Getting into a Competitive Engineering College

There are no guarantees when it comes to admission into MIT, Caltech, Harvey Mudd, Olin School of Engineering-to name but a handful of the most selective engineering programs. A number of students have applied to these programs with perfect GPAs, SAT scores, and a satchel of extracurricular activities and found inexplicable rejection.

Undoubtedly, the engineering field is extremely popular and competitive. Engineering pays well and its many fields have bright futures. When and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) ranked the 15 most lucrative majors, engineering composed a third of them. The ranking compared median starting pay, potential salary growth, and job opportunities. Number 1 on the list was bioengineering with an average starting salary of $54,000, average mid-career salary of just under $100,000 and a projected job growth over the next decade of over 60%, according to the BLS. Such compensation attracts the best and brightest, which contributes to why the best engineering programs are so competitive, particularly the very best.

What are these programs looking for in a promising candidate? One place to go for answers is the admissions office of one of the top engineering programs. According to Matt McGann, MIT’s director of admissions: “A rigorous transcript and academic preparation are certainly very important, but we’re also looking for students who will add to our mission, our culture, and our community.”

The community at any of the elite engineering schools is dedicated to applying math, science and technology to solve problems. A candidate who has wired up a relatively un-hackable smart apartment with automatic remote locking devises, thermostat controls and lighting systems from components scrounged at flea markets could spark admission interest. 

Mr. McGann also suggests, “It’s important for students to have outside interests that engage their artistic, leadership, or collaborative side or just bring them joy.”  Helpful advice, though having a hobby or interest that ‘engages leadership, collaboration, and joy does not necessarily open the admissions gate: all right, maybe just a crack.’

Then I ran into a community of posts on Quora about MIT admissions. Two of the posts were from Anonymous, who was a two-time MIT alumna. Her advice boiled down to three bulletin points: 1. ‘Be world class at something. Almost anything’ 2.‘Crush School. I mean, just own it.’ And 3. ‘Build your writing and interpersonal skills deeply.’ This is all good advice for any of the most selective engineering schools.

Stay committed to being the best at something during the four years of high school. If it ends with winning a national Siemens award for creating arrhythmia detection algorithms for implantable cardiovascular defribillators, great. Commitment and perseverance to a road less traveled is invaluable in admissions success.   

Moreover, academic splendor is more than good grades; specifically, ‘go beyond what’s required. 

Lastly, read, write and network. Find mentors who will share in your research and scientific interests. Better still, find MIT alumni and ask for lots of advice.

Marilee Jones is also a part of the Quora community: she was, for 10 years, dean of MIT undergraduate admissions. Several years ago, inconsistencies in her resume forced her out, but she is extremely knowledgeable. She not only confirms the veracity of Anonymous’s observations, but extends and clarifies: what a promising applicant needs is a “‘hook,’ which means something so special that it is pretty rare. “ To those in admissions this is also known as an “‘institutional need,’ something that the schools want but will never tell the public about: [national caliber athletes], best in nation scholars…”   

Lastly, an MIT member of the class of 2019 volunteered that the admissions office likes action oriented, kind applicants. Create your own opportunities and be personable. It does not require an engineering degree from MIT to know these are valued qualities in any program, engineering included.