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The Engineering School Survival Guide: 4 Frameworks To Dominate Your Degree

Hey all! This week I’m happy to bring you an absolutely fantastic guest article from Tom Miller.

Tom is an engineer and physics tutor obsessed with independent learning. He writes about unconventional study methods at WTF Professor, aimed at simplifying the learning process for engineers and technical students.

I first met Tom a few months ago when he emailed me with some questions on starting his own blog. In the short time between then and now, I’ve seen WTF Professor turn into an awesome resource for any student who’s interested in hacking their learning methods. On to you, Tom!

Isn’t it funny, that when you tell older people you’re doing an engineering degree, that they tend to only have one of three responses:

  • “Ooooh you must be so smart.”
  • “It’s gonna be so easy for you to find a job when you leave college.”
  • “Smartypants. You’re going to make the big bucks.”

For them, it’s the logical choice. Little Johnny’s gonna grow up and build robots and have job security. That’s what they see on the outside.

But little do they know, the insider’s world is a whole different ballgame.

Before freshman year started, the picture was so rosy. Everyone was encouraging. Mom and dad were happy. High school friends congratulated you on your brilliance.

“You’ve always been good at math. This will be perfect for you.”

But within a week of starting classes, the reality of the situation starts to hit. The wonderful story everyone has been telling you doesn’t look so wonderful anymore, as upperclassmen start to come out of the woodwork.

  • “Engineers have no life.”
  • “All you guys do is study!”
  • “I had a roommate who stayed up for 2 weeks straight and lived in the computer lab!!!”

Doubt creeps in as you start to wonder, “Am I really cut out for this?”

The truth is, both sides have it wrong. The reality is this:

Yes, engineering school is hard.

Yes, you have to put in the time.

Yes, the exams are sometimes ridiculous (e.g. a 37% was the class average on my first Vibrations exam).

But it’s doable. And if you learn the approach, stay diligent, and do the right work, you not only will graduate, but excel – and leave your Econ major buddies wondering how in the hell you did it because you were out with them every Friday night.

Now, based on my extremely professional, authoritative, expert opinion, there are 3… no actually 4 key frameworks that – if you master – will unlock the secrets of the annoyingly super-productive engineering student.

1. Learning to play the game

Engineering school is a game. And like most games, it has rules, a score, and levels. But also like most games, it can be optimized. There are strategies and shortcuts that go beyond simply going to class and doing the homework. Learn to play it.

2. Hacking the learning process

These are the best practices top engineering students stumble upon. Platitudes like “find a quiet place” or “use a study buddy” have no place here. The brain is a learning machine and hacking that machine means the difference between the dude who never seems to “study” but destroys the curve, and the students who spend hours at the library on weekends but just manage to scrap by.

3. Completing group projects without being charged for homicide

You can master the game. You can become a learning machine. But nothing can derail your confidence and progress like a horrible group project experience. Resentment. Spiteful all-nighters. Pain. It can all be avoided if you prepare yourself beforehand.

4. Landing an awesome entry-level job

A complete and utter mystery for us analytical folk. Should I go to the career fair? What should I say? Should I do research? What about internships? Learn the truth about how to find the good ones.

Framework 1: Learn to play the game

If you’ve spent any amount of time at all in the engineering building(s) at your school, I’m sure you’ve come across the zombies.

The homework zombies, that is.

The individuals who seem to spend every waking minute in the ASME lounge, books strewn about, head in hands, looking like they’re about to be told they’ve just lost their life’s savings after not sleeping for a week…

You know, this guy?

Sleeping under desk
Daylight Savings Duty by Rich Moffitt, CC BY 2.0

Contrary to popular belief, this is not the inevitable life of the dedicated engineering student, but actually the result of some less-than-optimal choices about how to approach your engineering program.

You can have good grades, sleep, and a social life (well, at least among other engineers), despite what business majors will tell you.

Step 1: Before the semester starts, study the syllabus and do an 80/20 on your grade.

It’s late. Friday night. So naturally you and your roommate do what every other normal college student does on a Friday night.

Challenge each other to a Super Mario deathmatch.

The stakes are high (pride is on the line here), so you start thinking strategy.

What should you do?

Well, probably figure out some combination of speed vs. risk of death, and try your damnest to finish each level as fast as possible.

You’re definitely not going to just jump in and indiscriminately start collecting coins, ignoring the fact that you could die at any moment by way of a stray turtle shell or angry Goomba.

goomba by Flavio Ensiki, CC BY 2.0

Well it’s the same story in your coursework.

If you walk into Physics II, attempting to take on every single scrap of textbook reading, ace 100% of your Mastering Physics homework (kill me), do all the recommended practice problems (Gauss’ Law – seriously is this really necessary?), you will destroy your brain and any semblance of a real existence you hoped to have in college (yes, studies have shown this – my own personal studies on myself…).

The point is, classes are goal-oriented.

Yes, we all want to “learn,” “expand our horizons,” “other platitude you hear on your campus tour.” But we’re not in school just to satisfy our intellectual curiosity. If you’re just interested in that, why not pick up a textbook in your free time? Or spend thousands of hours on Google, Wikipedia and Youtube where you can find virtually everything you can expect to be taught in any engineering curriculum. Learning on your own is easy.

So when we say, “I want to learn engineering,” you’re really saying is, “I want to study the specific things about engineering that I need to know in order to get my degree with a respectable GPA.”

It’s the same as saying “I want to get good at Super Mario.” What you really mean is: “I want to get good at finishing levels as quickly as possible, and defeating Bowser at the end.”

And as you’ll find, it’s a more effective approach to learning anyway. Humans are goal-directed animals. Establish a target or a problem to solve and our brains immediately start churning on it.

The more clear and focused the goal, the faster you can develop a strategy and start taking action towards it. You might even set a world record in the process.

So all of this is to say that before you even start the semester, there are two things you can do to 80/20 your course, a. la. Tim Ferriss (per Mr. Pareto).

First, get your hands on a syllabus as soon as possible. Identify the few key assignments that are going to heavily determine your grade.

Two exams determine 60% of the grade.

The top spot is, of course, usually reserved for the final exam, or in some cases the final project report/presentation for project-based courses.

  • Then midterms
  • Then quizzes
  • Then homework assignments (problem sets)
  • Potentially “class attendance” (whatever that means)

What do most students spend the vast majority of their time working on and stressing over?

That’s right: homework assignments! The least, or second-least, important component of your grade.

Hence, zombies.

zombie by Daniel Hollister, CC BY 2.0

Zombies dedicating large 5-hour chunks of Friday nights towards assignments that make up 0.42% of their grade.

Yes, yes I know what you’re going to say:

“But homework problems are the absolute best practice for the exams. If you don’t spend hours and hours on the homework you’ll failllll…”

Okay, somewhat true. Focused practice solving problems likely to show up on the exam is just about the most effective use of time grade-wise you can invest as an engineering student.

But in many cases homework problems give you the run-around, and 50% of those problems will never ever show up on an exam.

Which is why you should…

Step 2: Look for past exams on Koofers

Don’t you wish sometimes your professor could just show you what’s going to be on the final at the beginning of the semester, so that you can just cut to the chase? Start studying now, instead of waiting for 2+ months of anxiety?

Well there’s actually nothing stopping you from doing that.

It just takes a little digging (and not much really to be honest) and you can have 20 final exams in your hands that represent pretty much everything you would see on your Calc final.


From that point you can “reverse engineer” what you need to focus on for the course. Organize the exam problems by topic area and make sure you’re hitting practice problems that cover what you’re seeing on past exams.

Professors have time constraints like everyone else, and really aren’t that imaginative when it comes to developing new and innovative exam problems.

(Note: you can also go and sign up for engineering societies like ASME or others that usually have file cabinets full of exams.)

Framework 2: Hack your learning

Knowing what to spend your time on is of primary importance. But now that you know exactly which exams or assignments will most impact your grade, and have gotten a glimpse into what problems you will have to master for the exams, it’s time to get more efficient.

I’m talking about stuffing new information into your head twice as fast as typical students, who, while well-meaning, fail to learn efficiently because they dive in with whatever horrible study advice they picked up from grade school, parents, friends, etc. and don’t adopt a strategy.

There are best practices out there, folks. And here are the key ones for technical students.

Step 1: Use the 1-2 lecture prep punch to maximize your retention of new material.

The night before class, do a google search on the next thing up on the syllabus. Don’t try to learn it all, just read through the Wikipedia page and the basic information, and generate a list of 10 questions.

L'Hopital's Rule

Now you’ve started your brain in motion and your sub-conscious will be churning on that new topic while you sleep before lecture the next day.

Then, get to lecture 5 minutes early and do a brain dump before class. If you just waltz into class without any sort of preparation, your brain is sitting idle, unreceptive to the completely foreign concepts about to fly your way.

As creative educator Harry Lloyd Miller wrote back in 1927,

“Lecturing is that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the note-book of the professor are transferred through the instrument of the pen to the note-book of the student without passing through the mind of either.”

This doesn’t have to be you.

Before lecture, take 5 minutes and a blank sheet of paper, and write down absolutely anything you can think of related to the topic of discussion for the day.

It doesn’t matter how idiotic you find yourself (and sometimes I even surprise myself with how idiotic that actually is). Just keep writing, drawing diagrams, or doodling about topics covered in last lecture.

By doing this, you’re kick-starting your mental circuits around the topic and initiating the questioning process, creating an anchor point for new learning, identifying exactly what you do and don’t know about a particular topic, and training your MacGyver-like powers of conjuring understanding out of nothing.

Step 2: Learn deeply by cracking the code of worked problems using the Reverse Learning Technique.

Fed up with reading the textbook? Most engineers are. We’re supposed to be out there tinkering, right? Building stuff and being all technical and whatnot?

How frustrating can it be to spend hours in lecture only to feel like you still have no idea how to do the homework problems?

The problem is, this isn’t really how we’re wired to learn. We’re wired to learn by doing.

One method of doing this is reverse engineering stuff – peeling back the layers from a finished product to try to gain insights into the structure, process, and technology that underlies it.

Reverse Learning works in much the same way. It’s a technique for working backwards from the solution to a complex homework problem or potential test question to a set of related core concepts (lecture and textbooks work the opposite way).

Red and Blue Marks

The benefit: this is much much deeper learning than you would ever achieve by staring at your lecture notes and textbook diagrams.

Plus, this is how it works once you graduate into the real world of engineering. You have to figure things out by looking at other people’s solutions, and recognizing the patterns of activity.

Editor’s note: This applies to all sorts of things. The main way I’ve learn how to make the videos on my YouTube channel in such high quality is through watching other polished videos and analyzing their components.

Work your way through the toughest problems you can get your hands on in this way, and you’ll develop the ability to look at a problem, recall what phenomena are acting, and apply a core set of formulas.

Step 3: Use Active Recall. Test your knowledge early and often.

Ever wonder why you can take pages and pages of notes, read the entire textbook, and sit through hours of lecture, but fail to answer virtually any question about the material immediately afterwards?

We run into this unfortunate situation because we think of ourselves like sponges – we’ll somehow absorb this new (albeit extremely uninteresting) information as it washes over us like a warm bath.

As the professor keeps droning on, it’s a fight to pay attention. Your focus drifts and your brain is off to the races about anything and everything besides the new material (Who won the game last night? What should I have for lunch? Is that guy sleeping?).

This is what we call passive learning: the antithesis to efficiently digesting new information.

The solution: something we call active recall (not to be confused with Total Recall).

Listen to Cal Newport, author of How to Win at College, break it down for us:

So first, start with a problem from your study materials, making sure not to look at the solution beforehand.

Then try your best to come up with the solution method and steps off the top of your head, without any supporting materials. Do the best you can and even guess if you have to. Write down what you can, and then go back and verify whether you were correct with the actual solution.

Use Reverse-Learning to understand the underlying concepts and solution techniques first, but then repeat this Active Recall process throughout the semester and you’ll be very prepared for seeing and responding to tough questions on the exam.

Step 4: Rehearse your performance. Become a conditioned machine for attacking test problems.

“Most of the time students spend studying for exams in the traditional way is wasted because they aren’t practicing what they’ll have to do on the test.” ~Adam Robinson, author of What Smart Students Know

What’s the one thing you always hear from otherwise smart and hard-working engineering students following a tough exam?

“I know the stuff. I always do well on projects and problem sets. I just don’t test well.”

We can all empathize. Testing really doesn’t make too much sense in the whole scheme of developing as an engineer.

But like we’ve already discussed – engineering school is a game. And a huge chunk of that game, whether you like it or not, is test performance: the ability to walk in there, not freak out, and regurgitate specific information under extreme time pressure.

Think of it this way. It wouldn’t make too much sense to hear from a PGA tour pro:

“Man, I can really stripe the ball on the range, and sink 30 foot putts on the practice green. So I know that I have the skill. I just don’t play well on the course…”

So think of exams more like a performance. Forget “studying” and focus on “rehearsal.” This means recreating, as closely as you can, the exact test conditions and timing.

And don’t fool yourself into thinking that just because you’ve been able to do a few problems successfully in the past, that you’ll be able to do the same thing on test day. Performance anxiety is a bitch (you know what I’m talking about – that sweaty-palms, holy-shit-I-know-nothing, think you’re going to die feeling).

So not only do you need to rehearse (a la Active Recall), but you also need to do it under time pressure, and do it often. As Tony Robbins says,

“Repetition is the mother of skill.”

And intelligent, focused repetition, is the key to developing your test-taking chops in the shortest amount of time.

Framework 3: How to get through group projects and capstones without resorting to violence or blackmail

This is actually amazing practice for working with un-motivated co-workers, which is an inevitability of life you’ll soon discover upon graduation.

But seriously, group projects suck bad. Real bad. However, you can make the best of them.

Look, you’re going to have the guy who’s taken the class 2 times before. You’re also probably going to have the one guy who is painfully socially awkward. So don’t expect miracles.

Assume that you’re going to have to be the one who pushes the project forward from the outset, and you won’t be in for any unexpected surprises, frustration, or let-downs.

Take control – this is your education.

Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Make a schedule.

Take this as a great opportunity to teach yourself how to use Microsoft Project. Or just map it out by hand. Or use Trello.

Whatever you do, split the project up into multiple deliverables and set intermediate target dates for specific work items (e.g. week 1: brainstorming, week 2: research, week 3: preliminary simulation due, etc.).

Every single college engineering project I participated in ended up in a mad-scramble midnight dash. And ever single time it was entirely a result of poor planning (actually, no planning).

Step 2: Set up regular on-campus weekly meetings, preferably during the day.

Once you have your deliverables outlined, you’ll have something to work towards on a weekly basis. And despite you and your teammates’ best intentions you WILL NOT – I repeat WILL NOT – work on the project until the last minute unless you have a weekly check-in.

Other classes, exams, tailgating, meet-ups, whatever, will always always seem to get in the way unless you can all get together and be held accountable in-person.

Volunteer to do this unless someone else in your group has a burning desire to run the meetings. Being able to organize and run a technical team is probably the single most valuable skill you can develop in preparation for the real engineering world.

Plus, it puts you in the driver’s seat so you won’t have to rely on someone else remembering to do it.

Organize your meetings around your schedule deadlines, set an agenda beforehand by email, and make sure to assign and record next actions that each team member has committed to for the upcoming week.

Yes, it’s more work and somewhat of a headache to round everyone up and deal with the inevitable absences and excuses. But you’ll set yourself up extremely well for Steps 3 and 4.

Step 3: Hold your teammates accountable to getting their shit done on time.

There’s no magic here. If your group is meeting consistently, and agreeing on deliverables for each team member, there aren’t too many excuses to be had. If you’re real, honest, and straightforward in your communication, most people will get on-board quickly and realize that it’s in everyone’s best interest to do their part on time.

But, on the other hand, if they don’t get their part of the project done, take control.

We’re not trying to cultivate company culture here; we’re trying to learn and get a good result. Pick up your teammate’s slack if you have to. If nothing else, they’ll at least feel guilty enough for not contributing that they might even be compelled to write the final report for you.

Step 4: Turn in product and testing deliverables early.

Not because it’s just “good” to get things done early, but because turning in product and testing deliverables to class TA’s or professors early allows you the (golden) opportunity to get feedback and be able to iterate before turning it in.

They’re usually just happy to see that students are putting in the effort, and usually end up giving you feedback that is directly correlated with what they’re looking for – i.e. MORE POINTS.

This will set you way way ahead of your other classmates, who by nature of doing last-minute dashes the day before the due date, have to essentially turn in a first draft without getting that valuable feedback.

That could mean the difference between a 75 and a 95.

Framework 4: Get internships and build stuff – how to guarantee yourself a cool-ass job by getting legit engineering experience

To say there are a lot of misconceptions about what companies are looking for in new engineering hires is an understatement.

  • Do I need a good GPA?
  • What classes do I take?
  • What if my degree doesn’t match up with the job requirements?
  • I didn’t do any undergraduate research – am I screwed?
  • Should I get an internship, or do a co-op?

And the Career Center at your school is probably not much of a help either.

“Really? Is a resume workshop really going to land me a job at 3M or Microsoft or Black & Decker?”

From my perspective, there are 3 things that will significantly contribute to landing a great job after graduation. And none of them involve – thank god – business cards or networking events.

  1. Demonstrate your ability to do hands-on work in a real environment and contribute to a company in a significant way
  2. Stand out by completing remarkable projects
  3. Develop your “natural” network

I’ll focus on #1 and #2 here. There are plenty of amazing materials on the long-game of networking out there (here, here, and here for example).

Step 1: Demonstrate you can do work

There must be a question on r/EngineeringStudents literally every day asking one thing:

“How do I get an internship/entry-level job?”

And half of them are asking about GPA.

  • “What if I have a 2.5? Will anyone ever hire me?”
  • “Do I need a 4.0??”

God no.

Most companies feel more comfortable with someone who knows “how to work.” Now this can be an engineering internship, but it could also be working summers for the family business… or at Pita Pit…

The questions running through their head when they interview you will include:

  • Can you get along with people?
  • Have you built stuff in the past?
  • Can you show up on time?
  • Are you going to be a weirdo?

Now you’re probably thinking, “Yea, okay I’ll do all that and they’ll say, ‘There are 100 other students exactly like this person.'”

That’s where uniqueness comes in.

Step 2: Stand out

Bottom line: you need to do some cool shit.

It doesn’t matter how hard it was. No one is going to care whether you did it over a weekend, or whether it took you 200 hours.

If you make something that grabs someone’s attention (or is “remarkable” in Seth Godin speak), you’ll stand out head and shoulders above everyone else who has the same Fluent simulation or power-tool improvement project on their resume.

The most compelling job application I’ve ever seen came across my desk 2 summers ago (I work at a small manufacturing company in the Automotive business). It was a rather sparse resume, with a GPA listed as “2.7” with a link prominently displayed that said something to the tune of “custom robot hand integrated with Matlab.”

Clicking the link brought me to a youtube video of this particular applicant wearing a custom-built robot glove, manipulating a matrix of force values within a Matlab window.

I was blown away.

I showed it to my team.

I showed it to my boss.

I showed it to the VP.

It was seriously the coolest job application I had ever seen. And honestly, the guy probably just focused on that one project instead of his courses for a semester.

But it paid off. We ended up offering him a position.

But guess what: yup, already took a job at another company he had a better offer with.

Which goes to show you the power of differentiating yourself. It doesn’t take much, but if you stand out, and haven’t completely blown it in the other areas (e.g. failing out of school, zero work experience, being a weirdo, etc.) you’ll stand head and shoulders above other applicants.

Want more tips for succeeding in your engineering career? Here’s one professional engineer’s top advice for students.

Git ‘er dun

Okay people. You’ve made it this far, so I know you have the determination and persistence to get through your degree program unscathed.

So remember:

  1. Put in the time and effort intelligently and selectively (by optimizing for assignments with big grade impact)
  2. Make sure that time is well spent (by using efficient learning techniques the most out of your study time and test prep)
  3. Don’t let group projects drag you down (take ownership and lead)
  4. Get yourself a sweet gig by doing cool stuff (without being a weirdo)

It’s not rocket science (well actually it is for you Aero people), but it does require that you step outside the norm. The difference between barely scraping by, and graduating cum laude might just come down to your strategy.

And in the end, you may just end up building robots after all.

Featured Image: Engineering Department employees, 1962 by Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0