10 Keys to Surviving an Engineering Degree 3

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The first thing people have always said when they find out I’m an engineer is “Wow!  You must be really smart!”.  The truth is, I’m not.  Not particularly smart anyways.  I just worked really hard in college, and stuck to it.  Along the way I learned a few secrets to making sure I didn’t fail out of engineering school:

1.  Never study alone!  My first year of college I continued to study as a lone ranger, just as I had in high school.  By my second year I had figured out that studying alone was not working.  Once I started studying with others in my classes, my grades improved by an entire letter grade.  Study groups help because inevitably someone in the group will be able to explain to you the concepts you are not grasping, and vice versa.  Do everything with these study groups including your homework and studying for your tests.  I found a great way to prepare for my tests from one of my study partners that really helped me prepare for tests on my own better.

2.  Go to professor office hours.  There is no way I passed kinematics.  On the first test of the semester, I got a 45%.  The average grade on the test was an 82%, so a curve on the test was out of the question.  I spent at least once or twice a week in the professor’s office to understand the concepts.  While I seemed to be understanding concepts in his office, I continued to receive less than stellar grades on my tests.  The second test I received a 68%, and I got a 79% on the final.  There is no way I passed the class.  But when I checked my grade at the end of the semester, I had a C!  Engineering is really more about perseverance than the letter grade.  Good professors will work with you on the classes you struggle with.

3.  Find a good way to “tab” your textbooks.  Once you get through your basics like physics, chemistry, and math, most of your engineering tests will be open book.  Don’t take this is as a clue to not study.  Instead study with your textbook.  Use and label tabs to important information.  For example, for thermodynamics (thermo), I used these tabs to have quick access to specific areas of chapters and the heat charts at the back of the book.  This way I didn’t spend precious minutes during my test flipping through the book to find a specific chart.

4.  Use test banks.  All of the on campus professional societies (like American Society of Mechanical Engineers, IEEE, SWE, SHPE, NSBE, etc) will have test banks.  A test bank is a “library” of engineering classes previous tests.  They are given to the societies by students who previously took the class, so they are NOT answer keys by any means.  But they do give you a really good idea of the kind of questions that will be on the test, which helps you know where to focus your efforts.

5.  Keep applying for scholarships.  There is ALOT of money available to pay for Engineering degrees.  Every company reports difficulties in finding enough engineers to fill their vacancies.  In an attempt to attract new graduates to their company, some will offer scholarships.  Other scholarships are available from professional engineering societies.  The engineering school I went to had an engineering scholarship office I could go to ever so often to see what new scholarships were available.  I applied, and applied, and applied.  I only received 2 scholarships, but one alone covered an entire semester of tuition. Another way to find scholarships is to check out the many scholarship sites available. One that I have recently found is How to Win College Scholarships. Monica is also a mom to three boys, and needed to find ways for her son to pay for college. In her book, she shares how her son stood out among all the other applicants, and received over $100,000 to pay for his degree.

6.  Find a mentor.  Whether an upper classman in your degree or someone who has already graduated from your engineering college, a mentor will be able to clue you in on the secrets of your engineering program.  I had my sister.  She encouraged me and gave me ideas on how to improve my grades.  She also let me know what clubs would be helpful to be involved in, which professors to avoid and which ones to sign up for.

7.  Find an internship or co-op.  The funny thing about trying to get a full-time position after graduating is all of the companies will be looking for someone “with experience”.  When I first heard this I thought “Why are they looking for someone with experience and talking to new graduates?”.  I soon learned they were looking for someone who had internship or co-op experience.  Many college internships are non-paid, but not engineering ones.  Engineering internships START at double minimum way.  I prefer co-ops instead of internships because they can be done during long semesters (spring or fall), and count for college credit.  Plus, your experience is with one company for three semesters (depending on how your school does it), and so you graduate with a full year or more of experience.  My co-op not only gave me critical experience I needed to land my first job after graduation, but it also helped me pay for college.

8.  Sign up for the 8 o’clock classes.  For some reason, the best professors seem to teach the earlier classes.  I didn’t really understand why when I was a student, but my guess is that the best professors want the most committed students.  When you’re 20 years old, you have to be pretty committed to your degree if you’re willing to wake up for an 8 o’clock class.

9.  Schedule time to study.  One of the great things I learned from my co-op was that I was able to focus for about 8 hours a day.  I was best from 8am to about 4pm.  So when I returned to school, I kept the same schedule I had as when I was working.  Instead of taking a nap or goofing off after my first class in the morning, I would use the hour or so I had between classes to do my homework.  Before my internships I still saw school as I did in high school, thinking that homework was for night.  But I realized in college that if I used the time between classes for homework, then at night I was a little more free.

10.  Have a great group of friends, make memories, and have fun.  Engineering is a tough degree.  When others are partying on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, you will be stuck in a computer lab or studying for test. So make sure to make friends and memories.  My best friends from college came from the study groups I formed.  We all ended up in many classes together, which helped grow our friendships.  When we did have free time we would spend it hanging out on campus and, yes, house parties.  We all graduated during three different semesters and went our separate ways, but many of us still stay in touch.  During the late nights and weekends we spent together bent over our notes and textbooks, we created memories that will last lifetime.

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