Engineering school is an interesting place. Relative to high school, everyone’s really smart. How are new students supposed to stand out in an environment made up of all-stars? By getting a head start on the rest of the class in a few critical skills, you’ll set yourself up for success in one of the hardest undergraduate programs out there. Here’s what to brush up on before starting your first semester in engineering.
1: Learn to Program
Most engineering students will need to take an introductory computer science course in their first year. These courses aren’t hard if you know what you’re doing. By getting a little programming practice before heading off to university, you’ll be able to turn CS 101 into an easy A.
Choice of programming language isn’t too important at this early stage. Be able to understand functions, program flow and variable types, as that’s about as in-depth as intro classes will get. Understanding the fundamentals will let you visualize how to complete a particular assignment. Let the professor cover the nuances of the language used in class.
If you do need help picking — something C-based is a good starting point. C is essentially the standard, and it’ll get you used to doing some things that other languages have since gotten rid of (like using semicolons). It’s a lot easier to un-learn semicolon usage than to learn it after starting without.
The best way to learn is to complete a project, whether it be an embedded system with Arduino or a web app. Programs like codeacademy are also excellent to have the fundamentals explained concisely.
2. Get good at Photoshop
Photoshop is absolutely a jack of all trades application. As an engineering student, I find that I use it all the time. Whether it’s tinkering around with a logo for a project, creating a graphic for a paper, or just resizing something, Photoshop is invaluable.
You won’t know what you can use photoshop for until you start to learn it. When people ask “what can I do in photoshop,” my response is usually simply “everything.”
The best way to learn is to play around with it. Photoshop is incredibly complicated and has so many features. Start with simple tasks, and as you get better, begin to assign yourself design projects. A logo for a fake company, for example. There are tons of tutorials online, and answers to any questions are a short google search away.
It’s also a great thing to be able to put on your resume!
3. Become an effective presenter
This is something so many engineers — most of them, in fact, are terrible at. Becoming an effective presenter starts with having confidence. And that confidence comes with practice and the realization that people are only going to judge you if you’re bad. So be a good presenter and nobody will judge. Simple.
Of course, you’re going to need to practice. A lot of prospective engineering students have probably done a science fair project. This is an excellent way to practice presentations. Not only is there the possibility of pretty sweet rewards, it’ll teach you how to present technical material in a concise, understandable way.
Watching great presenters is also a way to learn what works. TED talks in particular, are an excellent resource. Continuing along the same theme as science fair, TED talks are often slightly technical in nature. Seeing how the pros present technical information will be an excellent demonstration of how to own a room.
Additionally, business pitches are always interesting. A lot of engineering presentations also involve making a case for going futher with a particular idea. Being able to sell an idea without coming off as nervous or a slimy is an asset to any team.
4. Know what to google
It’s not your typical success tip, that’s for sure. But knowing how to get the information you require is an extremely valuable skill to have. Developing your own personal library of sources for information on different topics will only help you as you go through coursework and need to find answers.
Figure out where to get answers for physics questions, figure out which YouTube channels work for teaching you math. Find and collate sources for technical information for projects, but most importantly, get good at finding answers for obscure questions.
Being an effective googler is something that may not always be visible, but is always helpful. Of course most of us probably know who to direct a question towards (my friend’s pretty good at computer stuff, for example). But it’s way faster being able to find these answers yourself. Become independent enough to help yourself.
5. Figure out how to lead
All projects need leadership. Few people want to lead teams, and even fewer are truly good at it. Nobody expects a fresh undergrad to be a total professional at project management, but being able to lead, to take a project in a direction you think is right, is an absolute asset.
Lots of projects in engineering classes are team based. Being comfortable managing communication between multiple people, and confident enough to set deadlines for a team is going to make projects go 100% smoother. At a minimum, understand the stages of team formation (seeing them in action after learning about them is funny — the stages are often super obvious). Even better, is know how to facilitate discussions that get input out of people who otherwise tend to be pretty quiet. The more information out there, the better.
Being a confident leader comes from experience, and also from being comfortable with the project and the vision behind it. Don’t have an idea of how to start the project or what the end result should look like? Maybe you shouldn’t be leading it. But in the event everyone else on the team feels this way, be the person to buck up and say “let’s go for it.” The worst outcome for you leading something without vision is the same as the best outcome of someone else who’s less skilled doing it. But still, understand your limits and be able to recognize when someone else would be better for the job.
Not everyone wants to be the person leading the team. If not, that’s okay. But the followers have to understand how to follow effectively, too. This includes not being hostile towards leadership, but also being confident enough to challenge decisions and provide useful input to the team leader.
If you’re looking to go into engineering — congratulations! You’re on your way to making a real difference in the world. Use what you learn for good, and strive to be the best engineering student out there. Know yourself, your skills, and always be willing to learn more. Gaining experience in these skills before your first semester is going to set you up for a smooth transition from high school, and set you up for success in all your coursework and projects. Good luck, go get that iron ring!