A Comprehensive Guide for High School Students Interested in Engineering

Padya Paramita

A Comprehensive Guide for High School Students Interested in Engineering

Engineering is a broad field that appeals to many prospective college students. If you’re among the high school students interested in engineering, not only do you have to work hard in academic spaces, but you must also stand out outside of the classroom. To guide you through the necessary steps to succeed in your college applications and stand out as a memorable candidate, I’ve outlined the academic expectations for engineering majors, top engineering schools, summer opportunities, as well as supplemental essay tips in order to maximize your chances of admission as much as possible. 


High school students interested in engineering must absolutely excel in academics. Colleges expect students to push themselves. For example The Dean of MIT writes, “We want students to make decisions that are educationally sound for them to best prepare them to succeed in college and beyond. We want students to challenge themselves appropriately in the areas that are most interesting to them.” This means taking the most difficult courses your high school offers, consistently performing well in these classes, and demonstrating your academic interests through your transcripts and beyond. The average admitted student brings a GPA above a 3.9 to school such as MIT and Caltech!

School List

Talented high schools students interested in engineering should aim for the best undergraduate engineering schools. According to the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology, there are approximately 570 colleges around the United States offering 4-year Bachelors in Engineering degrees. How do you sort out the hundreds of schools to find the best for you? Consider location, research opportunities, faculty. Below is a list of US News’ 20 Best Undergraduate Engineering Schools, along with their locations:

School Name Location Ranking
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA 1
Stanford University Stanford, CA 2
University of California - Berkeley Berkeley, CA 2
Georgia Institute of Technology Atlanta, GA 4
California Institute of Technology Pasadena, CA 5
Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, PA 6
University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign Champaign, IL 6
University of Michigan - Ann Arbor Ann Arbor, MI 6
Cornell University Ithaca, NY 9
Purdue University - West Lafayette West Lafayette, IN 9
University of Texas - Austin Austin, TX 11
Princeton University Princeton, NJ 12
Columbia University New York, NY 13
Virginia Tech Blacksburg, VA 13
Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, MD 13
Northwestern University Evanston, IL 13
Texas A&M University College Station, TX 13
University of Wisconsin - Madison Madison, WI 13
Rice University Houston, TX 19
University of California - Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA 19
University of Washington Seattle, WA 19

You might also be surprised to find a school such as Purdue University so high in the table above. While the overall institution is ranked 56 and averages a 3.7 GPA with SAT scores between 1190-1390, Purdue Engineering students’ average GPA is 3.94, and average SAT range is 1350-1470. Engineers are not slackers.

You don’t have to apply to just large universities. Columbia University has a combined 3-2 program which allows students from a list of affiliated liberal arts colleges such as Bard College, Bates College, and Wesleyan University and even lower ranked liberal arts colleges such as Queens College, Providence College, and Willamette College to enroll at Columbia Engineering in their junior year of college. If you attend one of the partner schools and fulfill certain requirements, you are guaranteed admission into Columbia Engineering! This is a legitimate back door into one of the best engineering programs in the country.

Similarly, a lot of top engineering programs as UIUC and Carnegie Mellon offer 3-2 engineering programs, allowing high school students interested in engineering from other liberal arts schools to transfer into their engineering programs for a BE. 

Building Your Application

Leadership and Initiative

Since there are a lot of high school students interested in engineering, the competition is tough. Of course, you should study hard in high school, take challenging math and science courses (check the course requirements for the schools you apply to!), and know that this is what you want to do. But that won’t set you apart. Everyone applying wants to be an engineer, obviously, and they will probably have strong grades and test scores, so you must set yourself apart through other ways. 

A couple ways to do so are:

  • Rack up on research and lab experience: Even if you fall among high schools students interested in engineering, your experiences may include drama club, debate club, and intramural basketball team. They should also include something related to engineering. Your application will not convince the school that you’re dedicated to your interest in engineering if you’ve done nothing to pursue it outside the classroom. Since the technology can be expensive, a lot of high schools don’t have the best equipment. So why not try and join a research lab? Find a lab at a local research center or university and talk to a professor about interning or helping out with research on environmental engineering or biomedical engineering. You will learn more about the field you’re pursuing, and it will look impressive in your college applications.
  • Start your own initiative: Lack of opportunities at your school shouldn’t be an excuse! Engineering is an extremely broad umbrella. You can build your own computer program. You can ask your mom if you can use that empty basement no one uses, turn it into a maker space, and invite your friends. You can go to the nearest lake and collect samples to carry out an experiment. Then, you can record it in ways like writing a research paper and publishing it in a journal, or  making a documentary about the students who work at your maker space. Not only will you establish yourself as an engineer, but you will be a leader and an innovator as well!

Best Engineering/STEM Summer Programs

Engineering summer programs, usually hosted by prestigious universities, offer productive ways to spend your time off from school, as they often provide you with valuable opportunities to engage in the sciences with greater focus and use your knowledge of STEM towards real-world applications. The following programs introduce participants to hands-on experiences at state-of-the-art research labs and chances to work with experienced mentors in engineering or broader STEM fields.

  • MIT Research Science Institute: 80 high school students participate in this free-of-cost program, working with accomplished STEM professors who serve as mentors. Your research process at this standout program for high school students interested in engineering starts from scratch—first reading up on existing literature in your field, then designing your research plan, carrying it out, and finally presenting the results through a conference-style oral and written report. RSI can prepare you to work on exploring issues that concern the world, and help you grow into a global citizen. Participation in RSI can certainly provide you with a boost in your college applications, especially if you continue conducting research on your topic once the program is over.
  • Engineering Summer Academy at Penn (ESAP): Students participating in this 3-week intensive program have to enroll in one of the six following classes: Biotechnology, Computer Graphics, Computer Networks, Computer Science, Nanotechnology, and Robotics. The courses are designed to give you a sense of college-level engineering classes, with opportunities to dive into hands-on practical projects inside the Penn Engineering labs and develop connections with like-minded peers.
  • MIT Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES): If you’re a strong student interested in STEM from one of these underrepresented backgrounds, check out MITES: a free and rigorous six-week-long science and engineering camp for rising seniors. You have to take one math course, one life sciences course, one physics course, one humanities course, and an elective course, the placement for which are determined by diagnostic tests during orientation. MITES prides itself on stressing the value of pursuing advanced technical degrees and careers while helping students develop the skills necessary to achieve success in science and engineering. 
  • Smith College Summer Science and Engineering Program (SSEP): Every summer, SSEP welcomes 100 girls from all over the world to the Smith campus to gain hands-on experiences in science and engineering under the membership of Smith’s life and physical sciences and engineering faculty. Students take two courses over two sessions and can choose from a wide variety of courses such as “The Chemistry of Herbal Medicine,” “Introduction to Python Programming Through Game Design,” and “The Sociophysiology of Exercise, Sport, and Fitness.” Student teams conduct lab and field work, and focus on developing critical thinking and analytical skills, along with mastering top-notch engineering equipment.
  • Stony Brook University Garcia Summer Research Program: Next on our list is the Garcia Summer Program, which brings together gifted high school students to design original research projects for seven weeks under the guidance of the Garcia Center for Polymers faculty. Past students have gone on to take their research to grander stages such as ISEF and received patents, awards, and acceptance into undergraduate programs of their choice. If you want to, you can continue working in the Center throughout the academic year under their Mentor Program, which allows you to plan an ongoing research schedule under a Stony Brook faculty member.
  • COSMOS: The California State Summer School for Mathematics & Science, or COSMOS, is an intensive four-week addition to our STEM summer programs list that takes place at UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and UC Santa Cruz. COSMOS is designed to help talented STEM students hone their skills through a challenging curriculum, hands-on lab experience, and the opportunity to work with faculty, researchers, and scientists on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. COSMOS accepts 150-200 students per campus, and to be eligible, students must have a GPA of 3.5 or above.

When you apply to college, you’ll be competing against thousands of other engineering applicants. To distinguish yourself, you have to convince the admissions officers that you’ve got what it takes to succeed in a rigorous science-oriented setting. Acceptance to, and strong performance in, summer programs can boost your applications and help make a compelling case demonstrating your dedication to the field. 

Best Engineering/STEM Competitions

Another unique way to stand out among other high school students interested in engineering is to participate in—and attempt to win—high school science competitions. Some of the most prestigious competitions are:

  • Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF): Hosted by the Society for Science and the Public, ISEF is one of the biggest deals when it comes to STEM competitions. Every year, some of the brightest high school minds in the world come to ISEF to showcase their research, and its potential to make a significant positive impact on our world.  For example, this year’s Grand Winner devised a way to help spinal surgeons improve the accuracy of their screw placement using machine learning and computer vision. That’s definitely a game changing creation! Even just attending ISEF is considered an honor. Getting there requires students to participate in an ISEF Affiliated Science Fair, held in all 50 states and over 75 countries. ISEF gives out roughly $5 million dollars a year in prizes, and many attendees continue their work beyond the competition.
  • Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS): Like ISEF, STS is another research competition hosted by the Society for Science and the Public. While ISEF is the largest research competition in the world, STS is a national competition, meaning only students in US High Schools (or US Citizens abroad) can participate. From a pool of roughly 2000 high school seniors (who apply online), 40 finalists are selected and flown to Washington DC to compete for 10 awards. To give you an idea of the types of projects STS looks for, the winner of last year’s Top Award (worth $250,000) devised a mathematical model to determine the possible locations of exoplanets - planets outside our solar system - that may have been missed by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope. That’s pretty out of this world (dad-joke)! Again, like ISEF, the emphasis is on science research that has the capacity to change our world – exactly what STEM-heavy colleges like MIT, CalTech and Stanford in particular are all about.
  • Google Science Fair - Google started as a research project at Stanford, so unsurprisingly the company (now known as Alphabet) loves scientists, engineers and people who genuinely follow their curiosity to some intriguing and innovative end. Google Science Fair launched in 2011 and has gone on to become one of the most well-regarded competitions in the world. Google Science Fair is a much more accessible event for the average student than the majority of competitions on this list. While doing well on ISEF often requires the support of a faculty mentor and possibly even university-resources and funding, there is no entry fee for Google Science Fair. The application process is entirely online, and the organization supplies some very good resources for students (and their teachers) to get started. Past winners have included a student who found a way to increase the safety of Alzheimer’s patients, and another student who built an app which takes photos and analyzes them for color and shape to determine whether the object has a particular substance. The grand prize winner takes home $50,0000 in scholarship money, so placing in this competition can help subsidize your college education.
  • Davidson Fellows Scholarship - Open to US Citizens and Permanent Residents under the age of 18, the Davidson Fellows Scholarship looks for students who are pursuing a ‘significant piece of work’ as defined by experts in their respective fields. Students receive scholarships of either $50,000, $25,000 or $10,000 depending on the quality and completeness of their work. From the 2018 Fellows, one of the top prize winners constructed an early warning system to detect the Zika virus in mosquitoes (reducing current research methods of 2-4 weeks down to 15 minutes).
  • iGEMS - Initially founded as a class at MIT in 2003, today the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEMS) competition is an opportunity for high school students interested in engineering from around the world to work on serious global challenges using ‘synthetic biology’. Examples of past projects include environmental bioremediation, medical delivery systems, and alternative energy sources. Successful projects require hard work and dedication, and, unlike the other competitions on this list, participation in iGEMS requires a sizable team (8+ members). 

Developing a field of interest early and earnestly can yield a significant edge over the competition in the admissions process. Excelling in high school science competitions is a great way to achieve this edge.

Supplemental Essays

And of course, when you apply to a specific engineering program or major, the admissions officers must understand what makes you exceptional and how you can contribute to their school. To do so, you must take advantage of the supplemental essays offered by top schools Your supplemental essays should capture your interest in engineering. It could elaborate on what drove you to the exact field of engineering you wish to pursue. This is your shot to tell a story that no other applicant can. Show admissions officers that you are a candidate who would bring unique experiences to their school.

Some essay questions from the 2020-2021 application cycle are:

Columbia: For applicants to Columbia Engineering, please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the areas of study that you previously noted in the application. (200 words or fewer)

Your answer to this question should focus on tying in your previous engineering experiences to the  opportunities available to you at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering at Columbia. Don’t just write about engineering as a broad discipline. Think about the area you’ve chosen - such as Electrical Engineering or Earth & Environmental Engineering - and express how your curiosity about that specific field arose. 

Detail any specific instances of you working with topics that fall under your chosen concentration. 

If you want to study computer science, for example, what specific experiences do you have with programming or app building? Was there a particular incident where you decided that this was the field for you? Then, connect your answer to the Fu Foundation School. Which courses under Columbia Engineering’s Computer Science curriculum fit with your plans the most? Is there a particular research program that perfectly augments your interest within computer science? Your experiences and active persuasion of your choice of concentration should leave admissions officers with the confidence that you’re not just a good fit for Columbia, but for Columbia Engineering specifically.

Cornell: Tell us about what excites you most about Cornell Engineering and/or studying engineering at Cornell University. How do you see yourself becoming a part of the Cornell Engineering community?

Since the prompt emphasizes your excitement towards studying engineering, your essay should too. Think about how your interest in the field originated, what issues matter most to you, and how you can make an impact at the Cornell School of Engineering.  

Narrow your focus by thinking about the major within Cornell Engineering that you wish to pursue. How would a degree in Material Science and Engineering or Biological Engineering from Cornell help you build on what you’ve worked on so far? If you’ve prepared through a rigorous STEM-heavy course load or an extracurricular initiative you’ve implemented to specialize in the area, this is the place to talk about it. Upon reading your response, admissions officers should be confident that you are not only a strong candidate for an engineering degree, but also that you’re specifically geared for success as a future Cornell-educated engineer. The university wants your answer to reflect your strongest personal attributes, and this essay is an effective way of showing what you care about, while demonstrating knowledge of Cornell’s engineering offerings. 

Hopefully now you’ve obtained a good understanding of what it takes to build your profile in such a way that you stand out among top candidates. Gaining admission into an engineering program or undergraduate engineering school is by no means simple. However, if you work hard to specialize within your interest and build a unique profile, you’ll certainly increase your chances. Best of luck!

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