10 Things that I wish I knew as a Freshman in Engineering School

They say hindsight is 20/20. There are lots of things that I wish I knew before entering into engineering school. I hope this article provides some value for students about to enter engineering (and even those who are still studying engineering)!

1. Practice exams and questions are the best way to prepare for tests

It wasn’t until my second semester of engineering that I figured this tip out. Grinding through as many practice problems or tests as possible is almost always the best way to fully grasp a topic and be able to apply your learnings quickly on an exam. The way university is set up almost seems backwards. They lecture us first and then give us the practice problems. I found that the opposite worked best for me. If I do a practice set before a lecture, I retain a lot more of the information when I do attend the lectures.

2. GPA isn’t everything and extracurricular activities can compensate for a lower GPA

In my first year I was completely obsessed with getting as high of a GPA as possible. I cared to the extent that I would neglect other important areas of my life. In my second year I let my GPA drop a bit and started to get more involved with volunteer activities and personal projects. I found that employers actually cared more about the extra activities I was doing and they gave me lots of things to talk about in interviews. 

3. Consistency is the key to reducing stress (sleeping and studying)

It wasn’t until my senior year that I fully realized the importance of consistency. After some major health issues in my junior year, I decided that I needed to improve my stress management skills. I found that:

  • Sleeping and waking up at the same time of day
  • Studying at the same time of day for the same amount of hours

Made me feel refreshed, made studying easier, and lowered my stress drastically. Before incorporating these two simple rituals, I found that I would sleep at different times depending on when assignments were due. For example, if an assignment was due the next day I would start when I felt like it and then work late into the night until I finished. This really messed with my circadian rhythms, and as a result I felt more depressed and stressed. However, after incorporating these rituals I found that starting any type of work was getting easier; I didn’t need motivation because working was a habit. I was also finishing things earlier then they were due. 

4. Taking scheduled breaks for high density fun is important

I took the term “high density fun” from Thomas Frank of collegeinfogeek. Essentially, it means making time in your schedule to just unwind and do something that is deeply fun; the activity should make you forget about the other stresses of your life. In my early years of university, I would often just take small breaks to surf the internet, text message, talk with friends on facebook, or read articles. This is just superficial “fun”. It’s either low quality fun or pseudowork that makes us feel like we’re still being productive. It doesn’t really do much to lower stress. Instead, it’s better to actually do something we love, adds value to our life, and helps us fully relax. Some examples may be:

  • Grabbing coffee with a friend
  • Playing a new video game that you’ve been wanting to play
  • Making music
  • Going out for dinner with a loved one
  • Going out with friends
  • Watching a new movie in theatres or on Netflix

Most people will find that they come back to their work refreshed which helps them be more productive than they would have been had they not taken the break. 

5. Don’t believe someone when they say a semester or a course is easy

This is a trap I’ve fallen for many times in university. Someone who is in the same program as me but a year ahead tells me that my next semester will be easier than my current one. I end up entering the course/semester underestimating it and not doing as well as I should have. The reality is, different people find different courses easier and harder. Furthermore, sometimes some students get a professor that is easier or harder than the ones we had. In engineering, it’s better to assume that everything remains equally difficult. Never underestimate a course. 

6. Finals are a lot less stressful when you study early

This one is kind of common sense, but for lots of engineers (including myself) we forget this. We are so exhausted from our workload that when we finally get a few days where nothing is due we decide to do nothing. It’s much better to do small studying sessions instead of nothing to prepare for the exam that’s coming in a week or two. This way we don’t have to sacrifice our sleeping schedules to prepare for exams. 

7. Going to a professor’s office hours can save time on difficult problems

Marking your professors’ office hours on a calendar at the beginning of the semester can make your life a lot easier. If an assignment is started earlier, we can take the time to meet with our professors’ in their office when we encounter any problems while completing the assignment. Before going to office hours I used to struggle for hours on a problem until I realized there was one simple concept that I just wasn’t understanding fully. If I went to my professor’s office hours I probably could have got help with the concept in 10 minutes or less. Time management is crucial in engineering school, so it’s not worth wasting hours trying to figure out concepts that can be taught to you in minutes. However, you should have attempted the problem and have a few notes/questions prepared to ask your professor. 

8. Coffee is mostly unnecessary

In university I developed a really bad caffeine addiction. At one point I was drinking 2-3 large coffees a day! In my senior year, I started to sleep on a consistent schedule and found that I naturally have enough energy in the day to do all my work. We should listen to our bodies instead of suppressing the signals they send us; when we’re tired we should sleep. Drinking coffee in excess will just mess with our circadian rhythms and make us more stressed. Coffee is best used on days where we’re not able to get enough sleep and need a quick fix. 

9. Finishing a degree a year or two later is not a big deal

Many engineering students are in a rush to complete their degrees in the shortest time possible. I’m not really sure what the motive is but the truth is that employers really don’t care. Students that take less courses, so that they can get a higher gpa and get involved with more extracurricular activities will actually be more competitive when applying for jobs. Don’t be worried about taking less courses unless of course the reasons are financial. It may pay off by making you more competitive as an employee in the end for a job that you really want. 

10. Summarizing key points of an assignment after completing it makes studying for finals a lot easier

After spending hours on completing assignments, I was always exhausted. I just wanted to put it away and get it handed in the next day. Unfortunately, I usually forgot all the important formulas and tricks in the assignment by the time finals came around and had to relearn them. By taking 15 to 30 minutes after each assignment to summarize they key points and learnings I found that studying for finals became a lot easier because I could just review my summary sheets. 

Updated January 22, 2017: Check out my Part 2 to this article. 

What do you wish you knew as a freshman?