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.

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