Great Engineers Aren’t Always Great Students (But Can Become Them!)

Creative Ways to Become the Brilliant Engineer Everyone Wants to Work With

The number one adjective used to describe what it takes to be a successful student in engineering school is: “smart”.

After all, the story goes, engineering school is hard so you have to have the big brains to do it well. By extension, if you don’t do well at engineering school, you’re not “smart” and maybe you aren’t destined to be a great engineer.

Lacy certainly felt that way when she got my midterms back during her first engineering semester (waves and optics, baby!) and received her first (and last) D on a test. I doubted whether I was “smart” enough for all this engineering stuff.

It turns out that intelligence isn’t fixed.

Not only that, but becoming a great student can be learned, and grit matters more than talent. I just hadn’t figured out how to write a mean engineering exam and study like a pro yet. In fact, my not-smartness was so not fixed that I went on to graduate at the top of my entire engineering department.

Sorcery, right?

Not exactly. I had to figure out how to become a good student, problem solve, and earn max points on exams by trial and error. It took time and lots of failure to get to the place where I could say I was solid.

If it’s easy, why doesn’t everyone top out at engineering school? Because some students don’t take the time to learn how to be great or don’t believe they can. Some don’t really want to put in the effort, and some are busy doing other things to become awesome engineers.

And, we’ll tell you a secret: getting amazing engineering grades is fun and definitely makes the hunt for cash (scholarships), jobs (internships and post-graduation offers), and a few other things (free food, anyone?) much, much easier.

But fantastic grades aren’t the only way (or even a sure-fire way) to become a fantastic engineer.

There are other ways to get to engineering greatness. If at any point you decide that you’d like to win at this engineering school grade thing, you can do it. And we’re here for you. But if not, that’s okay, too. Just make sure to believe in the route you pick.

“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend it’s whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

To get your creative juices flowing, here are some examples of strategic ways to become an excellent engineer who everyone wants to work with, even if you aren’t at the top of your class:

1Excellent engineers are hard-working, honing their craft

There is more than one way to succeed at engineering school. If you’ve found an alternative to crunching through coursework to learn how to be an awesome engineer, rock on with your bad self.

For example, if you’re too busy learning cool stuff in research labs and the machine shop to worry about studying obsessively for classes and tests, that’s likely not a problem worth losing sleep over (unless you’re failing out—then you need to right your ship). Your being in engineering school is manifesting more as a hands-on course in experiential learning. As long as you can keep up with your coursework at the same time, you’re getting something valuable and highly relevant out of your engineering school experience even if you’re not the best student.

Similarly, if you’re creating what you hope will take the world by storm in your garage and every now and then fail to attend class, don’t let guilt about courses get in the way of your greatness. You might even consider pausing engineering school if your venture gets serious.

There are many hyper successful engineers who dropped out of school, or never started in the first place.

But it is a bit of a crapshoot to drop out of eng school – if you want the credentials behind your name, you need to focus enough to graduate.

2Creativity isn’t just for the fine arts department.

Great engineers are known for their innovative problem solving and marketing inventions—so lean into your creativity.

Being innovative and practicing your business and marketing skills takes more time than just calculating internal stresses of your engineering design, and it’s worth it to practice. If you have the opportunity to run with a course project (like your capstone project or a machine or product design course) and take it to a whole other level, do it.

Making a full product, brand and all, makes the whole project more fun and engaging, and at the end of your project you’ll have a sample of your work that is beyond just engineering calcs.

Interested in industrial design?

Skip on over to the mechanical engineering department and bring a whole different, highly desirable tool kit to your future design jobs (and the interviews to get hired). If it means that learning design essentials on your own outside of engineering work takes a little off your GPA, so be it. At the end of the day, you want a portfolio that shines and a degree that sets you apart from other designers.

BTW, this is a total snag from a classmate of mine who is now an industrial designer. We knew he was doing something right when he’d spend his internships in Los Angeles, London, and New York working for the top industrial design firms–all before he even graduated. Brilliant!

3Failing is a life experience and grit (resilience in the face of failure) is more important than talent

Being a turnaround success story is so much more interesting than never overcoming any obstacles larger than having your iPhone swiped that one time and not knowing everyone’s phone numbers for a few weeks.

People will understand if life happened to you during your second year of engineering school and your grades took a serious hit as a result. They won’t hold it against you if you otherwise proved your ability to succeed.

Similarly, if you (like so many of us with amazing high school grades) showed up to university only to get your ass handed to you in the first quarter, but then slowly but surely turned it around and by senior year owned engineering school, that’s a testament to your grit and resilience in the face of failure.

You could have just dropped out, you could have just snuck by with a D, but instead you rose to the challenge.

If you didn’t get the memo, the idea of pure talent is pretty passé these days. Instead, people care about what’s called a “growth mindset”. Some people are up to the task of growing and learning to overcome new challenges as they arise. And others aren’t.

If you have a growth mindset and can prove it even if you have mediocre grades, own this skill!

But know that in order to write your growth mindset guru book, you need to turn around your sinking ship. You need to become the student or engineer or designer that you want to be—otherwise you just have a train wreck story about sucking at engineering school. And that genre is tapped out.

If you are in the place where you haven’t exactly been an engineering student success, but want to become one, check out the blog resources and courses at Crammables to get you there, whether you have a lot of time or a little.

The bottom line is that engineering school is a tool in your life tool kit.

If you play it right and earn amazing grades, you will be rewarded for your efforts as you launch into the professional engineering world.

And if you have a more creative path to becoming an engineer than being a standout student, own it and take it seriously.

Are you on an alternate path to engineering greatness? Share it with us!
You got this!
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