Everything You Should Know About Applying to and Becoming an Engineering Major

Engineering is the last thing you should think about if you are looking for a "party-school major." Starting freshman year, engineering students usually take 18 units of hard science every quarter/semester of their undergraduate career.
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In my last blog, "So You Want to Be an Engineer? How to Tell if This Is (or Is Not) a Good Idea," my goal was to help readers gain an understanding of the Engineering field, including how to do research on the more than 30 college engineering majors offered at colleges and universities and how to obtain, what to say/do at an Engineering Career Information Interview. It was so gratifying to get emails from student readers saying that the blog cleared up a lot of misconceptions they had about engineering in general and also the specific specialty areas.

At the end of the blog, I promised to come back to the subject, this time providing information on how best to prepare for an engineering major while in high school and how to find colleges with engineering schools that best fit you. So here it is!

First of all, let me re-emphasize that engineering is the last thing you should think about if you are looking for a "party-school major." Starting freshman year, engineering students usually take 18 units of hard science every quarter/semester of their undergraduate career. It is a very structured, extremely rigorous area of study. Depending on individual colleges, most students complete their engineering degrees in four years plus a semester, but sometimes it takes five years.

It is not unusual for student athletes to be told by certain college coaches that they may not major in engineering. No kidding! Some coaches think that it's too difficult to play a Varsity sport in the midst of studying engineering. If you are an athlete who wants to major in engineering, check in with college athletic departments as early as possible to see what their policies are.

Study Abroad
Did you know that English is the language of science and engineering throughout the world? What this means is that the chances of your spending time abroad in a university that offers science/engineering in English -- not the native language -- are pretty good. Verrrrrry interesting.

As you think about what you want in an undergraduate education, you might look into Engineering 3-2 programs that enable students interested in having a more expanded education. In a 3-2 program students spend three years at a liberal arts college, followed by two years of education at a school that offers engineering. In a 3-2 program, you end up with two bachelor's degrees: a liberal arts degree and an engineering degree. Examples of 3-2 programs include Colby College (liberal arts) with Dartmouth College, Mount Holyoke (liberal arts) with Caltech, Reed College (liberal arts) with Columbia, Rensselaer or Caltech. Lists of 3-2 programs can be found here.

You should also know that some forward-looking small, liberal arts colleges offer engineering on their own, including Lafayette College, Smith College, Swarthmore College, Trinity College, and Union College.

To be really prepared for your first semester as an engineering major, college advisors suggest that high school students take the following courses, preferably accelerated Honors, AP or IB:

  • Four years of Math: Algebra II, Trigonometry, Pre-calculus, Calculus (even Statistics)
  • At least three years of science: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, including labs
  • Any Computer Science or Engineering courses offered at your high school
  • Four years of English
  • Two to three years of a foreign language
  • Two years of Social Studies

Be aware the test score expectations, both SAT/ACT and Subject Tests, are higher for engineering majors than most other majors. To be safe, check out individual college websites to ascertain what course and testing requirements are for each of the schools in which you are interested.

Admissions and especially Engineering Department people are also impressed when students take advantage of quiz bowl and academic contests, university pre-college programs, and special summer college and other summer science/engineering opportunities. Many colleges offer no fee programs for under-represented, low income, first generation high school students who are interested in STEM subjects, particularly engineering. Other colleges and groups offer special programs for young women.

Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth's Imagine Journal is a rich source in locating those kinds of opportunities. Stanford's Office of Science Outreach lists dozens of special science and engineering opportunities. If nothing else, doing a Google search on "programs for high school students interested in engineering" should bring forth dozens of possibilities. High school teachers and guidance counselors are also good sources of information.

The first thing you need to do is sort out what you want from a college in general. I have already written two HuffPost blogs on that topic: "Seven Steps to Putting Together a Great College List," and "5 Biggest Mistakes Applicants Make when Putting Together Their College Lists."

After that, identify and research engineering programs at different colleges. Here are some tips about what to look for:

  1. Identify the engineering specialties in which you are interested, e.g. Bioengineering and Mechanical Engineering. Read last week's blog, "So You Want to Be an Engineeer" for specific directions.

  • Through College Board's Book of Majors and/or online Major Search, or The College Finder's assorted Engineering lists (e.g., "Great Colleges to Consider for the Future Engineer" or "The Experts' Choice: Great Engineering Programs at Medium-sized Colleges," etc.) find colleges that offer the engineering specialties in which you are interested.
  • According to UC Santa Barbara Engineering Department's Tacy Costanzo, whatever you do, don't choose a college and/or engineering program solely based on its ranking. More often than not, engineering program rankings are all about graduate programs and faculty. What's more, engineering undergraduates in schools with graduate programs often have fewer internship and research opportunities as those mostly go to graduate students.
  • As much as you can, find out whether an engineering department has a theoretical or practical approach to their coursework. A theoretical orientation is very useful if you plan to teach at a college some day, while a practical approach is going to be much more useful if you want to actually work in the field. Different approaches to learning have important implications for what you do in your future career.
  • As you research colleges and especially engineering departments, find out if their orientation is cooperative or competitive. What kind of atmosphere works best for you? Paying attention to this can make a real difference in what your college experience is about.
  • As you do your due diligence about engineering schools, look for colleges where faculty (rather than teaching assistants) actually teach students. Having the opportunity to be taught and/or mentored by faculty members can really add to the richness of your college experience. Even more, faculty member are much more likely to have personal contacts with engineering graduate schools and companies and that's a really good thing.
  • Be aware that there is a huge difference between your attending a small or big college or university, and especially the size of the engineering programs. It goes without saying that you will get a lot more personal attention and have greater access to research and internship opportunities at small, or even medium-sized schools.
  • As you develop your college list, if possible take the time to visit college campuses so that you can talk with students in engineering programs, sit in on classes, meet professors and speak with admissions counselors. There is no substitute for getting to see, hear, and feel what a college campus and department is like.
  • Don't forget to complete the FAFSA and PROFILE forms to apply for financial and/or merit aid. The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) offers a wonderful page on this topic in their eGFI (Engineering, Go For IT!) website: "Engineering Scholarships: A Giant List." You gotta check this out.
  • Just so you know, much of the above information comes from "Navigating the Engineering Pipeline" a talk by Tacy Costanzo, M. ED, Student Affairs Liason, UC Santa Barbara, at a University of California fall Counselor Conference, as well as the National Association of College Admission Counseling listserv. The best information came from chats with engineering professors and practicing engineers.

    Finally, you might be interested in an email I received from a father/girls' softball coach who said that he shared my first blog on engineers with his team. Turns out that one of the other softball fathers is an engineer and the two fathers decided to offer an informal get together for the team at which the engineer will tell players what it's like to work in the engineering field. Three cheers for these and other caring, creative, savvy dads!

    If you have any stories or special resources for students, please share them in the Comments section below.

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