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How to Get Into Engineering School

So You Want to be an Engineer…

In a previous article, we discussed how to get into medical school, and now we’ll do the same for students who want to pursue a degree in engineering. The popularity of engineering as both major and profession has remained high, and many students are justifiably nervous about applying, as this same popularity has made engineering schools increasingly competitive.

In this article, we’ll discuss how and why engineering programs are competitive, what they’re looking for in students, and how you can prepare yourself for them as a high school student. While these programs are competitive, that alone is not a reason to turn away from applying, as properly prepared students are well-positioned to achieve their dreams in engineering programs.

Engineering Programs

Top engineering programs are very competitive, rivaling business and pre-med for the schools and majors with the stiffest competition for undergraduates, and often surpassing both. This is because of shifts in the job market, and where high school students see job opportunities occurring in the future.

Silicon Valley has grown to rival Wall Street as the economic heart of America, and it has been built by engineers and scientists, rather than financiers. While business and economics remain a stable path to a good career, many students see the glamour and riches available in the tech start-up scene, and dream of doing the same.

Many schools cater to this demand, some explicitly. While some engineering programs are long-established, like those of MIT and Caltech, others are newer, as more schools start engineering programs of their own. Yale and Brown both recently expanded their engineering options, and took in more engineering students to match. Despite this, the demand by students far outstrips the number of spaces for would-be engineers at top schools.

Engineering School Requirements

We talked previously about what colleges look for in applications, but we’ll dive a little deeper into engineering programs specifically here, as there are some differences between engineering programs and other offerings of colleges. This section will be addressed primarily towards the top programs, as these are the most competitive, and the ones most students wonder and worry about.

Academic performance in high school is always the most important factor, with a heavy emphasis on math and science especially. Many engineering programs will overlook a few Bs in English or history, but high grades in STEM subjects are essential. Many programs have current faculty in their engineering school review applications to that school, though this is not a universal practice. For this reason, a letter of recommendation from a current math or science teacher can be quite helpful in illuminating who you are as a student and scholar.

Extracurriculars are also quite important, especially at the top programs. While these don’t have to be directly related to your intended course of study, they can provide a boost if they are. It is these extracurriculars we will focus on in the final section of this article.

Finally, standardized test scores are important, though of lesser importance than your overall academic performance. Taking AP tests in STEM subjects is recommended if possible, especially calculus, as almost every engineering has calculus as a prerequisite for most of the required classes in the major. While not all high schools will offer calculus or AP calculus, you should take it and excel in it if you can.

Preparing For Engineering Programs

While the best place to prepare for the rigor of engineering programs is inside the classroom, that doesn’t mean you can neglect extracurricular activities. If you need to spend all of your time outside of school studying to maintain your high school grades, maybe reconsider attending a top engineering program, where the workload is uniformly a step up in time commitment and difficulty from high school.

For extracurricular activities, participating in math or science events is important, especially if you can complete research or create something new. Popular activities include robotics competitions, science and engineering fairs, internships, and math competitions. The common thread in these activities is that they demonstrate to schools that you are capable of engaging with material at a high level, and applying what you have learned outside of the classroom.

Of course, even when you have stellar grades and impressive extracurriculars, competition at engineering programs is intense. This is where strategy comes in. Depending on which school you apply to, it can be easier to apply as a non-engineering major and then switch to engineering. This is especially the case where there is not a separate engineering school. When there is a separate college for engineering, transferring to it internally is often almost as hard as applying to the school normally.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should misrepresent yourself or your interests. Applying as a history major with a long list of robotics clubs and math competitions will raise some eyebrows, and make admissions officers doubt how truthful you are. Instead, find a story your application tells which may be parallel to engineering. Math majors are less commonly pursued but require many of the same prerequisites as engineering.

Finally, the school and program you apply to can impact your chances of admission. The long-established and prestigious engineering programs at Caltech and MIT are more competitive than the relative newcomers of Brown and Yale, or indeed UChicago, which only began offering an engineering major a few years ago. While applying to these schools will still not count as easy, your chances will be better than applying to more traditional and competitive engineering programs.

Final Thoughts

Applying to engineering programs can feel daunting, but as with all aspects of college applications, proper preparation will position you for success. Indeed, the preparation you undertake for a strenuous engineering program will ready you for success regardless of where you end up attending college. 

That said, many students still wish to maximize their chances of success for getting into the program of their dreams. If you are among this number and have further concerns or questions, schedule a free consultation, as we’re always eager to help students achieve their academic ambitions.

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