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How to Get Into College as an Engineer: 5 Key Factors

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Sep 4, 2020 10:00:00 AM

College Admissions

 

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Hoping to major in engineering? Before you can do that, you need to get accepted into an engineering program. Many of the best programs are highly competitive, and it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd. In this guide though, we break down what every part of your college application must include for you to become a standout engineering applicant. Follow these tips, and you'll give yourself the best shot at getting into the engineering program of your dreams.

 

What Do Colleges Look for in Applicants?

There are lots of misconceptions around what it takes to get into college, especially top-tier colleges. Many people think you need to excel in a lot of areas in order to show schools that you're smart and talented. However, for many top programs, being well-rounded can actually put you at a disadvantage. 

What the most competitive schools (those with admission rates of 10% or less) want to see is that you're highly-skilled in a specific area. This is especially true for engineering programs. You'll likely struggle to graduate if you don't have strong math skills and an "engineer's mindset." Instead of being pretty good in all your classes, maybe being on math team, playing an instrument, doing some volunteer work, etc. clearly show your talent in engineering-focused skills. It'll make you a much stronger candidate.

This means strong accomplishments in areas that relate to engineering (so math, science and/or computer science areas). Having a strong focus in a single area is what we call a "spike." We go into spikes more in this article, but, basically, a spike is where you focus your talents in one area so that you become exceptional in it, rather than be "pretty good" in a bunch of different areas.

Why is the spike approach better? Schools, especially top-tier schools, want to admit students they think will achieve great things after graduation. The best way to do this is for the schools to admit students who have already done great things as high school students. It's practically impossible to be truly exceptional in numerous areas as a high school student, so instead you should focus your efforts in one area. Basically, you want every part of your application to scream "I'll be a great engineering student at your school, and I'll accomplish great things after I graduate." You need to show schools that you have both the skills and work ethic to thrive as an engineering major. Engineering is a tough degree to get, and you don't want colleges to doubt you can handle it.

For your spike, you must show:

  • A passion for engineering
  • Exceptional skills in STEM classes
  • Measurable achievements, particularly in extracurriculars

In the rest of this article, we'll explain how to do this for each part of your college application, and we'll also go over some examples of standout engineering candidates. This guide is most applicable for those hoping to attend top-tier engineering programs, since they'll be most difficult to get into, but anyone hoping to get into an engineering program will learn how to strengthen their application by reading these tips.

 

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How Can You Impress Colleges as an Engineering Applicant?

Below, we break down how to make each key part of your application as strong as possible so you give yourself the best chance of being accepted into engineering programs. We go over:

  • Classes
  • Test Scores
  • Extracurriculars
  • Personal Statements
  • Letter of Recommendation

For each, we give concrete goals to aim for, as well as general qualities your application should have throughout. In general, remember that you want your engineering/related talents to be most prominent (this includes math, science, and computer science). Other areas should be as strong as you can make them without negatively impacting your STEM classes/test scores/extracurriculars, etc.

 

Classes

Overall, you want it to be clear to someone looking at your transcript that your main passion is engineering. That means lots of STEM classes, at an advanced level when possible, and with high grades in them. 

 

Math Classes

As an engineering applicant, the math classes you take in high school will be the most important classes on your transcript, so you want them to be strong. Take the most advanced classes at the most advanced level (honors, AP, etc.) that you can while still getting a B or (ideally) an A in the class. You'll likely take algebra I and II, geometry, and pre-calculus in high school. If possible, try to take calculus as well (especially AP Calculus) because that'll really help your application stand out. However, it might not be possible depending on your high school math course sequence.

If your school offers honors or advanced math classes, take those when you can, as they'll show you can handle advanced math coursework. If your school doesn't offer advanced math classes, look into taking community college math classes instead and perhaps self-studying for math AP exams.

At the very minimum, you'll want to have taken algebra 1 and 2, geometry, and pre-calculus. You should get As in at least most of those classes, and nothing lower than a B.  You absolutely want at least four years of math classes (you can get more by taking multiple math classes in one year.)

 

Science and Computer Classes

These subjects are also important to engineers, so you want strong grades in higher-level classes. Take honors and AP classes where possible, and aim not to get anything below a B. The best science classes for engineers are AP Chemistry and AP Physics (either I and II or the C-level). Computer science/coding classes (especially AP Computer Science) will always be a plus on your transcript, especially if you want to go into computer science or computer engineering.

At minimum, take biology, chemistry, and physics, aiming for mostly As and nothing lower than a B. If you aim to major in a computer-heavy engineering specialty, a computing class is also good to have, but it's not a requirement. You want at least four years of science classes (you can get more by taking multiple science classes in one year.)

 

Other Classes

Your classes in other subjects matter less, but that doesn't mean you can slack off on them. Aim to take the most challenging classes you can in these subjects WITHOUT negatively impacting your math and science classes. So, if you're taking AP US History or AP English Language and it's really making it hard for you to study for other classes or make time for your extracurriculars, drop down to a lower level. These classes are more like the icing on the cake. You want them to be good, but not if they ruin the structure of the cake.

You'll likely need to take four years of English, as well as at least two years of history. By the time you graduate, make sure you're getting 4 or 5 years each of math and science classes, but if you still have space in your schedule after meeting your graduation and college requirements, it's fine to take some extracurriculars completely unrelated to engineering. As long as the majority of your transcript is STEM focused, taking a class in interior design or ancient history will have no negative impact on your applications.

 

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Test Scores

You may have heard that more colleges have become test optional in recent years. Despite this trend, standardized test scores are still very important for many engineering programs. In order to excel in an engineering major, you need to have strong math and analytical skills, and test scores are a major way for colleges to gauge your skills in those areas.

For your application, you'll want strong scores on the SAT/ACT as well as AP exams and/or SAT Subject Tests.

 

SAT/ACT

Regardless of which of these tests you take (colleges view both equally), your biggest goal will be to get as high a score as possible on the math/science section(s). For the SAT, that's the Math section, and for the ACT, that's the Math and (to a slightly lesser extent) Science sections. When you apply as an engineering applicant, colleges will be much more interested in your scores on these sections than your scores on the reading/writing exam sections.

For top-tier schools like MIT and Caltech, you really want to get as close to a perfect score on the math sections as possible. Even for less competitive schools, still aim for at least a 700 on SAT Math and 32 on ACT Math and Science. It's definitely possible to get into engineering programs with test scores lower than those, but you'll need to make sure your grades in math/science classes are especially strong.

What about for the other sections of the SAT/ACT? The importance of these scores depends somewhat on the type of schools you're applying to. At schools known for having an engineering focus, like MIT and Caltech, your scores on the reading and writing sections will matter less. A 650 (SAT) or 27 (ACT) for those sections is strong enough for those schools. For liberal arts schools, scores on all test sections carry some importance, so aim for closer to a 700 on the SAT and a 30 to 32 on the ACT on those sections.

And, of course, your specific test score goals will depend on the competitiveness of the schools you're applying to. Read our guides to setting SAT and ACT goal scores to come up with more precise score estimates (just remember that your math scores will always need to be strong).

 

AP/IB Tests 

If you can, you should always aim to submit strong math scores in AP or IB tests. 

For AP exams, the absolute best score to have on your application is a high score on the AP Calculus BC exam. However, you don't have that, don't despair. Other top AP scores are exams for:

      • AP Calculus AB (If you take AB, don't take BC next; the two classes overlap each other so much it'll look like you're retaking calculus)
      • AP Statistics
      • AP Computer Science A
      • AP Computer Science Principles
      • AP Physics 1
      • AP Physics 2
      • AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
      • AP Physics C: Mechanics
      • AP Chemistry

Basically, the math/science/computer science classes are all a strong bet. Aim for a 4 or (ideally) a 5 in them. 

As for exams in history/English/etc., keep following our guideline of "more is better, but not at the expense of your core." If you can take exams in these other subject areas and do well, then do so! But don't study so much for them that you neglect the more important engineering-focused exams.

 

Extracurriculars

This is the area where you can really make your college applications stand out. Your extracurriculars can take you from an average or even below-average candidate, to one schools are clamoring to admit. In general, you want the majority (about ¾) of your extracurriculars to relate to engineering/math. This will reinforce your spike. There are multiple ways to get strong extracurriculars:

 

Competitions

Participating in STEM competitions is a great way to show colleges that you're one of the best.  Some of the most impressive competitions are: AIME, Biology Olympiad, Chemistry Olympiad, Physics Olympiad, and Regeneron ISEF. Placing high in one of these is, on its own, almost enough to guarantee admission into top engineering programs.

However, other competitions like Math Team, Science Olympiad, Academic Bowl, etc. are still good to include on your application. Obviously, placing high will look better, but even competing is a strong extracurricular, especially if you give concrete numbers for how much you prepared each week/semester for the competition.

 

Clubs

Participating in STEM-related clubs is a very common extracurricular for hopeful engineering majors, and it's a solid thing to include in your applications. There are ways to make your club participation stronger, though.

  • Leadership: A leadership role is always going to look better than being just another participant. Aim to work your way up to team captain or club president.
  • Awards: Winning isn't everything, but it does show you have the skill to excel in these competitions.
  • Tangible Results: What did you actually do during these club meetings? Having quantifiable numbers or a well-described final project will show you were doing more than just shooting the breeze.
  • Positive Impact: All schools want to admit students who will be a force of good on campus. If you can show your club did that, whether through mentoring other students, offering math tutoring, donating STEM kits to local schools, etc., it'll strengthen that extracurricular.


Work Experience

It isn't easy to get an internship or research experience as a high school student, but if you can, it's an outstanding thing to include in college applications. This is because work experience often requires a lot of skill and motivation, and you can end up working on projects many other students wouldn't be seeing for years.

So how can you get this opportunity? It'll take a combination of work and luck. Try contacting engineering companies, individual engineers/researchers you know, local community college professors, as well as doing internet searches. Explain that you're a high school student planning on majoring in engineering, and you're looking for any work experience you can get. Include a resume (if you have one), and any relevant classes/extracurriculars.

Again, expect a lot of rejection since you'll probably be competing with college students for these jobs, especially if they're over the summer. Be open to any opportunity that comes along. It might just be a one-day job shadow, a short-term volunteer opportunity, or a job cleaning a research lab, but if you can show your interest and work ethic and keep in touch with your contacts, you may eventually be able to leverage it into an opportunity where you're actually doing engineering-related work.

 

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Individual Activity

What if you've done a lot of engineering-related work, but it wasn't a part of any school or job activity? You can include this at-home extracurricular in some cases, but it must be consistent and quantifiable. Spending an afternoon messing around with a car engine or computer program isn't good enough because it doesn't show real passion or skill. To include an at-home activity on your college application you need to at least:

  • Have worked weekly on it for a semester (ideally more)
  • Have tangible results

Some examples would be:

  • A website or computer program you designed (if you have numbers for how many people visited the site/used the program, that's even better)
  • Competitions you entered/awards you won with your at-home project
  • Number of students you mentored/tutored 
  • A certificate you earned for taking online classes

 

Camps

In general, we recommend steering away from camps as an extracurricular activity. Many of these (such as NSLC, NYLF, etc.) cost thousands of dollars to attend but won't add anything to your application. This is because the programs are too short (usually only a few days) and don't require much skill or effort from participants. You may learn cool things and meet cool people, but generally they're not much different than sitting in the classroom. So don't feel like you need to attend a pricey camp to get into a good engineering program; in most cases your time and money are better spent on any of the other extracurriculars we're discussing.

The only exception is if a camp is highly prestigious and difficult to get into. The Research Science Institute (RSI) is the best example of this. It's a free science and engineering summer program where students conduct research on MIT's campus. This is an outstanding extracurricular to have! However, it's also ultra competitive to get into, with only about a 5% acceptance rate.

RSI isn't the only camp worth attending, but, in general, know that only fairly competitive (acceptance rates of about 33% or lower) camps where you do your own research (as opposed to mostly attending classes) will really help your spike.

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Personal Statements

You don't have to write about engineering in your personal statements; there are plenty of examples of students writing about unrelated or even irreverent topics and still getting into top engineering programs. However, if you have a personal statement prompt where you must explain why you're applying to a particular school, you should discuss your interest in the school's engineering program. The more detailed you can be the better, so mention specific classes/professors/research and internship opportunities in the engineering program that you're excited about.

For more open-ended essays, we recommend mentioning your interest in engineering if you can make it fit with the essay topic, as this will keep strengthening your spike. You can get creative with how you incorporate your love of engineering into the prompt. Here are some examples:

  • Describe a problem you've solved: Can discuss a math competition you entered, engineering-related research you've done, an engineering project you did on your own, etc.
  • Discuss an accomplishment you're proud of: Winning a math/engineering competition, conducting research, or even just scoring highly on a math/science exam you prepared a lot for.
  • Which fictional character best represents you? Choose an analytical/nerdy/problem-solver like Violet Baudelaire from A Series of Unfortunate Events, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, or even Sherlock Holmes. Pick aspects that relate to you, and connect them to your love of and skills in engineering.
  • What have you done to make your school or community a better place? Can discuss helping classmates or younger students work through trickier math problems, encouraging others to think about majoring in engineering, volunteering as a math tutor, etc.

Obviously, your essay topic will depend on your own individual circumstances, but there are many ways to relate it to your engineering spike. Besides general college essay tips, your focus should be to highlight your passion for engineering. If there's anything you're particularly proud of in your engineering spike, this is a great place to mention it again. This is your chance to really show your personality, goals, and strengths in a way you can't in the rest of your application. So let colleges see who you are and why you're going to be a great engineer! But you don't need to come off as perfect. You can discuss struggling with tough math classes, or being unsure of what you wanted to study, as long as you can explain that you're now ready to thrive as an undergrad engineering student.

 

Letters of Recommendation

Ideally, at least one of your letters of recommendation will be written by a math teacher of yours and can discuss your strong quantitative skills and interest in engineering. Some schools require one letter from a math/science teacher and another from an English/history teacher, but if they don't, feel free to have all your letters written by math or science teachers. Hopefully these are the subjects you're strongest in, so they'll be able to write the best letters for you.

Letters of rec aren't the most important part of your application, but you still want them to be strong and to bolster your spike. When you ask a teacher to write you a letter of recommendation, have a (short) list of topics they could include (your teacher will ultimately have complete control over what they write though). These can include difficult exams you scored highly on, interest you've expressed in becoming an engineer, examples of you solving challenging problems, a history of you answering questions regularly in class and/or helping other students. You want your teacher to write about your values, goals, and accomplishments, especially as they relate to engineering, so giving them a "brag sheet" like that can really help.

Other general tips for letters of rec:

  • Ask early (At least a month before deadlines)
  • Ask in person
  • Write them a thank-you note after they submit your letter

 


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What Do Good Examples of Engineering Spikes Look Like?

Below are some hypothetical examples of students who developed great engineering spikes. We have two examples for top-tier engineering programs, and one example for second-tier programs. Students with these profiles don't have a guarantee of getting into their schools of choice, but these examples can give you a jumping-off point for developing your spike and setting goals for yourself.

 

Top Tier Engineering Programs (MIT, Caltech, Stanford, etc.)

Profile 1: Aleks the Academic Standout

Grades: Took the most challenging math and science classes in school, as well as a mix of honors and AP classes in English and social science. Also currently taking Calculus III at a local community college. As in the majority of his classes (including all STEM classes) for an unweighted GPA of 3.92

Test Scores: 800 on SAT Math, 720 on EBRW. AP scores in BC Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Statistics, and Computer Science, as well as World History, US History, and English Language. 5s in all math and science APs, with a mix of 4s and 5s in the rest.

Extracurriculars: Qualified twice for AIME and Math Olympiad. As a junior, received a top-ten score on the Math Olympiad. Mathletes team captain (with several state-level wins). Played guitar for six years, volunteers at an animal shelter.

Personal Statement: Discussed his lifelong love of problem solving, and how he approaches difficult life decisions the same way he solves tricky math equations.

Letters of Rec: One from his calculus teacher stating that Aleks has the strongest grasp of higher-level mathematics of almost any student he has taught and that he is always top of the class in test scores as well as willing to tutor other students. The other letter is from his AP English teacher who states Aleks is clearly STEM-oriented but still makes a clear effort in other classes, and works hard to improve his writing skills.

Summary: Aleks is clearly a math whiz. He gets top grades in all his math classes, is already on Calc III, and has top AP scores for STEM classes. His math teacher's letter supports this. By far the strongest part of his application is his high score on Math Olympiad, which, on its own, is enough to get him admitted into many top engineering schools. He clearly is a math genius, and schools will be clamoring for him. He's skilled in other areas as well, and has other interests, but math is clearly his passion.

 

Profile 2: Ivy the Extracurricular Whiz

Grades: Ivy has aced all her math and science coursework, but she struggles more in English and social studies. She only takes regular-level English classes, although she has taken AP US History and AP Psychology. She gets mostly Bs, with a few As, in her non-STEM classes. Her overall unweighted GPA is a 3.6.

Test Scores: On the ACT, Ivy scored a 36 in Math, 36 in Science, a 31 in English, and a 30 in Reading. For APs, she doesn't have a lot of STEM scores yet since she's currently taking AP Calculus BC, AP Statistics, and AP Chemistry, but she did earn a 5 in AP Physics, as well as 4s in AP US History and AP Psych.

Extracurriculars: Ivy's biggest achievement was participating in the US Chemistry Olympiad study camp, which selects the top 20 students nationwide after a series of demanding qualifying tests. These students are trained, and the top five represent the US at the International Chemistry Olympiad. Ivy didn't get into the top five as a junior but hopes she will as a senior. Ivy is also fascinated by research and has worked in an engineering research lab at her local college for the past two years. Throughout the school year, she spends 10 hours a week on research work but has also spent two months for the past two summers working full-time on research. Her research concerns modeling and analysis in biochemical engineering. Ivy is also a member of her school's Science Bowl and Mathletes teams, though these haven't moved beyond the state level. In her free time, Ivy enjoys embroidery and reading.

Personal Statement: In her personal statement, Ivy talks more deeply about her interest in chemistry and engineering on a philosophical level, and how her interests have evolved over the years. She also ties her current research to the research she hopes to conduct as an undergraduate and (eventually) as a PhD student.

Letters of Rec: Sarah has letters from her AP Chemistry teacher, her AP Calc BC teacher, and her camp supervisor at the Chemistry Olympiad study camp. They mention her aptitude for math and science, as well as her strong lab and research skills.

Summary: Ivy is more "lop-sided" than Aleks, but she's still an exceptional candidate who will likely have her choice of where to attend college. She's not particularly strong in liberal arts subjects, but because she has such a strong spike in chemistry and engineering, she has a very competitive application. From her competitions, it's clear that she's world class in her abilities. Ivy's research experience also sets her apart. Just through those two things alone, she's accomplished much more than the vast majority of high school students, and this makes up for lower grades and test scores in areas outside her engineering spike. She doesn't need "filler" for her application, like volunteer hours, or AP English classes, or knowledge of a musical instrument. Her spike is enough.

 

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Mid-Tier Engineering Programs (University of Michigan, Cal Poly, University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, etc.)

Profile 3: Opal the Future Civil Engineer

Grades: Opal has taken the most advanced math and science classes her school offers and gotten mostly As, with one or two Bs. She has a mix of As and Bs in her other classes, for an unweighted GPA of 3.5.

Test Scores: Opal took the SAT, and she earned a 770 in Math, and 690 in EBRW. She has a mix of 4s and 5s on her three AP scores, and she's taking four more AP classes her senior year.

Extracurriculars: Opal is team captain of the Math Competition team, and a member of her school's Science Olympiad team. Both teams have won regional awards and competed at state competitions. Opal also started her own school club that researches cheap solutions for engineering problems in developing countries and coordinates deliveries of the project. Opal is designing her own water purification prototype, which isn't ready for public use yet. Opal's club has donated more than 100 products to three towns in Haiti, helping over 500 people. Additionally, she also plays on the school tennis team and is a member of her church choir.

Personal Statement: Opal discusses a volunteer trip she took to Haiti as a high school student and how impacted she was by seeing people without access to running water. It propelled her into focusing on civil engineering, and she plans to focus her career on developing water infrastructure projects in developing countries. She mentions specific professors and programs the school offers that relate to her goals to show what a good fit the school is for her.

Letters of Rec: Opal's letters of rec are written by her pre-calculus teacher, English teacher, and she has an additional letter written by the supervisor of her Haiti trip. All mention Opal's goals for improving the world, as well as her kindness and intelligence. They also each include specific stories of Opal helping others.

Summary: If creating a spike seems daunting to you, Opal is an example of someone who used the resources she had to become a strong applicant. Her grades and test scores are strong, but not perfect, and she didn't win any prestigious competitions. However, her letters of recommendation and personal statement shows someone with a strong sense of what she wants and life and who is committed to helping others. Opal also has strong leadership skills, as shown by the club she founded. Including concrete numbers about the number of people the club has helped and the supplies donated shows that this is something that has had a real, tangible impact.

 

Final Thoughts: Applying to College as an Engineer

Applying to engineering problems can be tough, but knowing how admissions decisions are made can make the process much easier. It's all about having a strong spike and showing colleges you'll have a significant, positive impact on campus. As you're working on your college applications, keep the following tips in mind:

  • You don't need "filler" activities to have a competitive resume; a strong engineering spike is enough

  • Extracurriculars are often the make-or-break part of your application

  • Engineering-related parts of your high school career should take precedence over non-engineering parts

  • Do activities that make you happy and build your passion, rather than those you only do because they look "impressive" to colleges. Colleges often see right through the latter, but genuine passion is something they love.

 

What's Next?

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.

Want top standardized test scores? Read our famous guides on how to get a perfect SAT score and perfect ACT score, written by expert full-scorers.

 


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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

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.



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