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Advice on Choosing an Engineering Major from a College Admissions Expert

Mark Montgomery, college admissions coach and educational consultant, speaks from the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or RPI, about the intricacies of choosing to major in engineering: What type of engineering are you interested in? Do you want to be surrounded by fellow engineering students or a variety of people? Mark explains the questions you should ask yourself if you choose to go down this path.


Right now I’m on the campus of RPI, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is located in Troy, New York, not far from Albany which is the state capital, north of New York City about two or three hours. I want to talk to you a little bit about engineering as a major and how that plays out. This is a technical institute, engineering, also the pure sciences, applied sciences, and when people who are interested in engineering approach me for advice, usually they start off by telling me, “This is the major I want. I want computer engineering, electrical engineering, nuclear engineering,” whatever. Environmental engineering. All different types of engineering and they’re thinking about the program because engineers are very Cartesian, systematic, you know, they’re thinkers that are no-nonsense, very practical. And they tend to think that engineering is, well, it’s all the same, it’s engineering, teach me the stuff, I want to learn it.

But the interesting thing about engineering is you still have a lot of different kinds of choices in terms of the environment, the kinds of institutions that you want to — where you want to actually learn this engineering stuff. So you could go to great big huge public universities, most of which have an engineering department. Or you could go to a smaller technical institute, MIT being the most famous, but also RPI, Wooster Polytech, Rochester Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute, and then many others around the country, those smaller schools, some of which are private, some of which are public. So even the Colorado School of Mines in my home state is a relatively small public technical institute.

So you have the private versus public, you have small versus large. Then you also have, do you want to go to do your engineering in a place that is like RPI, almost exclusively engineering and science, where everyone, as one of my students put it, is “from my planet,” they’re all people right out of central casting at the Big Bang Theory. Do you want to go to school with people that are all like you, or are you interested in going to school with people who are not like you? Who have varied interests, you have the poets and the psychologists and the people interested in sociology or political science or whatever. So you could pick a school where engineering is one facet of the overall university, like Princeton, like Swarthmore, one of the smallest liberal arts colleges that also has engineering. Lafayette, Union College. There are ways for you to have that technical background but to have the variety of people at your doorstep. UI sometimes ask my students, “Think about it, who do you want your boyfriend or your girlfriend to be, do you want it to be someone like you, interested in the same things? Or do you want it to be someone who is totally different in their interests and backgrounds and curiosities?” So that’s another thing to think about.

I think one of the interesting things to think about, too, is how important is it at the beginning when you enter that you have that decision made about which kind of engineering: chemical, industrial, mechanical, electrical. Or do you just want that really solid foundation? Places like Harvey Mudd College, another very small place, everyone studies plain old vanilla foundational engineering. So all of this is to say that even though engineers tend to focus on “Just give me the program that I want,” there are still a lot of decisions to be made in terms of what kind of school you want, what kind of environment, what kind of social scene you’re interested in having for you graduate experience. So make sure if you are an engineer and you’re a systematic thinker, please put all of these other things into your rational computer so that you can come with the best engineering program for you.


Mark Montgomery
Expert Educational Consultant

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