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How to Spend Your Summer as an Aspiring Engineer
Future engineers, we see you. The movers, shakers, thinkers, and game-changers-to-be of the world. And you’ve prepared, too. Science olympiad and math league are old hat, whatever math you’re currently taking is one of your favorite classes, and you’ve probably tinkered with more odds and ends than you can remember.
But then summer rolls around and school ends, and along with it goes all of the science, math, and outreach extracurriculars that operate when school’s in session. You now have this huge amount of free time that you can do practically anything with — while it may not seem like much on the surface, it’s actually a big opportunity in disguise.
There’s nothing more an engineering college loves to see than a curious self-starter who’s not afraid to get his or her hands dirty, and taking initiative to enrich your own engineering portfolio during the summer is a good way to show the engineering adcoms just that.
Of course, some of you already have things planned out, and that’s great! But for the people who are drawing a blank, who need some inspiration or ideas, this post is for you. Here’s a list of summer plans that we recommend for aspiring engineers — some drawn from our own experiences.
The no-brainer: Summer programs
Let’s get this one out of the way first since this is what usually comes to mind for people when they think about application-boosting summer experiences. This is essentially the better version of summer camp, where you go to a college and take college-level classes, or refine your skills through real-world practice. Point is, you’ll go somewhere that’s not home for the sole purpose of building your technical repertoire with a group of like-minded people — which is essentially what college is, for an engineer. And it’s immensely fun.
Programs like Carnegie Mellon’s Pre-College and the University of California’s Summer School for Mathematics and Science are designed to train future engineers and scientists that will go on to use their skills in college and even to participate in research beyond that.
Often, gaining admission to these programs is in itself a rigorous process, and can signal to colleges your skill and interest in the STEM subjects. Another good part about participating in these summer programs is that they can help you network and make connections with people in STEM — a good mentor relationship with a summer program’s professor, for instance, can make for a valuable recommendation letter when it comes application time. Other times, some of these program are also geared towards building leaders in the STEM fields, so they can also double as a leadership extracurricular.
However, not all of these programs are free — some of them may offer scholarships, but not all of them do. That’s the main drawback to this type of summer program; some of these programs may be just as expensive as paying summer tuition at these colleges. The good news, though, is that price is often inversely proportional to the prestige of the program; the less you pay to get in, the more impressive it looks on an application. In fact, you should be wary of expensive summer programs, as those are perceived as more of a sign of privilege on an application than your engineering capabilities.
The go-getter: Learning a new (programming) language
Coding is an important skill to have as an engineer today. If you’re going into software engineering, then it’s a given. If you’re a mechanical engineer, programs can be helpful in running simulations. If you’re analysing data, you’ll need something like Matlab. Computers are some of the most powerful engineering tools we have today, and to be able to use them freely is a valuable addition to any skillset. In fact, many engineering colleges now require their undergraduates to take at least one coding class as a graduation requirement.
If you’re already a logical thinker (like many of you are), this shouldn’t be too hard. With the wealth of online tutorials, videos, APIs, forums, and other resources, all the information you need to master a new language is readily available. It might take a bit of practice and lots of trial and error, but it’ll be worth it in the end when you can create your own programs that make your life easier.
To help you focus your efforts, you can try studying for a specific test; AP Compsci isn’t a bad choice, as getting a 5 on this test can get you out of many intro computing classes. Or you can set a personal project as your goal: an app, a website, a program that sets your alarms for you or makes your friend’s computer randomly play a YouTube video every six minutes — whatever floats your boat.
Either of these pursuits can show up as a bright spot on any application, especially since your motivation for starting this pursuit (and completing it) was entirely intrinsic. It can also be good material for a personal statement, since honestly — how many people can go into college saying they’ve built their own app from scratch?
The altruist: Teaching and sharing your knowledge
Engineering is what builds the entire infrastructure of our modern society, and engineers can definitely change the world. But what about on a smaller scale? What about helping, mentoring, or inspiring one person at a time?
Colleges like to admit community-builders, people who are willing to help other people out and people who can appreciate diversity. So, if you feel comfortable in your STEM skills and knowledge, why not spend a summer sharing it with others? Many summer educational camps and programs love having tutors work with younger children to try and foster an early interest in science and math. Science museums across the nation always welcome knowledgeable, enthusiastic tour guides who would love to answer questions for curious guests. Or you could even volunteer and start your own mentoring program — outreach is always important for STEM, and if you’re dedicated to making science and math more accessible to people, this might just put your interests in line with those of your ideal college.
Sharing your knowledge for the sake of other people shows your interest in making positive, altruistic change in the world, and may also attest to your mentorship and social skills.
While your intelligence and your academic ability are important to a college in deciding whether or not to admit you, who you are as a person also factors in greatly, as a result of holistic admissions. So in presenting yourself, applications-wise, it’s important to remember not to just show yourself as the student that adcoms want to see in their lecture halls, but the person that they would love to see around campus.
Whether it’s by taking a summer off for a STEM program, teaching yourself a new skill, or by helping others out with the knowledge you have, you won’t just be outstanding in your stats alone — these summer experiences will show these colleges that you are the type of person that they’d want to see as an engineer at their institution.