As a college admissions consultant in the heart of Silicon Valley, it is the norm to work with students whose parents are highly educated, and the significant majority of their fathers are engineers. As such, they have a substantial bias towards their students applying for an engineering degree. I’ve refereed many such debates over the last four years.
Today this debate has gone mainstream via a debate between two stratospherically successful college dropouts: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
If you’re a student being lobbied by a parent (or two) to major in engineering, or a parent trying to influence a student’s major, here are some points to ponder:
• Following one’s strengths is really the key to long-term success. Engineering requires strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills. If you are (or have) a student excelling in English, social sciences, and arts but barely passing the STEM subjects, forcing an engineering agenda is not a recipe for success.
• Passion for STEM and engineering is often in a student’s DNA. I recently had this exact conversation with an engineer who hires engineers. He observed that he could easily tell the “natural” engineers during the interview merely by asking if they had done any programming in high school. He further observed that those who had tinkered in high school were also the most successful engineers over time.
• Statistically, STEM careers (not just engineering) do make more money over time than liberal arts careers, however, those that are passionate are successful with any degree. If your only measure of success is the amount of your paycheck, and you are likely to prosper even at subjects you dislike, then an engineering degree may be a viable path. If quality of life, following a passion, or balance are highly important, then pursuing that passion should take precedence.
• It is much easier to switch out of an engineering degree than into one. Engineering disciplines begin in freshman year; for many other degrees students don’t need to declare their major until their junior year. This allows the undecided student time to explore and discover who they are.
• Engineering programs are competitive to get into and competitive to stay in. Starting with the application itself, the process for engineering students is more demanding. Additional supplements describing “why engineering?” are required at almost all programs. And, like students pursuing admission in performance arts or music programs, there are many more engineering candidates than slots available. Engineering prospects must be thick skinned during the college admissions process. They must also prepare adequately by including safety (both academic and financial) schools and being open to attending those schools, should their first choice not be an option. (Oh, and this goes double for their parents.)
All of this may make it seem that I am predisposed against students majoring in engineering. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am about is encouraging students to find and pursue their passions, not their parents’ dreams or any society’s determination of hot career paths.
Were I at that graduation party, I would be whispering “passion” in Dustin Hoffman’s ear—as long as my husband wasn’t listening.