The Best Undergraduate Engineering Schools

Padya Paramita

The Best Undergraduate Engineering Schools

Whether it’s always been your dream career, or you discovered your prowess one fine Tuesday in the middle of physics lab, if you wish to study engineering, why wait until graduate school? Consider applying to one of the best undergraduate engineering schools in the country. Attending an undergraduate engineering program provides students with hands-on experience to prepare for the wide array of jobs out there. So, it’s no surprise that engineering is one of the most popular majors.

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? To ease your search, I have outlined the best undergraduate engineering schools in the country, what makes some of the top programs unique, what you can do with an undergraduate engineering degree, and application tips to help you gain acceptance into one of the best undergraduate engineering schools.

What are some of the best undergraduate engineering schools in the country?

Before we get into the best undergraduate engineering schools, let’s talk about why you might want to get a Bachelors of Engineering over a Bachelors of Science degree. While a Bachelors of Science can be achieved at most universities, having completed a broad range of courses within three to five years, a Bachelors of Engineering - as the name suggests - is for students who complete an academic program in engineering within three to five years. A BE is more hands-on than a BS. A Bachelors of Science focuses more on theoretical knowledge, while a BE provides students with a more practical approach. If you want to start working on research and innovation opportunities as soon as possible, an engineering undergraduate degree may be better for you.

At the core of the best undergraduate engineering schools are basic science courses which every engineering student needs to master. Through the broader classes, students learn theoretical and practical approaches to problem solving, mathematical modeling, and logical thinking. Many of the top schools also require their students to take a few humanities courses in earlier years to maintain a well-balanced education.

In the latter part of your undergraduate experience, you choose specific concentrations to study more in depth, such as mechanical, aeronautical, chemical, civil, computer engineering, etc. You are taught to apply the skills learned in your courses and concentration to research, internships, and daily life in ways that will prepare you for the workforce after college. This is very common at the best undergraduate engineering schools - for example, 60% of Rice engineering undergraduates have conducted research at one of 17 research centers or with one of 74 research groups by the time they graduate.

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 3
California Institute of Technology Pasadena, CA 4
Georgia Institute of Technology Atlanta, GA 4
Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, PA 6
University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign Champaign, IL 6
University of Michigan - Ann Arbor Ann Arbor, MI 6
Cornell Universty Ithaca, NY 9
Purdue University - West Lafayette West Lafayette, IN 9
University of Texas - Austin Austin, TX 9
Princeton University Princeton, NJ 12
Virginia Tech Blacksburg, VA 13
Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, MD 14
Texas A&M University College Station, TX 14
University of Wisconsin - Madison Madison, WI 14
Columbia University New York, NY 18
Duke University Durham, NC 18
Rice University Houston, TX 18
University of California - Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA 18
University of California, San Diego La Jolla, CA 18
University of Washington Seattle, WA 18

When you apply to a college using the Common Application, UC application system, or ApplyTexas, you have to indicate that you are applying specifically to the engineering college within a given school. So when you are planning your college list, you must have confidence that engineering is the career you see yourself pursuing, or else you will not enjoy the intense environments at the best undergraduate engineering schools.

Often it is more difficult to get into one of the best undergraduate engineering schools than it is to gain acceptance to the general liberal arts schools within these institutions. This is the case because the engineering programs are smaller, with higher demand. For example, the UC Berkeley’s School of Engineering acceptance rate for 2018-19 was 8.5% while the overall acceptance rate was 15%. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering acceptance rate was 11% compared to the overall acceptance rate of 17%.

You might also be surprised to find a school such as Purdue University so high on the list of the best undergraduate engineering schools. 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.

Interestingly, 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 undergraduate engineering schools in the country.

Similarly lot of the best undergraduate engineering schools such as UIUC and Carnegie Mellon offer 3-2 engineering programs - allowing students from other liberal arts school to transfer into their engineering programs for a BE.

What makes each of the best undergraduate engineering schools different?

Now that you’re familiar with which schools are considered the best undergraduate engineering schools, it’s time to narrow down your list even further. You should continue to think about which of these schools is the right one for you. Every program on the list is a top-notch institution where you can gain hands-on experience in the ever-changing world of engineering at state-of-the-art facilities. The best undergraduate engineering schools differ in course offerings, internship opportunities, and emphasize different concentrations. No matter which school you attend, you will have a great engineering education, and opportunities to embrace your entrepreneurial and creative side. But, of course, they are not all identical.

It’s important to choose a school whose mission and specialties align with your specific interest in engineering, so that you can make the most out of the unique experiences available. While all of the best undergraduate engineering schools offer concentrations in the basics - mechanical, chemical, civil engineering - each school offers more specific and unique concentrations of its own, such as aeronautical, nuclear, or bioengineering. I included a table that includes specific programs and opportunities at each institution.

School Name Unique Opportunities
MIT Flexible degree options for students to build their own course load in aeronautics and astronautics, chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering. Maker Lodge offers students access to incredible equipment and resources. Sandbox Innovation Fund Program (https://sandbox.mit.edu/) helps students fund their own companies. MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (http://misti.mit.edu/) match students with international internship, research, and teaching opportunities around the world.
Stanford Choose from 16 different majors such as Bio Engineering, Environmental Systems Engineering, and Management Science and Engineering, or design your own. Research Experience for Undergraduate programs give students the opportunity to work with faculty and research groups. Global Engineering program (https://engineering.stanford.edu/students-academics/global-engineering-programs) enhances the knowledge and skills of engineering through an internship abroad.
UC Berkeley Unique majors such as Nuclear Engineering and Industrial Engineering & Operations Research. The Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation helps students get hands-on experience in design and prototyping. The Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology (http://cet.berkeley.edu/) helps students launch new ventures and companies. Dual degree in business and engineering available with Berkeley-Haas Business School.
Caltech A student to faculty ratio of 3:1 which helps you know your professors better and learn from them one-on-one. SURF program (http://sfp.caltech.edu/programs/surf) which makes research a creative and intellectual activity. Students interested in space engineering have the opportunity to apply to any of the NASA/JPL summer programs (http://sfp.caltech.edu/programs/jpl_nasa_program).
Georgia Tech Eight schools within the College of Engineering are dedicated to specific fields: Aerospace Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Materials Science Engineering, Mechanical Engineering. Five-year Co-Op program and semester long internships (https://coe.gatech.edu/academics/work-experience-through-co-op-and-internships) which allow students to combine their classroom learning with paid work experience directly related to their major. Access to multiple maker spaces and startup incubators such as Techs Square, Create-X, and Enterprise Innovation Institute.
Princeton Interdepartmental certificate programs such as Architecture & Engineering, Robotics & Intelligent Systems, and Sustainable Energy. Students have the chance to make an impact by working alongside faculty to help solve worldly issues in Bioengineering and Health, Data Science, Energy and Environment, Entrepreneurship, Public Policy, Robotics and Cyberphysical System, Security and Privacy, and the Future Metropolis. Princeton Engineering Education for Kids (http://www.princeton.edu/~peek/) allows undergraduates to visit elementary school classrooms and teach basic principles of engineering.
Northwestern Promotes “whole-brain engineering” (https://www.mccormick.northwestern.edu/whole-brain/) which urges students to combine the elements of left-brain thinking - analysis, logic, synthesis and math - with the elements of right-brain thinking - intuition, thought, and creative problem solving. Integrated Engineering Studies major allows you to build an individualized engineering degree program such as Entrepreneurial Design, or Technology and Design for the Arts. Collaborative research across departments and disciplines to tackle societal issues.
University of Wisconsin - Madison Multidisciplinary certificate programs such as Certificate in Technical Japanese Studies and Certification in Engineering Thermal Energy Systems. The Undergraduate Research Scholars program (https://www.engr.wisc.edu/academics/beyond-the-classroom/undergraduate-research/) allows students to participate in research with faculty for school credit in their first or second year. The Co-operative Education and summer internship programs (https://ecs.wisc.edu/students/co-op-and-internship/) help students gain practical engineering work experience.
Rice University Interdisciplinary minors such as Energy & Water Sustainability and Global Health Technologies. The Rice Center for Engineering Leadership works with students to combine leadership skills with their passion in engineering. Entrepreneurship opportunities such as the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship (https://alliance.rice.edu/), and the Rice Business Planning competition (https://rbpc.rice.edu/), and offers of $10,000 to fund student startup ideas.
University of Washington Maple Hall Living and Learning Community has a maker space and a lab with 3-D printers, laser cutter, and other art and design tools. Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship (https://foster.uw.edu/centers/buerk-ctr-entrepreneurship/) hosts the Environmental Innovation Challenge and the Health Innovation Challenge, encouraging solutions to global problems. Unique study abroad programs, such as Engineering Italy: Engineering Fundamentals in the Eternal City, where students study and explore the ancient and contemporary engineering across Rome.

What to do with an undergraduate engineering degree

Now that you’ve seen all that you can do at the best undergraduate engineering schools, you might also be wondering about your future. What can you do with an undergraduate engineering degree once you’re out of school? Good news - engineering is one of the most versatile majors in terms of career prospects. Tens of thousands of jobs are posted every year for the many fields within engineering. Computer engineering had an astounding 1.7 million jobs posted in the last year while electrical engineering had an impressive 1.1 million.

Alumni from the best undergraduate engineering schools generally earn higher salaries upon graduation than their classmates. The starting salary for Cornell College of Engineering 2018 graduates was $82,709, which is significantly higher than the school’s overall average starting salary of $63,071. At Johns Hopkins, the average starting salary for 2018 engineering graduates was $76,396, while the overall average starting salary was $60,768. It’s hard work but it pays off!

Your options are pretty much endless. Here are some ways to utilize your undergraduate engineering degree to help you further:

  • Receive competitive job offers - A primary reason to attend one of the best undergraduate engineering schools is to find a job straight out of college at a prestigious company. Whether you become a mechanical engineer or an aeronautical engineer, there will be high demand for you all around. Princeton engineering graduates have gone on to work at companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Schlumberger, Merck, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Intel, Space X, Tesla, and Ford. Studying engineering can help you use those hands-on experiences from the classroom, labs, and internships and bring them to the “real world.” Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the starting salaries aren’t half bad either.

  • Go to graduate school - Having a degree from one of the best undergraduate engineering schools will help you survive in a graduate school for engineering, which is likely dominated by other engineering majors. A BE is more general than an ME. Getting an ME helps you understand your discipline further, as well as have the opportunity to lead your very own team of engineers. Going to graduate school further increases your problem-solving skills, and instead of spending time on core classes and humanities courses, you can dive right into your chosen field of study. In 2017, MIT BE engineers’ median starting salary was $85,000, whereas the median starting salary for engineers with an ME was $115,000. Going to graduate school also opens up whole new job prospects for you.

  • Entrepreneurship - As you might have guessed from the opportunities available at the best undergraduate engineering schools, they often equip you with business and entrepreneurship skills. That’s because being able to market yourself and your product has become a key aspect of engineering. If you build something, but don’t have the skills to spread awareness or manage finances, you will not be able to sell it, no matter how brilliant it may be. If you find yourself more and more interested in entrepreneurship courses and competitions while you’re in college, why not take it up a notch and start your own company? Attending engineering school will provide you with the skills and resources to do so.

  • Use the flexibility of your degree to expand to other fields - You might grow tired of all the numbers and data you have to look through every day of engineering school, and want to work in a different field for a while. Have no fear! Engineering is one of the most flexible majors in the world. You can use your knowledge of engineering to become a technical writer, or you can take those entrepreneurial skills to go into marketing, or use your computer engineering skills to apply for a consultant role at an IT company.

  • Community Development - If you’re passionate about advocacy for environmental and global issues, as well as engaged in community development and wish to continue that, an engineering degree is very appropriate. To prepare you for this role, some of the best undergraduate engineering schools including Purdue University, as well as Arizona State University, offer Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), a program where teams of students pair with local and international community organizations to address community and environmental needs. Engineering skills can help build infrastructure for your city, create awareness campaigns regarding climate change, run projects to ensure clean water for all, and more.

Application tips

As I’ve mentioned before, the best undergraduate engineering schools can be quite selective. 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, as shown by the median SAT scores at some of the best undergraduate engineering schools.

School Name Average SAT
MIT 1500-1590
Stanford 1420-1590
CalTech 1510-1600
Carnegie Mellon 1480-1550
UIUC 1430-1550
UMichigan 1310-1500
Cornell 1420-1550
Purdue 1350-1470

You have your work cut out for you. So how do you make your application stand out?

  • Be specific in your application essays - 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.

 

Writing excellent supplemental essays can also help boost your application to the best undergraduate engineering schools. The Caltech 2018-19 supplemental essay prompts asked:

  • Describe three experiences and/or activities that have helped develop your passion for a possible career in a STEM field. (Your response for each experience/activity should range between 10-120 words.)
  • Much like the life of a professional scientist or engineer, the life of a "Techer" relies heavily on collaboration. Knowing this, what do you hope to explore, innovate, or create with your Caltech peers? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)
  • Caltech students are often known for their sense of humor and creative pranks. What do you like to do for fun? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)
  • The process of discovery best advances when people from various backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives come together. How do you see yourself contributing to the diversity of Caltech's community? (Your response should range between 250-400 words.)

Through the first question, admissions officers want to learn more of what engages you about STEM. Take this as an opportunity to elaborate a little further on what you’ve listed in your Common App Activities section. Find three unique activities which you believe define your passion in STEM, and that you believe could help you succeed at Caltech.

In the second question, the admissions officers want to know how much research you’ve done on their school. This is the time to combine your interests and your knowledge of Caltech and talk about the ways a collaborative experience using the facilities available at Caltech can help you achieve your goals.

The third question should highlight a passion - non-academic, because they asked what you do for fun. And you should be playful with this essay. Write about something you enjoy doing, an uncommon hobby if possible, for example if you’re a pastry chef, or a black belt in karate.

The final question helps Caltech maintain a diverse pool of applicants. If there is a part of your heritage or identity that you are proud to celebrate and bring to your new college community, write about it. If you participate in an unusual activity and wish to bring your knowledge of the extracurricular to college and even start an organization, write about that.

Your supplemental essays should be the perfect blend of your individuality, and a showcase of your knowledge regarding how the school can help you. But there are a couple of more things you should keep in mind:

  • Rack up on research and lab experience - If you are applying to one of the best undergraduate engineering schools, your experiences may include drama club, debate club, and intramural basketball team, but 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 - whether you write a research paper and publish it in a journal, or you make 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!

 

Choosing from the best undergraduate engineering schools is undoubtedly a daunting process. However, if you narrow down your focus, actively start engaging in activities that convey your passion and leadership, and write stellar essays to convince a well-balanced list of schools that you're the one to watch out for, you’ll be in a good place. If an undergraduate engineering school is for you, set up an appointment with your counselor, and start working on your activities as early as possible. Good luck!

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