July 28, 2015

An Engineer's Guide to Engineering School: How to Crush It

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

(See An Engineer's Guide to Engineering School: How To Get In for part 1.)

How to Crush It In Engineering School: My Top 10 Principles

(1) Get in a groove early

Engineering courses and their pre-requisites are notoriously jam-packed with material, and move fast each week. So if you find yourself getting behind, the problem starts to compound fast. Instead, you want to get in a groove early. This means:
  • Scheduling out your weeks so you know what's coming, instead of walking into lecture oblivious.
  • Distributing your study time into short daily chunks, instead of leaving it until the weekends or before exams (because of the way the brain works, this will also help you retain much more of the material).
  • Build in a study routine. Studying for the same amount of time at the same time each day will help engrain that as a habit, requiring less motivation to get yourself started each day.
  • Protecting for sleep and exercise. Sleep is absolutely essential for consolidating new memories - if you skimp here you'll lose a lot of the hard work you put in during the day. Exercise enhances your mental acuity, and primes the brain for learning.
Keep this up and you'll have no issue staying on top of everything as the semester progresses.


(2) Do an 80/20 analysis on your grade

The 80/20 Principle (also known as the Pareto Principle) says that roughly 20% of your assignments in class will determine 80% of your grade. That's where you want to put your effort and focus. Get your hands on a syllabus as soon as possible. Identify the few key assignments that are going to heavily determine your grade. Then, organize your semester around maximizing time spent on those assignments (usually exams). DO NOT spend a lot of time and energy on meaningless homework problems, or reading through the textbook or your notes. A lot of the students who end up having "no life" as engineers fall into this trap.


(3) Use the 1-2 lecture prep punch

Getting prepared for lecture doesn't have to take hours of reading through textbook chapters. In just 10-15 minutes you can get yourself ready to absorb the maximum amount of material once you get to class. First, do a Google search the night before class on the next thing up on the syllabus, read through the Wikipedia page and basic information, and generate a list of 10 questions. This frames the upcoming lecture in a helpful way that will keep you engaged, focused on answering those questions. Then, right before class, get to lecture 5 minutes early, take a blank sheet of paper, and write down absolutely anything you can think of related to the topic of discussion for the day. This will prime your memory to link new concepts to ideas and concepts you are already familiar with, which is the essence of learning. Repeat this process throughout the semester.


(4) Take notes the right way

Most students overly focus on copying down exactly what the professor puts on the board, and making sure their notes are pretty and organized. Unfortunately, this is typically a waste of time, and distracts you from actually learning the information from lecture. Instead, just focus on getting down the key information during class: equations, key diagrams and concepts, and solutions to example problems. And don't worry if it's messy, because to get the most out of your notes, you'll want to not only review them later, but actually re-work them into an organized and consolidated summary sheet each week. If you do this on a weekly basis and before exams, you'll develop a better sense of how everything fits together. Each time you re-organize your notes, you’re doing the same thing in your brain. You’re reinforcing the important information into chunks, connecting it to your existing mental models. This makes the information faster to retrieve because you’ve packaged it more efficiently.


(5) Crack the code of worked problems using the Reverse Learning Technique

Most teachers and professors present new concepts and problems in a very linear, step-by-step fashion. Sadly, this is typically a difficult and ineffective way to learn how problems are solved. Instead, employ the Reverse Learning Technique.
  1. Identify a set of concepts you’ve been struggling with.
  2. Find an example problem(s), with the full solution available, that encompasses these concepts well.
  3. Start at the solution to the problem, and work your way back towards the question.
  4. Ask things like “Why is this the answer?,” “How did they solve for that?,” “Why was this assumption made?,” etc.
By doing this you'll develop a deeper understanding of why certain equations are used, how different concepts are applied when solving problems, and which assumptions apply in different scenarios.

(6) Use Active Recall to test your knowledge early and often Many of us have the following recurring problem:
“I went to every lecture and felt like I understood all the concepts he was talking about. When I went to do the exams though, I would have no clue what to do and just half-ass it.”
The problem here isn't that exams carry with them some weird voodoo that makes you forget everything you learned, but that we haven't practiced solving problems from scratch. During the week, instead of solving problems by referring back to your notes and the textbook, apply what's called Active Recall:
  1. Start with a problem from your study materials, making sure not to look at the solution beforehand
  2. Attempt to write down the solution and steps off the top of your head, without any supporting materials
  3. Go back to the actual solution and verify whether you were correct or not
Repeating this process over and over for different types of problems you encounter in your courses will ensure that you develop your problem-solving skills to the point where you can re-produce the solution on an exam.


(7) Rehearse your test performance

Another big problem with exams is test anxiety. You're under more pressure than you're used to (especially considering most exams are between 25% and 50% of your grade), and often this negatively impacts our ability to solve problems the way we know we can. To combat this, before big exams you'll want to put in some Exam Rehearsals:
  1. Use your past exam materials to construct practice exams.
  2. Recreate, as closely as you can, the exact test conditions and timing.
  3. Do the practice exam, and then grade yourself afterwards, identifying and fixing any mistakes you might have made after time is up.
  4. Repeat at least 2 times, with a different set of problems, prior to each exam.
Do this and your confidence will be sky high when you walk into the exam room.


(8) Approach group projects like you're the only one who gives a crap

Group projects can either be a great learning experience for you, or a terrible train-wreck of a disaster. To prevent those disasters from happening, here are a few things you can do:
  • Make a project schedule at the beginning of the semester with all of the project due dates from the syllabus mapped out.
  • Split the project up into smaller deliverables and assign group members responsibility for specific items
  • Volunteer to be the one to set up regular on-campus weekly meetings and set an agenda for each meeting beforehand by email. Assign and record the next actions each team member has committed to for the upcoming week
  • Hold your teammates accountable to getting their work done on time. And if they don’t get their portion of the project done, take control to protect your grade.
  • Turn in product and testing deliverables early and ask for feedback from the professor or TA. This will allow you to spend time to fix everything and turn in a nice polished version that will get you a much better grade.

(9) Internships, part-time jobs, research projects: Demonstrate you can do work

As you work through your degree, you'll also want to seek out opportunities to demonstrate to potential future employers that you can apply the engineering principles that you've learned. Some different options for doing this: Step 1: Demonstrate you can do work
  • Apply for an engineering internship or co-op.
  • Work part-time or over summer break (this can be anywhere as long as you're building "employable skills").
  • Volunteer for undergraduate research.
Step 2: Stand out
  • Make a list of 50 things/projects you could do that might sound or look interesting to potential companies.
  • Find 3 things on that list that are actually feasible for you to do within 1-2 semesters (these can be related to your internships or part-time work).
  • Do those thing and make it "remarkable" by taking pictures, posting it to youtube, building a prototype, etc. so that you can show-and-tell.

(10) Build your resume around a "theme"

There's only so much you can do in school to stand out for potential employers while still getting your coursework down with a decent enough GPA. So how can you make yourself look unique when everyone else took the same classes, did the same types of course projects, and got similar internships? Build your resume around a "theme" or story you can tell that resonates with what that employer might be looking for. For example, when I was applying to companies, I was the engineering "philosophy" guy. So not only was I able to highlight the standard engineering type stuff (my classes and electives, my projects, my internship experience), I also had a Philosophy degree to explain. Everyone I talked to would read through my resume and promply raise an eyebrow..."Philosophy eh? What's that about?" I could then launch into my schpiel about logic, rationality, critical thinking skills, and thinking about how to come up with answers to some of life's most difficult questions. What starts out as "oh, that's weird," turns into "wow this guy is different!" But it wouldn't have worked if I didn't tie it all into a nice little "package" as a supplement to my technical engineering skills and previous work experience.

Your Next Step

If you're thinking about applying to engineering school, or have already committed and are thinking about what to do to prepare, the experiences, recommendations, and principles I've outlined above should help you both figure out what the best path for you should be, as well as help you maximize your chances for success. Now, it's one thing to read about what to do, but it's another thing entirely to take action and make it happen.

So for you guys thinking about engineering, I've put together a guide for you - The Engineering Degree Domination Checklist - which summarizes the principles I've outlined above into some quick actionable steps you can take. This is the system I used to graduate in the top 5% of my class, while spending LESS time studying than my peers.

If you sign up, you'll also be automatically enrolled in my free 5-Day Study Crash Course, which covers how to apply many of the study principles I covered above, and will help you get a jump-start on crushing it as you prepare for college now, as well as once you get in to your target school. You in?

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