10 Tips for Surviving Engineering School [Guest Post]

If you haven’t received the memo yet, engineering school is incredibly tough.

We’ve all heard about the “Look to your left. Now look to your right. They won’t be here in two years,” speech that you get when you start college and that really is true in engineering school.

So in order to make sure that you’re the guy or girl in the middle and not the one to either side, I’ve compiled this list to give you the keys to surviving engineering school. Good luck!

10 Tips for Surviving Engineering School: College students who are majoring in engineering... listen up! This is practical advice from a mechanical engineer who went through the program himself.

1. Get Over Yourself

That sounds really harsh, but bear with me for a minute.

If you were admitted into an engineering program, chances are that you were a pretty solid student in high school and things came to you relatively easy. The concepts weren’t necessarily hard to grasp and while you may have had to put some time into it every once and a while, it was more just tedious busy work than actually causing your brain to melt.

Those days are over.

Engineering school will be tougher than anything that you have ever faced in school by orders of magnitude and if you cruised through high school, this can be quite the bruise to your ego.

If you’re like me at all, you can usually work your way through most things on your own and it can be very tough to ask someone else for help. You absolutely have to get over that if you want to survive engineering school. Professors, Teaching Assistants, your fellow students; they’re all resources that you need to utilize the second you don’t understand something.

You cannot afford to get behind in engineering school because it will be an incredible struggle to catch back up. So humble yourself and ask for help, it will be absolutely essential for your survival.

2. This is a Full-Time Job

Engineering school entails a very large time commitment. You will likely hear at some point in your college career that for every hour you spend in the classroom, expect to spend at least two to three hours outside of the classroom doing school work.

So on a 15 hour course load (which is normal for a full time student) that works out to a bare minimum of 45 hours and up to 60 hours per week devoted to school.

Granted not every class is equal, but for most of your engineering classes, this will be absolutely true.

With that in mind, you need to develop a schedule that allows you to put that kind of time and effort in if you want to see good results. You will have a minimum of four hours of homework per night once you hit a full engineering course load.

Let’s not get started on what your weekends may look like…

3. Find Your Space

10 Tips for Surviving Engineering School: College students who are majoring in engineering... listen up! This is practical advice from a mechanical engineer who went through the program himself.

Now that you know that engineering school is a full time job, it’s important to find a space that you work well in.

If you’re subject to distractions, you need to find a quiet isolated space. If you need some noise and general chaos around you, that should not be difficult to find on a campus full of college students.

I needed a quiet, isolated spot to really focus on my homework. I also needed a way to relax and collect my thoughts when a homework problem was getting the best of me.

Using those two must-haves, my space was on the ninth floor of the library book stacks.

Not too many people went up there, there were a lot of individual desks, and my personal spot had a window with an amazing view of downtown. So when I got hung up on that vibrations problem and I was about to tear the book apart, it was nice to be able to look to my right and see for miles and miles. It gives you perspective.

4. Learn to Operate Without Your Calculator

Engineering school is basically applied mathematics. You will take a real world problem and then try to develop a math equation that you can use to solve that problem.

The math will also be very complex, so it will be very tempting to always reach for the calculator. In some cases, a calculator is a must.

However, when possible, you should get comfortable with doing math by hand.

And I don’t mean the easy stuff – I mean the hard stuff; calculus, differential equations, etc.

I say this because I can promise you that on multiple occasions, you will walk into a room for an exam and your professor will tell you that calculators will not be allowed on this exam and if you have been relying on the calculator crutch, you’re in big trouble.

5. Do Your Homework

At first, you’re probably thinking, “No duh (or insert whatever catchy phrase is going around right now).” However, let me explain further.

Again operating on the assumption that you have a pretty solid math background if you are going into engineering school, you’re probably able to work your way through percentages in your head pretty easily.

When homework counts for 10% of your grade and you have fifty homework assignments during the semester, each homework assignment is worth… 0.2% of your final grade (I know, you didn’t need my help).

The thing about college is that your friends are playing beach volleyball this afternoon and then having a cook out with burgers and brats and that assignment that you need to do this afternoon is really only worth 0.2% of your final grade and that guy/girl that you like is going to be there.

Stop.

You need to get your homework done because it isn’t about that 0.2%. You’re right, that is chump change, but it is the fact that you will only see that sixteen stage compressor, turbine, and heat exchanger problem on that particular homework assignment and that it will reappear on your next exam.

If you didn’t make your mistakes on the homework problem, you’ll be making them on the exam that now is worth a third of your grade.

Besides, that guy/girl that you like wants to date someone with free time, and you don’t have much of that.

6. Find a Study Group

If you go back to my first point, finding some peers to work with could be your key to passing with flying colors versus barely scraping by, or even worse.

Before I go any further, let me clear the air: cheating is bad, it will get you kicked out of school, and if you manage to sneak through, you will fail miserably in your career.

When engineers make mistakes, people die.

So don’t cheat.

But do find a group to study with. Some topics that you learn in school will click with you instantly, others will seem like they are from another world. Chances are that within your group, some people will grasp certain topics and others in the group will find another topic easier to understand.

You can then help each other along by explaining topics in a manner that may be more friendly than a professor who has been teaching the same Mechanics of Materials class for twenty years and really just wants to get back to doing his/her research.

7. Make Sure That You Fundamentally Grasp the Concepts in Your Math Class

10 Tips for Surviving Engineering School: College students who are majoring in engineering... listen up! This is practical advice from a mechanical engineer who went through the program himself.

As I mentioned earlier, engineering is basically applied mathematics. It can be easy to lose focus of that when you are sitting in Calculus III, but don’t.

The problem is that you need to learn how to do calculus and differential equations before you move forward in engineering school, but when you are actually in the classes, it can be difficult to see why you would need to know any of this stuff.

That can really kill motivation, but you need to stick with it.

So to help you out, calculus will be used in basically every engineering class and differential equations will be the key to surviving vibrations and controls.

So please, make sure you understand these subjects thoroughly before you start the classes where you will need them.

8. Enjoy Your Electives

I heard a lot of engineering students moaning and groaning about having to take electives.

I loved electives.

Political Science 201 was a cake walk compared to Fluid Mechanics and Thermodynamics. Electives also give you the opportunity to branch out and become more well rounded. I also took Karate, so I got to break beams physically in addition to solving how to break them on a sheet of paper.

Applied solid mechanics if you will.

9. Get Involved with Student Engineering Organizations

Student engineering organizations are a great way to take the skills that you learn in the classroom and apply them.

Formula SAE and Baja SAE focus on building race cars and competing in time trial style competitions. There are autonomous aircraft groups (called Aerial Robotics where I went to school), robotics clubs, rocket design clubs, alternative energy race car clubs, and all of the various discipline based societies (ASME, ASCE, IEEE, etc .)

There are literally dozens of opportunities that will allow you to apply what you are learning and to meet your fellow students.

They also put you in front of the pack when it is time to graduate and get a job and you have these types of activities on your resume.

10. Seek Out Internships and Co-ops

This one is last, but one of the most important.

When you leave engineering school, you will likely want to get a job as an engineer.

However, tens of thousands of engineering students from across the country and from around the world all are entering the job market at the same time as you.

You need to find an internship or co-op to show potential employers that

  • a.) you took the initiative to get an internship or co-op and that
  • b.) you now have references that can attest to your abilities.

Many companies also prefer to offer their entry level positions to graduates who interned or did a co-op at that company. I wouldn’t necessarily pursue an internship after your freshman year, but you should definitely pursue internships and co-ops by the time you finish your sophomore year.

Hopefully this list helps give you some pointers to get through what will be four to five grueling, but ultimately very rewarding years.

Check back regularly for more engineering focused posts!

Eric is a Senior Engineer at Tesla Motors. He graduated from North Carolina State University with a BS in Mechanical Engineering in 2008 and also has a minor in Design Studies. He has over seven years of experience doing product development in the consumer goods and automotive industries.

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  • Mike Freeman
    June 21, 2017 at 9:27 am

    I couldn’t agree more! Especially the coop program. If you graduate in a year they aren’t hiring it can mean the difference between having a job and not. I laughed at the comment about grabbing the calculator. They didn’t come out until my junior year and we’re $600. Only the rich kids had them and I am that old. Sliders less forever.

  • Zasham
    July 2, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    I feel all Engineering students should read this article.I advice my students to follow your passion.If you don’t have any interest to work in a particular industry you won’t be able to survive there.I recommend students to engage in engineering projects and get exposed to the industry because theoretical knowledge is not enough to carry on in the industry.Thank you for publishing this article.

    • Eric
      April 11, 2018 at 12:01 pm

      Zasham, thank you for the feedback. I agree that a lot of students start off in engineering because they’re attracted to the potential starting salaries. However, if you don’t have a passion for this field, it will burn you out pretty quickly. It doesn’t get any less stressful or time consuming after college and in the real world, there generally isn’t an answer key to check your work. That being said, in my opinion, there aren’t many things that are more rewarding than walking into a store or showroom and seeing a product being sold that you designed/engineered. I’ve had a lot of hard days but those feelings are always temporary and the passion returns shortly. I definitely couldn’t keep up the pace if that passion wasn’t there. Thank you being a teacher to your students on many levels!