The Definitive Guide for the First Year Engineering Student

Studying engineering can seem overwhelming at first glance, here's what you'll need to survive.
Trevor English
An aerial view of engineering students workingSolStock/iStock

So you've finished your journey of primary education and have taken it upon yourself to further your academics into the realm of science in college.

What should you expect as you start your first year as an engineering student and what can you do to succeed? There is no single right answer and everyone's experience will be different. However, if there was a way we could go back in time, the following are the things we certainly would pay attention to. Here's a first-year guide for engineering college.

The first steps to becoming an engineer

First off, congratulations on taking the first steps into improving humanity! The world revolves around engineers, and so does pretty much everything that is made here. Thanks to intriguing minds that challenge conventional methods and thrive outside the box, the world continues to develop new and better technologies. 

Of course, there are many other ways people contribute to the progress of society, however, engineers will probably remain a keystone in the modern world. Engineers achieve some of the most incredible feats on the planet, and with a little work (and maybe more) you too can fulfill the long-standing legacy that is engineering.

As you might (and should) expect, it is not an easy journey and it will likely be the most demanding task you have ever been challenged with. But fret not, thousands have made the journey before you, and thousands will follow after. It is entirely do-able if you're willing to put in the work. 

1. Use the first year to lay the groundwork

The first semester will be almost indifferent to your last year of high school, except you will move much quicker and go much further in-depth. But do not be fooled, the classes pick up remarkably fast. They'll get progressively harder, if you do not master the fundamental skills, you will be left behind. Even if they are basic, attend all your classes. This is crucial during your first year of engineering.

Professors are great people and tend to be more lenient towards students who show up more (seriously, do not take this lightly- it could save your university career). Sometimes they will give bonus questions in class. Make use of any and all bonus material, this is the university, everything counts. Do not let your first-year GPA bring you down.

2. Professors may not be the best at teaching

The Definitive Guide for the First Year Engineering Student
Source: UC Davis/Flickr

You've entered a specialized discipline, and with that, specialized professors. While they will all be incredibly knowledgeable, they may not be necessarily understandable. To avert this (if at all possible) talk to second and third-year students in your program to see which professors are the easiest to understand. That being said, sometimes the ones who do not speak the most fluently are the best teachers.

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Another indispensable tool for you to use is Rate My Professor - Seriously, before signing up for a course looking them up may be a great help. Make an educated choice, and make it as early as possible. Classes fill up and will leave you with absurd times and unwanted professors.

3. Register for classes as soon as possible

Make absolutely certain that you are awake the moment registration opens. There are thousands of students registering and only so many 3 PM classes with good professors. Miss your chance and you will be stuck with four 8:10 AM classes in a row with little sleep all semester.

If you can (and you should) check the classes and build a schedule with the classes that work for you ahead of time. You can view what classes are available on your school website. If you cannot find it, reach out to your academic advisors or your classmates.

4. Don't procrastinate

If you are willing to bite the bullet and pull a three-day bender with forty cups of coffee for a mediocre C grade then, by all means, procrastinate away. Most of us did. However, do yourself a favor and look at what you are getting yourself into. Look through the internet and pull together some sources to get a rough idea of what you are going to do. You will have pre-labs, labs, assignments, tutorial assignments, projects, quizzes, and more labs.

Time is of the essence, make sure you leave enough of it during your first year of engineering. There will be twenty-page labs, tedious reports, and potentially a seminar or two. Getting a little preemptive research out of the way will save you a ton of time.

Try and be organized, make a plan, and stick with it. Often, labs will be due at the end of class. Printing out your lab manual before your lab could save you major precious time. Check ahead with your professor and your TA before you get caught out.

5. Find the right partners for group projects

First-year you will likely be faced with a group project or two. You will need a partner so make sure you reach out and see who could be a good potential partner. Just because it's university does not mean people will not be lazy. They will, and if you end up with a lazy partner you will be left off with all the work.

The Definitive Guide for the First Year Engineering Student
Source: UC Davis/Flickr

Be warned, you picked your partner so do not expect your professor to bail you out over a sob story. They do not care. Reach out and find a good group of students who are willing to work. If possible, go hang out at the university a week before it starts. Get to know your classmates and know who to look for when the time comes!

6. Pay attention to the syllabus

All your coursework will be outlined as an engineering freshman; due dates, classes, and contact details will all be nestled away somewhere in the syllabus. Make sure you know that every bit of work is worth it, so you do not skip a tutorial or two and come to find they are worth five percent each. This tacks on to being organized, but likely no one is going to tell you to look at it. Stay on top and check it out before your first lecture.

7. Stay up to date on classes

Your school will likely have some online interface with all your lecture content, grades, and class updates. Professors are human, they get sick, classes get canceled. Don't get caught up waking up for an 8 A.m class when it was canceled the night before. Also, if possible, print out your pre-lecture before class. Read over it. If you do not understand, at least you will know what is to come. It is proven that it helps with understanding- make use of this resource!

8. Your grades will not make sense

Welcome to the GPA, or probably the most bizarre method of scoring. While high school percentages are not only useful but also practical, Universities like to shake things up with a 4.0 scale. You will be given a letter grade and then a number. It breaks down something like this

A+  4.0

A     4.0

A-    3.7

B+   3.3

B     3.0

B-    2.7

C+   2.3

C     2.0

C-   1.7

D+  1.3

D    1.0

F    0.0

Check and make sure you are passing. 50% may not cut it anymore. Check your syllabus, often a 2.0 is a pass, which is 60%.

9. Utilize your school's resources

This is probably the most important point as an engineering freshman. You have paid thousands for an institution to prepare you for life. Likely, tens of thousands went through the school before you- the university has seen and deals with every kind of situation you can imagine. For example, health plans cover dental work and can even cover massages and physiotherapy. 

Also, if you run out of food, make a trip down to your financial office. Most universities have emergency funds to give students money to get food and essential supplies. Your student association will also regularly give away free food and other free things like writing utensils, backpacks, and even some large ticket items with the occasional giveaway (money, laptops, trips, and more!).

10. Know where to find the free stuff

University students are prime marketing pawns. Companies will constantly come and showcase their newest tech and will often bring free giveaways. Your school website should have the details of when and where they will be coming. Also, it gives you a chance to meet people in your future industry. Talk with them and express interest, you never know where the next intern is lurking.

11. There are tons of places to make a quick buck when you need it

When people warn that University is expensive, they were not kidding. Expect to occasionally live off $20 a week. It happens. But to prevent it as much as possible keep an eye open for job postings at school. School jobs work around your schedule and often pay well, not to mention it looks fantastic on a resume.

Sometimes there may be postings for research opportunities including researching or being researched, see if you qualify. While it may seem a bit odd to be researched, the pay is often great! Also, chatting with your professor could land you a research opportunity in the summer. Either way is great for making a few dollars.

It is impossible to go over all of the details of what to expect in an engineering student guide. It is a journey that must be traversed with some uncertainty. Hopefully, these pointers will serve you some good throughout your university endeavors. It will undoubtedly be a long and arduous journey. Though it may be difficult, maybe even the most difficult thing you have ever done, it will be worth all the while when you walk out sporting your new engineering degree.

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