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New Students: The Path to ITS

Good grades, high scores, top schools — and a special, hard-to-define spark

The newest group of transportation graduate students joining the ITS family not only have good GRE scores and high GPAs, but their personal statements captured the imagination of transportation faculty at UC Berkeley.

The 28 students in the Transportation Engineering program were chosen from more than 100 applicants, said ITS Director Samer Madanat.

“We typically receive between a hundred and 150 applications each year, and almost all these students are very strong applicants,” he explained. “About one-third of applicants are domestic students and the rest are international students.”

This year, 15 international students from China, Morocco, Colombia, Vietnam, India, Japan, France, Peru, and Lebanon, and 13 domestic students, including eight from California accepted the admissions offers they received from the UCB Transportation Engineering program.

According to Madanat, the selection process begins by examining quantitative data — grade point averages, graduate record exam results, and for international students whose native tongue is not English, the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

Where students have received their education is also a factor. An applicant with a GPA of 3.8 from a school with a strong program in transportation is going to be viewed more favorably than somebody with a similar GPA from a university that is not ranked as high.

This is also true of international students.

Top Schools

“There are certain universities that have established credibility with us because their graduates who have come here in the past have worked out very well. We feel confident that a top graduate from such an institution is likely to succeed,” added Madanat.

Left to right: New students Zineb Essahli of Morocco, Remi Habfast of France, and Jean Godier Doig of Peru

Each year incoming ITS students include at least one from international schools with strong engineering programs such as France’s Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole Centrale Paris, China’s Tsinghua University and Tongji University, India’s Indian Institutes of Technology, and the American University of Beirut in Lebanon

“In fact, most years we have more than one from each of these schools,” he added.

But Madanat said quantitative rankings are only a starting point. "Two very important qualitative measures are letters of recommendation and the student’s statement of interest.”

Letters of recommendation matter, especially if they’re from people whom the faculty know and respect. Often these letters come from Berkeley graduates now teaching in other universities around the world.

A Certain Spark

Perhaps most important, however, is the statement of interest written by the applicant.

“The statement of interest is especially important for PhD applicants because it tells us if they really know what they want to study. They must have an area of interest, one they have really thought a lot about, and one that we are actively working in here at Berkeley.”

An applicant wishing to study rail track engineering, for example, would not find a spot at Berkeley because that is not a field taught here and nobody is doing research in that area currently.

In the personal statement, Madanat and other faculty who choose incoming students like to see “what intrigues them, and if a particular phenomenon intrigues them why, and why they think it occurs.”

“We look for a certain spark in the personal statement,” he said. “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it,” he added.

Why They Come

The students who choose Berkeley have wide and varied interests in transportation, including by not limited to urban transportation systems, aviation, high-speed rail, fleet operations, and transportation policy.

“I chose to pursue my transportation studies at Berkeley because of the sheer depth and breadth of the program,” wrote incoming transportation student Taylor Ehrick in an email. "No other university in the nation can compare with the history and experience of the Berkeley faculty and staff. Also, the university has one of the largest transportation libraries in the world. “

Others cited the school’s outstanding reputation, multicultural diversity, and, as incoming student Raphael Jatteau put it, the “multiple delights offered by the Bay Area.”

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