How to Become an Engineer: What to Do While You’re Still in High School
Taking the right academic steps while still in high school can make it easier to achieve your goal of earning an engineering degree and becoming a professional engineer.
Taking the most challenging STEM classes in high school may increase your chance of being accepted to your first-choice engineering program.
In addition to taking technical courses, you should also work on developing important "soft skills," including writing, teamwork, and presentation skills.
Getting a head start by planning your engineering school search while still in high school can help can you make well-informed decisions, reduce stress, and focus on potential career pathways.
Consider engaging in extracurricular activities that are specific to engineering or STEM studies, such as after-school or weekend engineering exploration programs, career fairs, and science competitions.
So, you think you want to become an engineer? Take the right steps in high school!
Regardless of what engineering specialization you think you might want to pursue during your undergraduate studies, there are several key steps you should take while still in high school to build a solid academic foundation that will allow you to make a smooth transition into your engineering education and career.
Focus on Academics
The academic choices you make in high school will have a direct impact on your ability to be accepted by — and successfully enroll in — an engineering program. Engineering education heavily relies on mathematics and science as well as your ability to think critically and approach problems from different angles.
When choosing your high school classes, always look to take the most challenging courses available (i.e., AP, IB, Dual Enrollment). Taking the highest-level courses will provide you with a more demanding, college-level curriculum and will also demonstrate your commitment to rigorous coursework.
In addition, it may potentially allow you to earn college credits that will give you more flexibility in your undergraduate studies. As you make your course selections, be sure to speak with your teachers and keep the following guidelines in mind.
Best High School Courses if You Want to Become an Engineer
- Mathematics Engineering is math-intensive to its core, so a strong foundation in mathematics is essential. You should consider taking advanced math courses such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. These courses will help you develop the problem-solving skills essential for engineering.
- Science There are two key science fields for prospective engineers: chemistry and physics. Chemistry is key to understanding chemical engineering and materials science, while physics provides insight into the laws of nature and mechanics, which are central to many engineering disciplines. Other science courses like biology and earth science or environmental science are also great choices for creating a solid science foundation — especially if you choose to study biomedical engineering or environmental engineering.
- Computer Science With the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, computer programming and computer science are becoming increasingly important in engineering fields. Learning programming languages like Python or Java will provide you with a significant advantage when you start your engineering studies, especially if you decide to focus on areas like software engineering, computer engineering, or data science.
- Engineering-related Electives Your high school may also allow you to sign up for electives related to engineering. More high schools than ever are offering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) electives such as robotics, CAD (Computer-Aided Design), and engineering design. You should consider these courses carefully, as they offer early insights into what engineering is like and the choices you can make in the future.
Finally, make sure you improve your communication aptitude, which encompasses both your writing and presentation skills. Yes, engineering is primarily focused on your technical ability — but being able to communicate complex ideas to technical and non-technical audiences will be essential to your long-term academic and professional success.
How to Manage Your College Search
In the last few years, many prospective engineering students have indicated that the college search process can be overwhelming. The best way to lessen the anxiety you might feel during that process is to create a plan and put it into action early so that you can make well-informed decisions and reduce stress. Here's a timeline to guide your college search:
First year of high school: Don’t make your college search a focus in your first year of high school. Instead, concentrate on getting a great start on building the academic foundation that will be essential to your success in college.
Sophomore year: Focus on exploring your engineering interests by learning about the various disciplines and career paths. Engage in extracurricular activities that are engineering specific or STEM focused. Attend after-school or weekend engineering exploration programs, career fairs, or science competitions. Explore whether local engineering firms have any engineering-related facilities you can tour to get an inside view of the profession. Consider attending one of the many on-campus summer exploratory programs colleges and universities host for prospective engineering students. They are a great way to experience firsthand how engineering works.
Junior year: Your search should now be in active mode on every level as you research colleges and universities that offer strong engineering programs. It is important to consider not only whether a college or university has your desired major, but also whether is has other academic pathways that are of interest to you. In addition to academic offerings and accreditation of the program, you must also consider factors like location, size, available majors, class size, study abroad options, campus culture, and the level of success alumni have experienced after completing those programs.
It is also crucial for prospective engineering students to investigate opportunities to engage in research or to secure an internship or co-op job that provides in-depth experience and will help open the door to employment upon graduation. Finally, examine closely the expected cost of education, opportunity for scholarships, and/or financial assistance to help pay for your education.
During your junior year, you should also be sure to create a systematic way to manage your list of potential schools to visit as well as begin to gather information about application requirements and deadlines. Work closely with your college advisor about your choices, as they have immense insight that will be helpful to you.
You will be receiving mail from many institutions interested in having you join their campus community, and this can be a great resource in your search. Many students will use the summer between junior year and senior year to explore college campuses, prepare for standardized exams that may be required in the admission process, and begin to gather the materials that they will need to supply as part of their application to an undergraduate engineering program.
Senior year: During the fall semester, you will need to finalize the list of colleges and universities you will apply to. Be sure to pay close attention to application deadlines. You will also be preparing your college essay(s) and securing the traditionally requested letter(s) of recommendation, which can be lengthy processes. Be sure to allocate your time appropriately.
In the spring semester, you'll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as well as submit any other forms that may be required by an institution if you plan to apply for financial aid. Stay organized and keep track of acceptance letters and financial aid packages from different programs. Once you have all your admission offers in hand it will be time to decide where to attend.
It is important to note that international students may need to submit additional documents and required exam scores as part of their admission process. Always check the requirements outlined in your application instructions.
Choosing the Right Engineering Degree
Your decision to pursue an engineering degree is a testament to your thirst for knowledge and desire to make a difference in the world. Engineers are known for making a plan that will provide actionable steps to be successful. In much the same way, you need to plan on taking appropriate and manageable steps so that you can reach your goal of becoming an engineer. That begins with thoughtful high school course selection and thorough college research.
Taking the right courses, beginning your college search early, and evaluating institutions based on key factors will put you on a path to a bright future.
A bachelor's degree in an engineering discipline is generally a prerequisite to becoming an engineer. However, earning a master's degree in engineering may open the door to more lucrative jobs during your career.
It takes most undergraduate students four years of full-time study to earn an engineering degree.
Generally speaking, you need a bachelor's degree to become an engineer, but that's not always the case. For example, not all software engineers have a degree in that field.