Building an education: engineering and college admissions

Andrea van NiekerkBy Andrea van Niekerk|February 9, 2012|7 Minutes

Gordon Brown, former Dean of Engineering at MIT, described engineers as operating at “the interface between science and society.”  They apply science to convert resources and solve problems to the benefit of humankind.  No wonder then that many young people, without knowing much about the field at all, are still drawn to it when they begin to consider college admissions.

There are different pathways to an engineering education, but the most common ones are these:

  • Many students will still follow the most traditional path to an engineering education, which is to apply to one the larger state schools with their well-known engineering programs. Nine of the top 20 university engineering programs are offered by such state institutions, including Penn State, Illinois, Georgia Tech and others. These public institutions give their students exceptional resources and rigorous training, but students may also be subjected to large classes and perhaps a degree of earlier specialization.
  • High school seniors who are very focused on engineering may also look into smaller but highly specialized, private, technical colleges. The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana and Harvey Mudd College in California top the US News ranking of engineering programs at smaller colleges. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, on the other hand, is even more specialized than most, as the name indicates.  In Massachusetts the Olin College of Engineering, established little more than ten years ago, still offers every student accepted a significant merit scholarship to offset the cost of attendance, and in the Midwest the Milwaukee School of Engineering also ranks high.
  • For students who wish to embed their technical training within the wider context of a liberal arts education, most private universities offer a separate School of Engineering that is more or less integrated into the wider undergraduate education of the college. Some of the better-known ones may be the Ivies, such as Princeton, Columbia and Brown, MIT, Caltech and Stanford, but some of the highest ranked ones are in fact outside that small circle.  These include perennial science powerhouses such as Rice, Carnegie Mellon, Purdue, Northwestern and Johns Hopkins. Students who have not only a great technical foundation, but also learned to write and communicate and to be aware of the larger socio-economic contexts in which engineers work (the ecology of building dams, the economics of manufacturing, the politics of international trade) are very attractive to employers.
  • Future engineers can also choose smaller liberal arts colleges with their intensely mentoring environment and ready access to faculty resources.  Smaller universities such as Bucknell and Villanova have very highly regarded engineering programs, and even smaller colleges may boast their own top-ranked schools of engineering, including Lafayette, Swarthmore, Smith and Union Colleges.
  • Smaller colleges without a separate school of engineering, such as Occidental College in California or Goucher in Maryland, may still offer students the benefit of a 3-2 program: students spend three years studying in the physical sciences (usually, although not necessarily, physics) and then transfer to a larger, well-ranked engineering program, such as Caltech for Oxy students and Johns Hopkins for Goucher, to complete their engineering courses in two years.
  • Finally, students may also choose to finish their undergraduate education at one college (again perhaps in Physics), and then study engineering in graduate school.

Wherever a student chooses to study engineering, there are a few basic questions they need to ask in their research of a particular program:

  • Is the program accredited by a group such as ABET (the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology)?
  • When do you have to choose your specific major in Engineering? Many schools allow you to spend a longer time (a year or two) on foundation courses such as Calculus and Physics, to give you the chance to explore the field of engineering a bit more widely before you specialize.
  • Are you allowed to study abroad? Given the extensive requirements of an engineering training, some colleges still dissuade students from studying elsewhere for a semester, but many others are becoming increasingly supportive.  Either way, an engineering student who wishes to study overseas for a semester needs to do some thorough research to make sure his or her credits will transfer and meet the home college’s degree requirements.
  • Does the school have programs to encourage young women in a field that historically shunned them – programs such as WISE (Women in Science)?
  • How easy is it to double major or simply do interesting courses outside of the school of engineering?
  • If you change your mind and wish to transfer out of the engineering program into another field, how easy is this arranged and when do you have to make a final decision?

When students apply to engineering schools, they should be mindful of each college’s particular application requirements. Some will insist on students submitting an SAT Subject Test in Math 2, while some, such as MIT, may even require a second SAT Subject Test in a laboratory science such as physics or chemistry.  These scores are important: students who lack aptitude in mathematics will struggle to get through engineering training.  Colleges will also want to see demonstrated interest in the field – an engineering camp, a technical internship, or just an interest in building rockets and taking apart lawn movers.  After all, curiosity about how things work is the hallmark of a good engineer!