Thinking about becoming an engineer? First, you’ll need to choose an engineering major! There are many types of engineering, and the specialization you choose will determine the types of classes you take and which jobs you’re most qualified for. In this guide, we discuss everything you need to know about different engineering majors, including the classes you’ll take, the degree you’ll earn, what the hardest engineering majors are, and more. We also go over nine types of engineering majors so you can get a sense of what you’ll learn and what the types of jobs you can get with each specialization. The guide ends with tips for things you can do as a high school student to give yourself the best chance of succeeding as a future engineering student.
What Do Engineering Majors Study?
First off, if you decide to pursue an engineering major, what will you be studying? That depends on the type of engineering degree you get (more on that later), but, in general, all engineering majors will take classes in:
- Mathematics (including calculus, differential equations, and statistics)
- Engineering design
- Engineering modeling
If you decide to major in engineering, you'll also often take classes on writing and business practices to further round out your education. The bulk of your classes will be based on your engineering specialization.
All engineers learn how to solve problems, work independently and as part of a team, and design and carry out experiments. By the time you complete your engineering degree, you’ll be well-prepared to begin a career in your engineering specialty.
What Degree Do Engineering Majors Receive?
If you decide to major in engineering, what degree will you get when you graduate? There are several possibilities, and it depends on which college you attend. The most common degree engineering majors receive is a Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.). You’ll receive a B.E. in whichever specialty you major in, for example, you could earn a Bachelor of Engineering in Civil Engineering. This is the standard degree engineering undergraduates receive.
Some schools also offer a Bachelor of Science in Engineering, a Bachelor of Engineering Science, or something else similar. However, be aware that these degrees may not always fully qualify you to begin working as an engineer once you graduate. They are often more of an overview of engineering for people who want engineering knowledge but don’t want to work directly as an engineer. If you decide to pursue an engineering program that results in a degree other than a Bachelor of Engineering, check with the school first to be sure you’ll be well prepared for an engineering career and will be eligible to take engineering certification tests such as the FE exam.
What Jobs Can Engineering Majors Get?
There’s no one engineering job. With so many engineering specializations and with engineering skills needed in so many different sectors of the workforce, there are dozens of jobs available for engineering majors. You could be designing spaceships, testing hi-tech prosthetic limbs, building and maintaining roads, developing new types of medicine, working at an oil field, improving drone technology, advancing cancer treatments, or combatting climate change, as just a few examples. The type of engineering job you end up getting will depend both on your engineering specialization and your own personal interests. In our section on different engineering majors, we list potential careers for each major.
How Hard Is It to Major in Engineering, Really?
You may have heard that majoring in engineering is tough. Many engineering majors end up on lists of the hardest college majors, and more than half of people who initially major in engineering end up dropping out of the program and switching to a different major. So, if you decide to major in engineering, are you in for four years of misery?
Many people do struggle in engineering classes because they require a lot of work, strong math skills, and well-developed problem-solving abilities. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll find getting an engineering degree extremely difficult. People who have an “engineering mind,” that is people who enjoy working out tricky problems, taking things apart and reassembling them, etc. often really enjoy their engineering classes. This is because, even if the work is challenging, it makes sense and interests them.
Most problems arise when people who don’t naturally enjoy many of the skills needed to be a successful engineer decide to major in engineering. That doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed at an engineering major or as an engineer if you don’t have the mindset, but you may find your classes challenging for a while before you get into the groove of them (or you may simply decide this isn’t what you want to study after all). The good news is that most engineering classes are taught in the same way and are challenging in the same way, so you can know what to expect from an engineering major from the first few classes you take for it and have time to switch to a different major if you want.
What Are the Different Types of Engineering Majors?
In this section, we give an overview of the different engineering majors you can get. For each type, we give an overview of the major, list common classes you might take, rank the difficulty of the major, and list potential careers. (Note: The hardest engineering majors for you will depend on a lot of personal factors, so this is only an estimate. Also, we are comparing the difficulty of different engineering majors to each other, not how difficult they are compared to a completely different field such as majoring in, say, political science.)
Overview: In bioengineering (sometimes called a biomedical engineering major), you’ll solve problems related to the human body, such as how to improve drug delivery, human cell and tissue growth, prosthetic limbs, and more. You may also design new medical technology, such as medical imaging devices, diagnostic tools, and stem cell research.
Common Classes: Physiology, cell and tissue engineering, biomedical instrumentation.
Potential Careers: Create medical devices, work with pharmaceutical companies to improve the effectiveness of drugs, work with amputees to design better artificial limbs, develop new biomaterials that can then be implanted into individuals.
Overview: You’ll learn how to produce materials and utilize energy through chemical reactions. You might focus on materials science, biomolecular applications, or another area.
Common Classes: Chemistry (organic, quantum, etc.), biochemistry, biochemical engineering, microbiology, thermodynamics.
Potential Careers: Most chemical engineers work in chemical process industries. This could include petroleum products, plastics, pharmaceuticals, textiles, rubber, and food processing, among others. They might manage a manufacturing plant, enforce safety regulations, work in R&D, and perform experiments on new products and materials.
Overview: Your major will focus on water resources, transportation systems, and built infrastructure, including their planning, design, and maintenance.
Common Classes: Geology, fluid mechanics, structural mechanics, hydrology, water and wastewater engineering, pavement design, graphics.
Potential Careers: Airport/sanitation plant/highway/bridge designers, urban planners, water or sewage system manager.
Overview: Computer science focuses primarily on software, and computer science coursework might focus on analyzing large datasets, understanding different programming languages, cybersecurity, and coding.
Common Classes: Software design, data structures, system programming, programming languages, coding.
Potential Careers: Database administrator, cybersecurity expert, coder, software developer, web developer, IT project manager.
Overview: Computer engineering majors focus more on hardware, and the degree can be thought of as a combination of computer science and electrical engineering. You’ll learn about coding, computer hardware, how to build and repair computers and similar devices, and game design.
Common Classes: programming, circuits and systems, electrical engineering, robotics, computer systems, signal processing.
Potential Careers: Software architects, arcade machine creator, microprocessor architects, computer designers.
Overview: Electrical engineering majors work with electronic systems used by both individuals and large organizations. Areas of focus can include optics, remote sensing, circuits, energy, power, automobiles, lighting in buildings, and computer systems. It’s often seen as one of the hardest engineering majors.
Common Classes: Circuits and systems, electromagnetic fields and waves, control systems, signal processing, electromechanics, green energy.
Potential Careers: Electric vehicle designer, robotics expert, security system expert, circuit designer, cell phone designer.
Overview: Students majoring in environmental engineering focus on preventing and mitigating major environmental issues, such as air and water pollution, waste disposal, recycling, and public health concerns. They’ll learn how to evaluate a hazard, advise on its treatment and containment, and develop plans to prevent future issues. There can be a significant overlap with civil engineering.
Common Classes: Hydrology, thermodynamics, geology, microbiology, chemistry, environmental toxicology, environmental pollutants.
Potential Careers: Design water treatment systems, regulate air pollution, design waste management systems, work as an environmental regulator for the government or a company, clean up natural disasters such as oil spills, design green buildings.
Overview: Industrial engineering focuses on efficiency and optimization in areas such as business, finance, production, and management. You’ll study a variety of subjects, including communications, business, and computer science.
Common Classes: Data operations, business, operations research, facility planning and design, electronics, computing.
Potential Careers: Supply chain analyst, engineering administrator, production manager, health and safety engineer, financial system designer.
Overview: Mechanical engineering involves designing, manufacturing, operating, and testing machines and other devices. This is one of the broadest engineering fields, and it’s also often seen as one of the hardest engineering majors.
Common Classes: Materials science, thermodynamics, heat transfer, mechanical design, fluid mechanics, dynamics, aerodynamics.
Potential Careers: Mechanical engineers are involved in the creation and testing of nearly every modern product, so the field is very broad. Potential jobs include aerospace engineer, automobile designer, biomedical product designer, robotics specialist, nuclear engineer, and CAD technician.
6 Ways to Prepare for an Engineering Major in High School
One way to make getting an engineering major easier is to begin preparing for it even before you start college. Here are six ways to prepare for an engineering major while still in high school.
#1: Take Advanced Math and Science Classes
You’ll need to prove your math and science skills before you can be accepted into an engineering program, and many schools will expect to see evidence of high-level math and science classes as early as high school. Excellent classes to take include calculus, statistics, chemistry, physics, and computer science classes. Take these at the highest level that are offered (honors or AP), if possible, and aim for top grades to make your college applications as impressive as possible. If your high school doesn’t offer these classes, talk to your guidance counselor about potentially taking them at a local community college.
#2: Strengthen Your Extracurriculars
Having impressive extracurriculars will give you a better shot at getting into the school of your choice and may even qualify for engineering scholarships. Future engineering majors will want at least some of your extracurriculars to relate to STEM to show that engineering is really a passion of yours. Some ideas include:
- Math Team
- Science Olympiad
- Robotics Team
- Any club that relates to math, science, computers, or engineering
- Being a math or science tutor
- Attending or working as a counselor at a math or science camp
Once you’ve joined your extracurriculars, you can make them even more impressive by gaining a leadership role in them and taking initiative to make the group bigger/better. For example, you might expand a tutoring program to help students at local elementary schools instead of just your own school. Or, you could organize an invitational competition for a club you’re a part of. Schools want extracurriculars to reflect your passion, show your leadership skills, and have a lasting and positive impact.
#3: Research Different Engineering Specializations
Once you begin your engineering degree, you’ll need to decide fairly early on which area of engineering you want to major in. It’s possible to switch from one type of engineering to another, but this may end up delaying your graduation date if you need to take a lot of new classes. Avoid this by doing research on different types of engineering while still in high school. When doing your research, look at the classes different engineering majors take, major skills they learn, types of jobs they can have, and average salaries. Once you have that information, see how it lines up with your own personal interests and career goals.
#4: Get Some Engineering Experience
Having a bit of engineering experience under your belt before you start college will not only impress the schools you’re applying to, it can give you a better idea of whether engineering is the right career path for you and which engineering jobs you’d enjoy the most. There are multiple ways to get engineering experience as a high school student. You might job shadow a current engineer, get an internship or volunteer engineer position, attend an engineering-focused camp, or even do some research that relates to engineering. The experience doesn’t have to be long; even just a day learning more about engineering can give you a much better sense of what to expect when you become an engineering major.
#5: Study for the SAT or ACT
Standardized tests are an important part of most college applications, and for engineering majors, your math scores are particularly important. Whether you’re taking the ACT or the SAT, you want to aim for a high math score to show schools you have the math skills needed to succeed as an engineering major. Top engineering schools will often expect at least a 700 in SAT Math or a 30 in ACT Math. If you take SAT Subject Tests, be sure to take Math 2 as one of your tests and aim for the highest score you can to further prove your math skills. If you need help studying, we have tons of resources to help you raise both your SAT Math and ACT Math scores.
#6: Research Different Engineering Programs
You not only need to research the type of engineering you want to go into, you also need to research different engineering programs to see which school is the best fit for you. A great place to start is our guide to the 25 best engineering schools. When researching different schools, be sure to look at the different engineering programs they offer, what classes you’ll need to take, if they offer help with research and internship opportunities, and if the vibe of the school as a whole (location, size, etc.) is what you’re looking for.
Summary: Hardest Engineering Majors
If you decide you want to become an engineer, there are many different engineering majors you can pursue. All of them will include classes in high-level math, chemistry, and physics, as well as subjects specifically in your engineering specialization. The hardest engineering majors will depend more on your own interests and skills than a general ranking system. Common engineering majors include:
- Chemical engineering
- Civil engineering
- Computer science
- Computer engineering
- Electrical engineering
- Environmental engineering
- Industrial engineering
- Mechanical engineering
As a high school student, you can prepare for all types of engineering majors by taking lots of math and science classes, having strong extracurriculars, researching different engineering majors, getting some engineering experience (even if it’s just a little!), scoring high on the math sections of the SAT or ACT, and researching engineering programs at different schools.
What are the best schools for engineers? Check out our guide on the top 25 engineering schools to find out!
Where can you get the most money to study engineering? Find out with our compilation of the best engineering scholarships.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.