July 20, 2015

An Engineer's Guide to Engineering School: How To Get In

This is the first part of a two-part guest post from Tom Miller of WTFProfessor.com

(See An Engineer's Guide to Engineering School: How to Crush It for part 2.)

Lazy High School Junior to Top 25 Engineering School

"Sooo... I guess I'll do engineering." That was how it started: a lackluster decision, the result of some prodding from my parents and high school teachers. At the time I was just a somewhat lazy and oblivious high school junior - more focused on backyard football, friends, and dominating in Mario Cart, than on SAT scores, AP tests, and which majors would give me the best job prospects.

But eventually I'd end up at University of Maryland's Clark School of Engineering - a top 25 program that holds its own with the likes of MIT, Caltech, and Stanford (at a quarter of the price in-state I might add), happily chugging my way through my freshman year courses. Here's how it happened:
  • End of junior year: Math teacher pulls me aside to make sure I'm registered for the Calc AB AP test, and that I'm applying to engineering programs. Physics teacher says I need to do electrical engineering. Me? No clue. I decide I should probably pick some schools though.
  • Beginning of senior year: Got great results back from my AP tests, and I feel myself starting to get motivated about doing well in school. I finally narrow my 3 (yes only 3) college application to Delaware and Clemson (because I heard someone talk about those schools somewhere) and UMD (just cuz - everyone from my school applies there).
  • We visit Delaware. I talk to some engineering students. They seem nerdy.
  • We visit Clemson. The campus seems like paradise. Didn't really notice anything else.
  • We visit Maryland. I guess I could go here.
  • Over the next 6 months, a transformation starts to occur. I start to actually "see" myself going to Maryland, studying hard, becoming an engineer. My math and physics teachers continue to encourage me. And by the time I start senior year, I'm all in: from lazy underperforming Junior, to dedicated Senior, hell-bent on nailing my Calc and Physics AP exams, putting together a stellar application for UMD, and trying to earn a scholarship.
  • At this point, Delaware and Clemson are out the window. No real differences in their engineering undergrad programs that I could tell, with a tuition 3-4x as much. Plus the graduate engineering program at Maryland is a powerhouse, so I'd be able to get some exposure to the cool research my soon-to-be-professors were doing.
  • By early January, my app was in. Strong personal statement (focused on my "turnaround" story and how I hoped to impact the world as an engineer). So-so SAT (720 math, 650 verbal). Tons of AP classes so my weighted GPA was strong. And by April of that year, I heard back: I was in! And with a small scholarship to boot.
  • The next four years went fast, and the transformation continued - bit by bit. Heavy course-loads each semester. An internship. A part-time job. Undergrad research. A second major. As I churned through the hard work each semester, I inched my way closer and closer to what eventually materialized into 2 degrees at graduation (Mech. E. and Philosophy) and a sweet entry-level job doing product development at a local supplier in the automotive industry.
It worked out for me in the end, but I made a lot of mistakes along the way. So what I've put together for you below is what you can expect from engineering school (everything from weed-out courses to group projects), and my top 10 principles for crushing it once you're in. Without further ado...

The Life of An Engineering Student: What Am I In For?

How much do AP classes/scores matter as an incoming freshman?

AP classes were all the craze my Senior year of high school, but truth is, college app wise, they don't matter too much (outside of demonstrating a focus in one particular area). What does matter though, is getting as big a leg up on the engineering prereqs (Calc 1-3, Physics 1-3) as possible. It was a huge weight off my back not to have to take Calc 1 and 2 and Physics 1 and 2 once I started college. While my classmates were struggling through for their first few semesters, all I had to do was finish out Calc 3, Physics 3, and Diff Eq. and then I was off to the races with almost 100% engineering courses. Plus, you'll potentially save time and money if you can finish your degree sooner than you otherwise would (or alternatively save on stress so that you don't have to load up on 5 courses for multiple semesters).

I've heard engineering students basically have no life. How much free time will I have? What does a typical day look like? How will I know if I'm cut out for it?

While it is true that engineering is one of the most work-intensive majors you can take in college, a lot of it depends on your approach. If you focus on trying to learn EVERYTHING, you'll quickly find yourself underwater, spending Friday and Saturday nights at the library or in the computer lab. However, if you quickly learn how to identify the key aspects of each course, and focus on learning those while working methodically through practice problem sets, you won't have to spend much more time than your business or humanities major friends. Usually mornings are filled with lecture and/or discussion periods with a few 2-hour lab periods mixed in (for chemistry, physics, and ~50% of your engineering courses). The afternoon/early evening is usually prime-time for working through homework problem sets, or working with classmates on group projects. If you are the type of person who can sit down for long periods of time and struggle away at difficult problems, you'll have zero issue with the rigors of engineering school. If however, you tend to have trouble finding the focus or motivation to stick with a problem and figure out how to solve it, you'll have some work to do to shift your work habits and mindset to better fit what you'll need to get through an engineering degree. Overall, it's very do-able. But there's a method to the madness, and specific principles you'll need to obey in order to smoothly navigate your degree.

I got accepted into the engineering school at my college, but don't know what major I should pick. How should I decide?

The good thing is, the pre-reqs/lower level courses for all of the different engineering disciplines are pretty much the same (chemistry, physics, calculus, intro to engineering, etc.) - so get those out of the way first if you're still trying to decide which major to specialize in. Try to spend some time around upper classmen and/or professors and grad students in the discipline(s) you're thinking about.
  • Thinking about Mech E.? Go to some ASME meetings and check out what those students are working on. Be prepared for more hands-on practical engineering work.
  • Thinking about EE or CE? Talk to some upper classmen about what the programming projects are like, and what types of jobs they're looking at applying to once they get their degree.
  • Thinking about Chem E. or Bioengineering? See what type of research professors are doing, and try to set up a meeting with them to talk about it. You should be okay with both math-heavy courses, as well as heavy chemistry and bio.
  • Thinking about Civil? See if any of your advisors or professors can point you towards a couple of civil engineering firms you could check out online to see what they're doing in the field.
Bottom line: spend some time exploring if you're not sure (and even if you think you ARE sure), because it does get more difficult to switch over once you get into the major-specific upper-level courses in end of Sophomore, beginning of Junior year.

I've heard the early math and physics courses are made extra difficult to "weed-out" students from continuing on to higher-level engineering specific courses. Is this true? How should I prepare?

Here's my take on this: I don't think they're made intentionally difficult. There isn't some evil board of engineering professors who sit around plotting to destroy your confidence to see who survives. However, these are relatively commoditized courses which everyone needs to take in order to sharpen their math and science chops enough to be considered "ready" to take on the courses more focused on preparing you specifically for the engineering discipline you'd like to go in to. So because so many students are going through this same small set of courses, a few things happen:
  • The class sizes are huge. This makes it more difficult for students to get help, ask questions, follow up with the professors, and overall just feel like they're getting personalized attention. It also makes it more difficult for the professors to focus on making sure the material "connects" with the students.
  • The professors themselves are usually adjuncts or new professors that don't have too much experience. This means the course layout is often poorly thought out, they might not be subject experts in the area they're teaching, and in general they probably just don't have that much teaching experience starting out.
  • It's the first time students coming in from high school experience the hardship of a college course. I think regardless of the class, if it's in-depth and technical material, it's going to be a slap in the face for many students who may have breezed through high school without ever encountering too much difficulty with understanding difficult course material.
So all of this is just to say: you want to prepare yourself for these classes in the same way you want to prepare yourself for studying in college in general.
  • Build a solid study routine.
  • Get the most out of your class time.
  • Spend un-interrupted time after class working through problems.
  • Do practice exams.
See my next post on Thursday for more on this.

I'm thinking about a minor or double-major. Is this possible if I'm doing an engineering degree?

Yes, but it takes some planning. Ideally you'll double-major in something that compliments engineering in an interesting an different way (e.g. psychology, philosophy, economics, history). These humanities majors have less intensive degree and credit requirements, so you can pretty easily take all of those "outside of major" gen. ed. requirements and focus them in one area. Then you'll just have to take a semester or 2 of upper level courses in those areas. You're engineering credits will cover a big load.

I've heard the group projects are notoriously horrible, especially if you get stuck with a group of slackers. What can I expect here?

Yes, I'm not going to lie to you. Group projects can potentially become the bane of your existence. But, they're some of the most valuable learning experiences you'll get in school, because they teach you how to interact with less-than-ideal team conditions before you head out into the workforce. Generally, once you hit sophomore year, you'll probably have at least 1 small group project each semester. Then you'll generally have a major Junior year project course, and then a Senior year capstone project course. See below for how to deal with these so that you come out on top.

1 comment:

  1. UMD is not considered to be in the same league as MIT, Caltech, and Stanford