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Computer Engineering vs. Software Engineering: Which Is Right For You

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What’s Covered:


With new technology being created every day, the need for engineers keeps growing. Two similar majors in the field, computer engineering, and software engineering focus on working with computers and their systems.


While the majors share a lot of similarities, there are some big differences that can help lead you to the major that’s right for you and your interests. 


Computer Engineering vs Software Engineering


As a computer engineering major, you’ll focus on topics such as hardware, software, electrical engineering, and how to design, develop, and analyze these topics. You’ll use skills-based in mathematics, physics, and computer science. The computer engineering major is broad, so be sure to narrow down your focus to something more specific, such as microprocessors or electronic circuits.  


Those who choose to major in software engineering will learn different aspects of designing, analyzing, and maintaining software. As a software engineer, you’ll need to have good problem-solving and research skills, mathematical modeling and analytic skills, know multiple coding languages and work well in a team.


The main difference between the two is that computer engineering focuses more on the physical hardware systems, while software engineering focuses more on implementing, testing, and maintaining software.


Preparing for Computer Engineering and Software Engineering in High School


As you prepare for these majors in high school, a lot of the recommended classwork will be similar. You should focus on classes that revolve around math and science. Consider taking higher-level physics or calculus courses to refine your theoretical thinking. Remember that if you can take AP classes, and do well in them, those will be impressive additions to your profile. Additionally, if your high school offers any programming or computer system classes, such as CompSci, these classes will be a big boost to your college application.


If your school doesn’t offer programming/computer system classes, there are a variety of free courses online that you can take yourself. Some great options include edX and Coursera.


For extracurriculars, you should try and participate in any engineering-related or computer-related clubs or activities. If your high school does not offer such opportunities, you should look into starting your own! Not only will this show that you’re interested in the field, but also that you’re a leader who takes initiative.


You may also be able to find internships or STEM-related programs in your area. Some examples include CalTech’s Da Vinci Camp and MIT’s Research Science Institute. Another option is to shadow any professionals in the computer or software engineering fields. This opportunity would give you an idea of what the field is like and if it’s the right fit.


The College Experience


Before you can actually major in computer or software engineering, you need to find the right school to pursue this interest. You can use CollegeVine’s free chancing engine and school search tool to filter for schools by computer or software engineering majors and see your chances of acceptance. You can also indicate your preferences for size, location, diversity, and more.



Computer Engineering 


When you study computer engineering in college, you’ll continue to take math and science courses like in high school, but you’ll also take more advanced courses related to computer engineering. For example, at the University of California Irvine, computer engineering students take programming, network analysis, electronics classes, and more.


Software Engineering


The software engineering major also features some math classes, such as statistics and algebra. As a whole though, the courses for this major tend to be more focused on programming, data, and development. The University of California Irvine requires software engineering majors to take classes such as programming languages, software design, and data structure and analysis. 


For both computer engineering and software engineering, it’s important to select a college that has other ways to get involved in your major outside of class. Related clubs, research projects, hackathons, or internships are a great way to build your resume and get experience in the field. Some examples of these clubs and organizations at colleges include the MIT Society of Women Engineers and Carnegie Mellon’s Build18 Hackathon.


It’s also important to network with your professors and attend any professional development events, as these can be important connections for finding a job in the future.


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After College


Grad School


While it’s not necessary to go to grad school for computer engineering or software engineering, it can open the door to more high-paying opportunities and managerial roles. If you think grad school is something you want to pursue, it’s important to maintain a high GPA in college, especially in your STEM classes.


Computer Engineering: Career


With a computer engineering degree, there are plenty of career options. Career paths can range from hardware engineering, which includes designing, testing or analyzing computer hardware, to information security which focuses on keeping data safe from hackers and malware.


The average salary for a computer engineer in the United States in 2021 was $92,045. Another thing that’s important when looking at computer engineering jobs is the city you’ll work in. Some of the highest paying cities for computer engineers include San Jose, California, Oakland, California, and Tanaina, Arkansas.


Software Engineering: Career


As a software engineer, your career options often focus on data and programming. These roles can include mobile app developer, front-end engineer which focuses on the user interface for a website or application, or game engineer.


The average salary for a software engineer in the United State in 2021 was $99,729. The highest paying cities for software engineers are the same cities as computer engineers: San Jose, California, Oakland, California, and Tanaina, Arkansas.


Final Thoughts


Computer engineering and software engineering are very similar majors. If you prefer to work with physical systems and hardware, then computer engineering may be the better track for you, whereas if you prefer to work with data and building and maintaining systems try software engineering. If you’re not sure which right be might for you, try consulting with your teachers and professionals in the field.


Short Bio
Asia is a graduate of Tulane University where she studied English and Public Health. She's held multiple writing positions and has experience writing about everything from furniture to higher education to nutrition and exercise.