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19 Survival Tips for Engineering Students

An engineering major is a definite challenge, but it can be managed successfully through a mix of time management, self awareness, and following simple tips like the ones provided here.

Though rewarding at times, being an engineering student can be both challenging and frustrating. While it is certainly not for everybody, having an engineering degree can lead to creative career paths in or outside of engineering fields. It is a major that builds critical skills in time management, reading comprehension, and applied math.

The degree also becomes more relevant as technology evolves and integrates itself into more fields. Here are some tips that may be helpful to engineering students, and to other students pursuing challenging degrees. 

1.)    Get your Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) book by your sophomore year.

 

You know what would have helped me when I was starting my engineering degree? Knowing exactly what I was getting myself into. 

When I purchased my FE book in senior year to prepare for the NCEES exam, I recall wishing that I had bought it as early as my second year of college. The book outlines key topics covered in standard engineering subjects, and shows how equations are applied to physical systems. I think by reviewing this book early, students can improve retention of subject matter during lecture and see how topics are relevant as they are being taught. I recommend getting it in the second year of college, since it can otherwise be intimidating to college freshmen. 

2.)    If you know the coming semester is packed with coursework and high-level classes, familiarize yourself with at least one subject over the summer. It will make things easier later on.

For this tip, keep things simple. Pick one course, get your textbook early, and familiarize yourself with its contents over the summer. Even just reading the text will be good preparation for the semester ahead. You should pick a subject that has the same takeaways regardless of how your professor intends to teach it, such as chemistry or calculus. For example, as a biomedical engineering student, I read my organic chemistry book over the summer to prepare for a packed semester abroad. I was ahead of the game when I entered the class in the fall because I knew how the textbook was laid out, and I knew concepts spanning chirality to functional groups. I also knew how to name compounds and identify reactions, giving me more time to enjoy studying abroad.

Remember, being ahead on one subject is better than not reviewing any at all, and any amount of background knowledge can help you improve your retention during lectures. It is a good idea to review course material before class, but getting a bigger picture of the course material over the summer will ultimately help you get ahead. Also, don't assume that what you learned in high school will be enough to help you get by in a college class. 

3.) To review, watch videos on Coursera, iTunes U, or other platforms that follow a curriculum.

These sites are cool because they offer full-length courses with videos pertaining to a range of subject matter. You can search topics in engineering, physics, computer science, and more. Access videos for free on Coursera by auditing courses. Note that these videos should be for review or preparation. They can augment regular studying techniques, but shouldn't replace them.

Here is another tip: When I feel comfortable with subject matter, I speed videos up to 1.25x using the playback settings under the gear icon on the video (example pictured below on Coursera). Then, I slow videos down to their normal speed when topics become more tricky, and press pause if I need to process information. The speed/playback rate feature is also available on other platforms like YouTube.  

4.)    Consider sharing knowledge with your peers if you can take the time with your heavy workload.

 

Of course, prioritize your own grades and well-being in college. But if you know a subject really well, consider sharing some key concepts with classmates to help them grasp subject matter more easily. This doesn’t mean you should write someone else’s lab report or compromise your own study time, but helping others can lead to symbiotic relationships that are useful in the long run. Try to foster an environment that promotes learning and growth among students with different skillsets.

Another way to share your knowledge is by working at the tutoring center. You may get paid, and it will look good on your resume.

5.)    Setting up regular sessions at the tutoring center can help you get ahead on your work.

Even if you understand course material, a regular tutoring session can help you complete assignments in a focused manner within a reasonable timeframe. Sometimes it is easy to get stuck in your own head if you always work alone, but a tutor can help keep you on track.

That said, don’t rely on your professor’s office hours to push you to get an assignment done. Rather, come with questions to ask your professor that will help you fully understand course material in preparation for a test. And always be respectful to your professor.

Using these techniques will also reduce the number of times you have to ask your classmates for help, and will likely make you more valuable in study groups. Of course it is okay to ask your classmates for help, but you don’t want to become the person that continually interrupts them when they are studying. 

6.)    Learn from lab time.

During lab time, make sure you are doing as much of the hands-on work as your partners, or that you are engaging in teamwork by recording methods. This practice will help you become more confident in your ability to conduct research. And of course, when it comes time to write a lab report, make sure you contribute your part. You want your partners to see you as a team player so that they don’t resent you.

7.)    If you fail an assignment or test that you put a lot of work into completing, IT HAPPENS. It doesn’t mean your work was invalid.

I met one of my best friends while crying in the courtyard after failing an assignment I thought I did well on. He helped me boost my moral for the rest of the semester so I could keep trying my best. In the end, I learned a lot in the class, even though my grades sometimes did not reflect that. Now, despite the hard times, I am happy that I graduated knowing a lot more than I did when I started school.

That said, look for friends that will promote a healthy learning environment for you, encourage you to do your best, and support your decisions if you decide to switch majors. It can be hard to find good friends, but joining clubs or participating in other activities may help you build supportive friendships.

8.)     Make time to join at least one club or organization. 

 

(...or another organization.)

Joining clubs can look really good on your resume. It shows your initiative to participate in communal activities, and gives you leadership opportunities. Most colleges have engineering-society clubs that can lead to new study-buddies or teams and ideas for senior projects.

If you are aprehnsive toward socializing, find just one club that you like and stick with it so you can put it on your resume. 

9.)     It is okay to seek help if you get depressed or feel hopeless. Remember that you are at school to learn, and failing is going to be part of the learning process.

Engineering is hard. It can be extremely discouraging when you don’t understand difficult topics, or are drowning in course work and still getting bad grades after expending a lot of effort. If you experience depression or a sense of hopelessness, try to find mental health counselor on campus that can help you feel better. Or find a career-path counsellor that can help you pinpoint your long-term goals so you can find ways to keep working toward them.  After all, the next step after graduating is trying to form a career that will be satisfying for you.

That said, don’t be afraid to switch majors if you realize engineering is not your optimal career path. If you want an engineering degree, keep working hard to get it. But if you decide that majoring in engineering will ultimately make you miserable, take a chance on something that you think will make you happy, and that you think you can sustain putting hard work into for a long time. It is your life, and you are capable of making something out of anything you are passionate about. If you decide to change your trajectory, make sure you pick something that will be lucrative for you based on your interests and strengths.

10.)    Set a sustainable plan to stay organized from day 1. The Cloud (eg. Google Drive) can be useful for cultivating all your notes, schoolwork, and goals in a single location. Purchasing lightweight hardware like tablets or laptops can also help you more readily access your work. See if your budget lets you make this investment. 

In this digital age, there are many tools to help people stay organized. I knew a lot of students that took notes on a tablet, and organized them in a folder system on the Cloud. They made sure that every piece of material was in this database, and took pictures of their homework if it was written on regular paper. When it came time to study for exams, they had all their work in one place and were less likely to forget a study topic. ALSO, ALWAYS WRITE THE DATE ON THE TOP OF YOUR PAPERS AND DOCUMENTS so that your notes are somewhat in order. Your system should make it easy to find things on demand.

(If you struggle with organization, you can try to seek coaching. To be honest, I could have used some help in college to set an organization and time-management plan. Feel free to comment below on which methods for organization work for you.)

11.)    Use similar tools to manage your time.

Keep appointments on a calendar that you can access on your phone. Set alarms when you need to change tasks, and set alarms for when you should start getting ready for bed. This will ensure you don’t miss morning classes. 

 

Next, keep a record of your goals and achievements by checking things off in a virtual or physical scheduler. If you do not complete a task, write it again on the following date so you don’t forget to complete it. Don’t be afraid to fill your calendar up with tasks, goals, and appointments so that you can effectively manage your time.

Finally, be meticulous. If you think something might be important, you should write it down to cover all your bases, and use your check-off system to keep yourself on track.

12.)  This hack may not be affordable for everyone, but summer courses tend to be easier than full-length courses, and can potentially boost your GPA.

In my experience, fast-paced summer classes were easier to ace than semester-long classes because professors would explain subject matter concisely, rather than presenting subsets of subect matter over multiple classes. I had an easier time absorbing course material without losing focus, and could grasp the bigger picture of the course material so I could read about it at home. You may want to ask classmates about their experiences in summer courses to decide which one you want to take. 

Still, I wouldn't recommend taking very complex courses like differential equations or heat transfer over the summer. These usually include a lot of equations you need to know how to manipulate and apply. I would suggest watching lectures pertaining to these subjects on Coursera before you start your course. 

13.) Make sure that you eat enough, and pay attention to your mental health.

Poor nutrition can impact your mood and your ability to focus. If you are worried about gaining the freshman 15, perhaps consult a nutritionist on campus so that you can develop and maintain a healthy eating habit. This means hitting your baseline calorie intake (which is higher if you work out), and getting enough protein, fats, and carbohydrates to keep your mood leveled and help your brain develop. Try not to skip meals for fear of gaining weight, since this practice can be unsustainable and lead to disordered eating. 

14.) For CAD classes: If your professor is going too fast with step-by-step instructions on how to build virtual models or simulations, CONSULT YOUR TEXTBOOK.

Instructions are usually listed in the book, and if they aren’t, well, ask your professor if you can record the lecture. Or try to get into a class with a teacher that provides written instructions to supplement their demonstrations.

15.) Learn to use your calculator. 

Calculators like the TI-89 have features that lets you solve systems of equations and differential equations, and find integrals or derivatives. Knowing how to use these features can help you check your answers, and check answers on tests if permitted. Here is an example showing how to solve equations using the TI-89. Your classmates may also be able to show you hacks with their calculators so that you don't have to figure it out by yourself. 

However, don't skimp on knowing how to do the math with a paper and pencil. Use these features just to check your answers, otherwise, you may wind up in trouble. 

Also, it should be noted that these calculators can be pricey. See if your school offers a rental program for calculators and other supplies. 

16.) Get the right textbook edition.

Ugh, textbooks are so expensive. But getting the right edition will ensure that your homework matches the assignments and problem sets. Otherwise, you will spend time scrambling to get the homework from someone else, or even do the wrong homework problems. And that is a waste of your time and effort.

17.) Get a reliable alarm clock.

 

Lately, to make sure that I wake up, I set really obnoxious alarms. I also have a radio that goes off in the morning so that I can listen to music while I get ready.

If you do sleep in and miss a lecture, get the notes from a classmate right away. Don’t underestimate what you could have missed in the two hours you were sleeping. You might as well know what you missed.

18.) If you’re going to college to party, keep in mind that it can interfere with your coursework.

 

Drinking is often a part of the culture at U.S. colleges. But the activity can actually impair your ability to concentrate for days afterward. If you are planning to participate in drinking in college, make sure you have discipline to abstain in the days before a test. And don't drink if you know you will have to be studying for a few days. By skipping frat parties during midterms, you can keep a clear head to actually reduce the amount of time you need to study.

 19.) Actively put together portfolios showcasing the skills you learn in school.

Concise portfolios can come in handy when applying to jobs and internships. Include representation of the projects you are most proud of. For example, if you spent a semester learning SolidWorks, include some of your 2D drawings, 3D models, and assemblies in your job application. By including these documents, you may be able to cut through some of the competition for high-end jobs. 

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