Five Guidelines for Engineering College Students

I’d like to share some advice for new engineering students. These are things I wish someone told me when I started out as a student many years ago. I hope new engineering students will find them useful.

1. Ask questions
Presumably, you’re going to school in order to learn things. Someone is paying a lot of money for you to have this opportunity. This means that, if you don’t understand something, you should ask. If something doesn’t make sense to you, it probably doesn’t make sense to a number of other students. They’re just afraid to ask.

There is a corollary to this: When you ask a question, make sure you’ve done your homework (literally or figuratively) first. Don’t ask a professor how to solve a problem if you haven’t made an effort to solve it yourself. Don’t ask about last night’s reading if you didn’t actually read it. Professors hate this kind of question. However, most professors love answering questions from students who are making a real effort to improve their understanding. (Yes, professors can tell the difference.)

2. Study together
Engineering is a team sport. In the real world, engineers work together in groups to solve problems. Studying in groups is a great way to prepare for this. Not only will you benefit from the help of your classmates; you’ll benefit from helping them, too. Very few things improve your own understanding of a concept more than having to explain that concept to someone else.

Again, there’s a corollary to this: Do your own work. Simply copying answers from other students isn’t group study. It’s just plain cheating. Not only is this a violation of most schools’ academic dishonesty policy, but if you turn in someone else’s work without understanding it, you’re also cheating yourself out of the opportunity to learn.

3. Don’t blame the professor
In my engineering career, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some excellent managers, as well as some pretty lousy ones. However, in the professional world, having a lousy manager is not considered a valid excuse for doing lousy work. Similarly, as a student, I hope you’ll have a lot of great professors — but they probably won’t all be great.
When this happens, don’t use the professor’s ineptitude in teaching the material as an excuse for failing to learn it. If you don’t understand something, and the professor isn’t helping, ask teaching assistants, classmates, or study partners. Spend more time reading the textbook. If the textbook isn’t helping, go to the library and look at other books. Whatever happens, take responsibility for your own learning.

Once again, there’s a corollary to this: If you can tell right away that a certain professor’s teaching style just isn’t a good fit for you, and you have the chance to switch to another class section early in the semester, take it. And, of course, if a professor is behaving in a clearly inappropriate or unprofessional manner, report that behavior to the school authorities.

4. Be prepared to work hard, but know your limits
Engineering school is hard. It’s not supposed to be easy. Even if you are exceptionally bright, it will take a tremendous amount of work. Don’t expect to spend your time partying. Instead, expect to find yourself coming home from the library at the same time your non-engineering classmates are coming home from the bar.

That being said, don’t push yourself beyond what you’re actually capable of doing. I came close to derailing my undergraduate career a couple of times — once by trying to take too many classes in a single semester and once by taking classes I wasn’t really prepared to take. Challenge yourself, but take a step back if it gets too overwhelming.

5. Get involved
Engineering is a profession, not just a subject you learn about in school. Take advantage of every opportunity to get involved in the profession. If you have a chance to work in the field (whether as an intern, a co-op, a student researcher, or a technician), take it, even if it makes the path to your degree a little longer. Real-world experience is invaluable. Not only does it make you a more attractive candidate to potential employers, but it also provides you with useful perspective on the things you learn in the classroom.

Many professional organizations offer free or discounted student memberships. Join them, and participate in your local student chapter. You can also often attend conferences and tradeshows for free as a student. They can be a great way to learn about the latest developments in your field, and to meet the people who are making them. Finally, read trade magazines and websites like Design News. It’s a great way to learn about what real-world engineers are doing, pondering, and discussing.


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