking, so make a list of questions that were not obvious from your secondary research.
  • Your letter of recommendation is a key tool that helps to tell the story of who you are. Applicants often wonder about whom they should ask to write a letter of recommendation. Remember that title doesn’t matter as much as content and familiarity. When selecting recommenders, choose someone who knows you well and can provide a robust recommendation letter with examples of your technical and/or professional qualities that will make you a good fit for the program. It is not, for example, advantageous to you to send along a letter signed by a CEO who only shares general information that lacks specificity and detail.
  • Take the time to talk with your recommender in advance of applying to assure that he or she understands the program(s) to which you are applying and your goals associated with a financial engineering degree. This will help your recommender write a genuine letter that is thorough, thoughtful, and highlighted by examples of your analytical skills as well as your potential for career success.
Most importantly, take the time to prepare that is commensurate with the effort you will ultimately put forth in grad school. The admissions process is an ideal opportunity for self-reflection. Schools won’t need to be convinced that you’re a larger-than-life leader in the making, but rather, admissions officers are genuinely seeking to understand your goals and interests in the field of quantitative finance . . . so don’t make them work hard to appreciate your story! The strongest application is the one that is supported by preparation, so invest in yourself and enjoy the return on investment.

Gwen Stanczak is the Director of MSCF Admissions for Carnegie Mellon University. Gwen holds a dual BA in Psychology and Spanish from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and a Master in Public Management from Carnegie Mellon. Gwen is available to discuss all aspects of the application process with prospective MSCF students and to assist admitted students in the transition into the MSCF program.

A version of this article appears in the QuantNet 2013-2014 International Guide to Programs in Financial Engineering
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