11 Things to Know Before Starting Engineering School

things to know before starting engineering school

There are many misconceptions about engineering amongst high school students and young engineering students. It’s hard to know if engineering is right for you without knowing the whole picture.

If you’re thinking about going into engineering, here are some things to consider before jumping in:

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  1. Not all engineers are design engineers
  2. GPA doesn’t matter in engineering
  3. You can be an engineer if you’re bad at math or physics
  4. The major you chose might be less specific than you think
  5. It won’t be terrible
  6. The school you chose doesn’t matter that much
  7. You don’t have to love your classes
  8. Start a portfolio early on
  9. Save your notes
  10. Don’t do it just for the money
  11. The first few years are the hardest for a lot of students

1. Not all engineers are design engineers

One of the biggest misconceptions amongst young engineering students is that they will all be doing design work. The majority of engineers are not design engineers. Many engineers will never do CAD, stress analyses, or even math in their entire careers.

There are lots of types of engineers.

  • R&D (Research and development) engineers or design engineers are the ones that are designing cool new products.
  • Manufacturing engineers are the ones that take the design prototypes and make them manufacturable and scalable.
  • Quality engineers are the ones that make sure the products meet safety standards and regulations.

The job responsibilities of these engineers are all very different, yet they usually all have the same degree.

If you want to be a design engineer, be mindful of that. Join design teams and look for design internships. It’s also important to know that a lot of the best design engineers start as manufacturing or quality engineers. Don’t get discouraged if the glamourous design role ends up looking more like a paperwork-filled desk job. There are always opportunities to grow and switch positions.

2. GPA doesn’t matter in engineering

In high school, GPA is everything. It’s hard to let go of that mindset going into college, but to be a successful engineer, you have to. Your GPA in engineering does not matter that much.

In college, extracurricular activities are more important than GPA. Some internships have a GPA requirement, but it is usually a 3.0 (and occasionally a 3.5). A hiring manager will always hire the 3.4 GPA student with design experience over the 4.0 GPA student with no design experience.

You should be seeking out design experiences in undergrad. You can do design teams, internships, research, or TA positions. These extracurricular activities might take a hit on your GPA and that’s OKAY. It’s actually PREFERRED. In the world of engineering, a 4.0 is often considered a red flag.

That being said, you can’t completely ignore your classes. You should always aim to keep your engineering GPA above a 3.5, but if you’re above a 3.0, you’ll be fine.

3. You can be an engineer if you’re bad at math or physics

Yes, you can be an engineer if you’re bad at math. Yes, you can be an engineer if you’re bad at physics.

Don’t let your high school experiences dissuade you from becoming an engineer. If everyone was getting 5’s on their AP physics and calculus classes in high school, those lecture hall college physics and calc classes would be half empty. There’s a reason they’re not.

Even in college, many engineering students’ lowest grades are in calculus or physics. These classes are hard and it’s okay if you’re not a natural at them. You just need to pass them so you can move on to the cool classes.

What you lack in natural ability, you can make up for in hard work. If you pay attention in class and go to office hours when you need it, you will be fine.

Another thing students don’t know is that the math gets easier the further into your college career you go. No one is doing advanced calculus by hand in upper-level engineering courses or in the real world. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not doing well in physics or calculus during your freshman year. These classes are designed to be challenging.

Lastly, as previously discussed, many engineers never do math or physics in their careers. If it’s not your strong suit, you can go into manufacturing, quality, or management. There are lots of paths in engineering that don’t require math or physics.

4. The major you chose might be less specific than you think

Don’t freak out about choosing the right engineering major right off the bat. In the first year, everyone takes the same courses. Even as you enter your career, your major is not binding.

Mechanical and aerospace degrees often vary by less than 5 courses. The two majors are practically interchangeable in the eyes of an employer.

Most biomedical engineers are actual mechanical engineers! Click here to read why.

The point is, there is always a way to achieve your career goals. If you’re really unsure, start as a mechanical engineer. Mechanical engineers can work in pretty much every field. Once you start your major, talk to professors, counselors, and upperclassmen to decide what you ultimately want to do.

5. It won’t be terrible

There is this idea that engineering majors pull all-nighters every night and are in a constant state of stress. There are people like this, but chances are it’s just because they don’t know how to study. Your health and well-being are more important than anything else.

The student that pulls an all-nighter to get an A on an exam is no better than the student that gets a full night’s sleep and gets a B.

In engineering, you often hear people bragging about how they were “up till 4 studying”, but this is not something to brag about. These people only do this to brag. If you ever study with one of these people, you will notice that it’s 50% studying and 50% talking about studying. Quality is just as important as quantity when it comes to studying.

6. The school you chose doesn’t matter that much

When it comes to engineering, the university you go to doesn’t matter. You should avoid debt at all costs. Engineering is an extremely hirable degree no matter what school you go to. What you do during undergrad is more important than the school you go to. Taking on debt or paying an arm and a leg to go to a more prestigious school simply isn’t worth it.

“Oh, but those prestigious universities have such a large alumni network.” Guess what? So does your state school.

“Oh but the best companies recruit at the best schools”. Every company has “target” schools they recruit at that will differ based on every school. No matter what school you go to, you should be going to national career fairs (check out SHPE, NSBE, SWE – anyone can go to these). There will be more companies and available positions here than at any one school.

Many successful engineers even start at community colleges and transfer after two years.

7. You don’t have to love your classes

It’s okay if the thought of taking fluid dynamics or heat transfer doesn’t thrill you to your core. You can still be passionate about engineering without loving your classes. If the thought of using your degree to make a genuine impact on the world as an engineer is exciting to you, that is enough.

8. Start a portfolio early on

Keep track of every project and big assignment you do throughout your undergrad and create a portfolio as you go. This will help you tremendously when applying for internships and jobs.

9. Save your notes

If you have the financial means, using a tablet or iPad is a great way to take notes in engineering. In your upper-level courses, you’ll have a lot of overlap in material, and being able to go back and look at your notes from previous semesters is really helpful.

Even if you’re taking notes on paper, save them. Use a different notebook for each class and keep your notes organized. You’ll thank yourself later.

10. Don’t do it just for the money

If you’re in engineering just for the money, you should get out. Switch to computer science or software engineering. As a mechanical engineer, you can expect to make about $24/hour as an intern and have a starting salary of about $75,000. In computer science, it’s not uncommon to make $45/hour as an intern and have starting salaries of $100,000-$200,000.

As an engineer, you will have a relatively high-paying career. But if your goal is just to make money fast and you don’t care too much about engineering, consider switching.

11. The first few years are the hardest for a lot of students

This one is debatable, but for many people, the first year or two of engineering is the hardest. You’re just starting college, you’ve moved away from home, you’re trying to make friends and join clubs, your classes are in formats you’re not used to. It’s a LOT.

It’s common for students’ lowest grades in undergrad to be in calculus or physics. At most schools, the core classes are huge lecture-hall classes. The professors are often forced to teach the class and don’t care that much. Once you get into upper-level classes, the classrooms are smaller, the professors want you to be there and want you to succeed.

School has been getting harder your entire life. Second grade seemed scary in first grade, high school seemed scary in middle school, there’s no reason to believe you’ll get to college and will suddenly just no longer be able to handle it. Just remember why you’re there and keep going.


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