If you want to be an engineer, the good news is that there are many options available to you. However, for some, that is also the bad news. Because "engineering" is so broad and so in demand, it can be hard to know where to start when you are trying to decide what to study when you go to college.
When many people hear the term "engineer," one image that comes to mind is a person who designs machinery. Mechanical engineers understand how small parts come together to make machinery (like wind turbines) work. Another idea people think of is a chemical engineer: i.e., someone who works with chemical reactions to produce things like fuel, industrial lubricants, or conductive fluids. These two types, however, are far from the only kinds of engineer.
In this post, we are going to talk about things you can do in high school to prepare for an engineering program, what you can study, and one essential piece of advice for aspiring engineers.
Preparing for an engineering program
In engineering (or any technological field), the specific subject matter you study is important. (Examples: physics, chemistry, or biology.) Many engineers will tell you that this is not as crucial as your ability to solve problems.
Technology changes as people’s needs change, and as new scientific discoveries are made. Sometimes, this means that the way you know how to approach a problem one moment may not be the same as it is six months, two weeks, or even three days later. Consider software engineers, for instance. Software engineers have to adjust to new security flaws quite literally every day. And while having deep knowledge of code and development is essential to creating new technologies and improving existing ones, being able to think creatively in a pinch is far more valuable.
Nearly anything you get involved with will present you with opportunities for creative problem-solving. Whether you are teaching yourself to code, studying cell biology, or you like to take things apart to see how they work, all of these things will help you gain the skills you will need to tackle difficult issues on the fly.
Types of engineering programs
The possibilities of an engineering degree are limitless. If you can think of a problem in the world that you want to solve, consider what field it best fits in. It may be one field, or it may be two or three. If that seems surprising, that is okay.
As we mentioned before, "engineering" is a fairly broad term. It can be argued that if your career involves designing, improving, or studying changes in technology, you are an engineer. It is no surprise, then, that as the demand for essential technology is increasing, engineering programs are becoming more competitive. Thus, it is important that you start thinking about what you want to do early on. We can help you narrow down what you want to study and discuss a personalized plan to help prepare you for it.
Here’s a short list of some engineering subjects you may be interested in:
- Computer science and software
- Materials science
Some schools have even more programs than these, some of which are relatively new. For instance, Carnegie Mellon University has a program called the "Integrated Innovation Institute." This unique program focuses on understanding how human beings interact with technology, and how it is changing cultures, business practices, and relationships both personal and professional.
Perhaps most importantly, students’ work in this program is interdisciplinary, which means that they work with professors and researchers outside of engineering. The good news for those who are interested in multiple subjects is that the interdisciplinary trend is growing in American universities. Many schools allow for self-designed majors, and this is especially encouraged in engineering programs for just this reason.
Our best advice: Start learning how to interpret data in high school
If what we just talked about still seems like broad advice, you are not alone. Engineering is a very wide field, so that means that there is no one best extracurricular activity in which you should participate. However, there are two skills that all engineers need to succeed: 1) knowing how to read research and interpret data, and 2) the ability to apply your knowledge.
Mathematics and science courses are heavily encouraged by universities precisely because they focus on these skills, particularly at the higher levels. Perhaps you're learning to solve a calculus problem in multiple ways, or maybe studying how a particular chemical reaction works at the atomic level. There are several summer programs in the US and the UK that focus on creative problem-solving in science and mathematics fields.
PROMYS (Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists), is one such program. This world-renowned summer program hosts sessions both at Boston University in the US and Oxford University in the UK. The curriculum is largely based on number theory, which helps students learn to design experiments and new ways to analyze mathematical problems.
Statistics and economics courses also focus heavily on interpreting graphic data and are thus also excellent choices for aspiring engineers. With courses like these, you can learn how to tell clear data from dishonest data, and start learning about how supply and demand influence trends in technology.
These are far from your only options. US News and World Report has some excellent advice for aspiring engineers:
"Take design and other humanities classes. There’s a wide world out there beyond problem sets, laboratories, and theory. Take a visual design course [to] learn to represent ideas graphically. Take a cognitive science course to learn how people interpret the world and understand it. Take a literature course to develop your knowledge and appreciation of the classic books, which will help you write and communicate more effectively."1
How good are you at working with graphs? Do you like playing games or reading mystery novels? Do you enjoy studying languages or composing music? Do you spend a lot of time deciding on the perfect angle for a photograph? Do you enjoy reading things like infographics? Do you enjoy practicing your tennis backhand? If you answered "yes" at any point, chances are you can develop what it takes to succeed in an engineering program.
Later, we will take a closer look at biological and chemical engineering, as well as aerospace and materials science.
Have more questions about engineering programs? In addition to test prep and essay tips, Occam's new app, Wend, has a Q & A feature that allows users to ask our team of college counselors any question about choosing a major or applying to college. Download Wend to chat with a member of our team directly!