STEM jobs are growing faster than ever in the US, creating a more urgent need for education and training in high-demand areas. These STEM jobs are projected to grow 11% from 2019 to 2029, which will create over 500,000 jobs in the American labor market. As per the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there will collectively be 3.5 million STEM jobs to fill by 2025. Hence, it’s obvious that many high schoolers will opt for STEM majors. Therefore, college admissions in the engineering/STEM space are bound to get fiercely competitive. In this post, we will discuss how to build a profile for admissions at top colleges, particularly for the STEM/engineering majors.
STEM Job Market in USA
According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), over half of the international students in the US are studying or working in STEM. Most of them come from China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, though large percentages of students from Iran, Bangladesh, and Nigeria are also involved in STEM.
A small portion of these international graduates is in the US under the Optional Training Programme (OPT), which allows graduates to work in STEM jobs for up to three years after earning their qualification from an American institution.
According to the IIE, computer technology is the number one STEM major today. This trend corresponds with its growing application across industries, where cloud computing, big data, and information security are assuming greater importance. Experts in these areas will be able to choose from various lucrative STEM jobs.
Moreover, the US economy needs STEM graduates who have the entrepreneurial spirit to address challenges in a rapidly evolving global economy.
Knowledge Gap Among High School Students
According to a White House report, only 20% of high school grads are ready for the rigors of STEM majors and college-level coursework. In fact, over the past 15 years, this report also found that the US has only produced 10% of the world’s STEM grads.
A huge majority of middle school students do express interest in STEM. But, only 0.4% choose computer science as a major when they get to college.
Less Females in the STEM Workforce
Further, in the 2019 STEM survey by Emerson, it was stated that 2 of 3 US women said they weren’t encouraged to pursue a STEM career.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2026, computer science research jobs will grow 19%. However, only 18% of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the US are earned by women.
So, it’s high time that high school students get more acquainted with STEM subjects and work towards building a stellar profile for college admissions in STEM majors.
What is Profile Building?
Profile building, at its very basic, is a process of developing projects and skills which can be showcased on your CV.
- The aim of developing the profile is to create a database, or a portfolio that can give a picture of your interests.
- Any activity undertaken to create awareness of your expertise, skills, achievements and involvement in order to advance your career or education goals is a way to build your profile.
- The purpose of profile building activities is to create an extended portrait of yourself.
Why is Profile Building is Important for College Admissions?
Almost every student works towards a perfect score in their examination. Over the past few years, the number of students scoring 90% and above has increased by a staggering amount of +60%. The number of students scoring 95% and above has also more than doubled.
In such a scenario, grades alone are not good enough to get into top colleges.
While the academic score is the first criteria for an application to make the list, colleges have to take a different approach to select their applicants.
In an attempt to differentiate between the many profiles, they receive for admission, colleges have now begun to look beyond plain academics to pick the best or top-performing students.
How to Build Profile for Engineering (STEM) Majors in High School
Firstly, it’s never too early to start preparing. If you get started with coding and computers in middle school, it’s great.
But, make sure you do get started with the profile-building activities once you reach high school.
Academics and Grades
Since you are applying to engineering schools, admissions departments will likely want to see a high overall GPA with a strong performance in math and science courses.
Doing well in your high school classes is important. It will not only help you get accepted to your top colleges, but it will also help give you the discipline and knowledge necessary to do well in college.
If you have a pattern of getting high grades in high school, that will make it much easier to get high grades in college!
Build a Solid Portfolio through Grade 9 to 12
Consider putting together a folder with samples of your best work across all subjects. This can contain tests you’ve rocked, writing samples, artwork, or photos of things you have built. You can add to this folder every year. The goal is to have a portfolio you can share with admissions and include in your college application.
Consider taking five main courses and an elective course (art, music, or another course you are curious about) your freshman year when you will have more time. (i.e., You’ll have less testing and no college applications to complete just yet!)
Suggested Subjects/Courses to Prepare for STEM Majors in High School
- Math: Geometry or Advanced Algebra 2
- Science: Physics, Biology or Chemistry
- Foreign Language
- Optional: Elective in an area you are passionate about, like computer science, or try something that fuels your creativity, such as art, music or theater, which may make you a stronger college candidate
- Math: Advanced Algebra 2 (a requirement for much-advanced math) or Pre-calculus
- Science: Chemistry, Physics or Biology
- Foreign Language
- Optional: Elective in an area you are passionate about, like computer science or for which you may have a school requirement, like art/music
- English: The AP class, if your high school offers it
- Math: Pre-calculus or AP Calculus AB
- Science: AP Biology, AP Chemistry or AP Physics
- Computer science or an elective you enjoy
- AP History and/or AP Language and try to take the most advanced level you can handle
- Optional: Elective in a subject that you are passionate about
- Advanced: AP Calculus AB or AP Calculus BC
- Science: AP Chemistry, AP Biology or AP Physics
- AP Computer Science or additional advanced math or AP Statistics, Multivariate Calc/Linear Algebra (if your school offers it)
- Optional: AP History and/or AP Language
- Optional: Elective
Take Standardized Tests to Improve Profile
Yes, a lot of colleges are becoming test-optional. However, scoring well in tests will help you to stand out in the applicant pool.
Ninth grade is a great time to get ahead, prepare for upcoming tests, show your ambition, take on challenges and distinguish yourself among your peers.
You can get a head start on the SAT with SAT Subject Tests. Many students don’t think about SAT Subject Tests until Grade 11. But, you can take them as soon as you finish the subject.
Just because you want to go to engineering school, don’t shy away from tests in other subjects, such as language or history. Top engineering colleges often look for outstanding, well-rounded students – not just those with high scores in one discipline.
If you’re thinking about taking AP (Advanced Placement) subjects, you may want to register to take the AP exams in the spring. Scoring well on the test(s) can lead to college credit for these courses.
Consider taking the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT) in Grade 10. You can take the PSAT again and may be eligible to be named a National Merit Scholar. This can also be helpful in preparing for the SAT.
If you are already taking an AP course, such as AP Physics, AP Biology, or an AP language course, consider taking the Advanced Placement exam as soon as it is offered in the spring.
If eligible, you may want to take SAT Subject Tests. If this is your last year taking a subject you have mastered, consider taking the tests in this area to show you can do well.
Do take the PSAT in the fall (towards the start of Grade 11), if you haven’t taken it yet.
High scores can qualify you for several national scholarships, such as the National Merit Scholarship, the National Achievement Scholarship, or the National Hispanic Scholarship, and may be needed for admission.
- Spring: SAT and/or ACT
- AP (Advanced Placement), if applicable
- SAT 2 subject tests, if applicable
Retake the ACT and/or SAT exam in the Fall, if your counselor advises.
In the Spring, take any of the AP exams for the courses you selected.
Strategies and Tips on Subject Combination to Prepare for Engineering in High School
- Develop a strong academic foundation with AP, IB, and advanced courses.
- Taking AP Statistics, AP Physics, and/or AP Computer would be the best classes you can take since you’ll be taking multiple biology and chemistry classes in college. AP Physics is also useful since pretty much all med schools have a physics requirement as well.
- Try to take 6 – 8 AP classes to be a competitive applicant: Taking 3 AP courses in both your junior and senior year is what most students do. However, if you’re really willing to take on the challenge then go ahead and take 4 in one year.
- Make sure you take all three Science subjects – Biology, Chemistry, and Physics: Engineering requires knowledge of all three science subjects (even though you may think it’s only about Math and Physics) so it’s necessary that you gain at least some exposure to them all in high school.
- In addition to science, math is the other subject you should be focusing on in high school if you want to be pre-med. Like science, take advanced math classes, and the higher the level (i.e. AP Calculus BC over AB), the better.
- The best classes to take to be prepared are pre-calculus and calculus. If possible, a statistics class will also be useful to take since statistics is used in many areas of medicine.
- Be strategic with which AP classes you take together: For example, avoid taking AP Biology, AP US History, and AP Language and Composition together since all require a great deal of reading and theory. It’s better to replace one of those with a more applied field, such as AP Calculus.
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Why Extracurriculars are NOT Extra for College Admissions at Top Engineering Schools?
We put too much emphasis on grades and SAT/ACT that we forget the main component of our jigsaw. Of course, it’s very important to have good grades and scores but that alone will not make you stand out in front of ten thousand other applications. I’m afraid not.
Extracurricular activities are not extra but it shows what extra activities you have done outside your classroom. It also builds your confidence, and positive energy and helps remain focused. Read How to Plan Extracurriculars for College Admissions.
How to Build a Solid Portfolio of Extracurricular Activities?
Top engineering colleges often look for well-rounded applicants who have a variety of interests and experiences. Admissions officers consider extracurricular activities, sports, and summer experiences that demonstrate:
- Engagement in meaningful ways that match your goals
- Contributions that have a positive impact on your high school and the community
- Ability to seize opportunities with the resources available to you
- Leadership showing initiative and impact
Below are tips and ideas for how to become a top candidate on and off the field, and how to make the most of your summer vacation.
Ninth grade is the year of exploration in extracurricular activities and sports and is a great time to put yourself out there. Consider trying new things.
For example, you may want to try out for athletic teams, explore different clubs, or just discover new interests in your community. Consider these questions when starting your first year of high school:
- What do you enjoy?
- What are you naturally good at or think you have the potential to excel in?
- Who are the people you could see yourself becoming friends with or who you want to spend time with?
- What can you feasibly pursue considering access, acceptance, cost, time commitment, etc.?
Below are examples of extracurricular activities, sports and summer activities you may consider. These examples show you a progression through all four years of high school.
If you are considering a career in engineering, some extracurricular activities may help to develop your math and science skills better than others.
- Chess club member or high scorer
- Hackathon participant
- Debate team
- Community service volunteer
Participation in any sport is often viewed positively because athletics builds confidence and work ethic. Team sports are a great way to build a network and demonstrate your ability to collaborate, a skill that both colleges and companies value down the road.
Intramural sports and community teams are other ways to get involved in sports outside of the classroom. This can be a low-risk, a low-commitment avenue to meet people, exercise, and see what sports you like best.
Summer is a great time to continue exploration, participation, and enjoyment of the activities that interest you. Continue to stay involved with the connections you have formed at school, and consider reaching out to make new ones in your community.
Examples of summer activities:
- Volunteerism and community outreach (local or abroad)
- Soccer or lifeguard work
- Hackathon meet-ups
- Coursework for credit or interest
Summer may be a good time to take courses to get ahead in your program or for extra practice. See if your school or local community college offers summer classes in courses you want to take. There are also great online courses free of charge that you may be able to leverage. Check out some of the Best Free Online Courses for High School Students.
You don’t have to limit yourself to extracurricular activities at your school. If you think you might like something not currently offered, you might be able to find it at another school or in your community. Or perhaps you can demonstrate leadership by starting a club or activity at your school?
- Chess club captain
- Code Academy participant (outside of high school)
- International Olympiad participant
- Model United Nations delegate
- Community Service volunteer
Even if you aren’t the most valuable player on the team, consider ways you can be a leader off the field, like nominating yourself as fundraising chair.
In addition to fee-based summer programs, there are various merit-based summer programs you can explore. These programs are often more competitive and require advanced planning.
You can also reach out to the advisors of some of the clubs you’re active in to see if they would be interested in a summer session. You may be able to ask your school’s alumni department if there are alumni who might be able to offer you an internship in a field that interests you.
Other options include:
- Math, science or technology camp
- Hackathon meet-ups
- Coursework for credit or interest
- Coach a soccer team
You are now well on your way to graduation, and applying to a top engineering college may be in your not-too-distant future. Colleges may want to see how you are engaging with the activities you have committed to.
Consider helping others by tutoring in advanced topics such as pre-calculus or chemistry, if you are qualified. You may also want to research competitions to show off your skills and meet peers with similar interests.
- Founder/President of your school Robotics or Engineering club
- International Science Olympiad competitor
- Debate team captain
- Community service volunteer or leader
Consider giving back to the community by helping coach youth or junior varsity teams. Or you may want to seek captain positions on your varsity sports team if you’ve discovered a passion and aptitude for a particular sport.
By Grade 12, many top engineering colleges expect students to hold leadership positions within their extracurricular clubs, on their sports teams, or in community activities or projects.
Colleges are often interested in students who have held leadership positions in extracurricular activities and have demonstrated the ability to lead with purpose and impact.
If you’ve started a club at your school and it is getting a lot of attention and interest, consider entering the club in a local or national competition to show engagement and impact.
Examples of extracurricular activities include:
- Founder/President of your school Robotics and Engineering club
- International Science Olympiad finalist
- Debate team president
- Community service volunteer or organizer
Consider entering your sports team in tournaments with opportunities to compete at regional, state, and national competitions.
While it may be impressive that you’re the team captain, it is even more impressive to see you leading the growth and advancement of your team.
You are officially a high school graduate by now. Congratulations!
Hopefully, your planning and dedication have paid off, and you are on your way to great things at a top engineering college.
Use this summer to really enjoy the wide network of friends and mentors you have made and to plan for the fall ahead. If you feel like you’ve made the most of your community and you want to explore the greater world out there, consider a summer abroad program that interests you. You might be able to reach out to a professor at your prospective college and see if there are summer programs or projects you can join.
- Research assistant to a top engineering college professor
- Internship in a related engineering field
No one said it was going to be easy, but by planning ahead and breaking the journey into smaller steps, you can be well on your way to success. Good luck as you work toward that coveted acceptance letter to the top engineering college of your choice.
Top Engineering / STEM Summer Programs and Competitions for High School Students
Best Engineering/STEM Summer Programs
The following programs introduce participants to hands-on experiences at state-of-the-art research labs and chances to work with experienced mentors in engineering or broader STEM fields.
- MIT Research Science Institute: 80 high school students participate in this free-of-cost program, working with accomplished STEM professors who serve as mentors.
- Engineering Summer Academy at Penn (ESAP): Students participating in this 3-week intensive program have to enroll in one of the six following classes: Biotechnology, Computer Graphics, Computer Networks, Computer Science, Nanotechnology, and Robotics. The courses are designed to give you a sense of college-level engineering classes, with hands-on practical projects together with like-minded peers.
- MIT Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES): If you’re a strong student interested in STEM from one of these underrepresented backgrounds, check out MITES: a free and rigorous six-week-long science and engineering camp for rising seniors.
- Smith College Summer Science and Engineering Program (SSEP): Every summer, SSEP welcomes 100 girls from all over the world to the Smith campus to gain hands-on experiences in science and engineering under the membership of Smith’s life and physical sciences and engineering faculty.
- Stony Brook University Garcia Summer Research Program: Next on the list is the Garcia Summer Program, which brings together gifted high school students to design original research projects for seven weeks under the guidance of the Garcia Center for Polymers faculty.
- COSMOS: The California State Summer School for Mathematics & Science, or COSMOS, is an intensive four-week STEM summer program that takes place at UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and UC Santa Cruz. It is designed to help students hone their skills through a challenging curriculum, hands-on lab experience, and the opportunity to work with faculty, researchers, and scientists.
Best Engineering/STEM Competitions
Another unique way to stand out among other high school students interested in engineering is to participate in (and attempt to win) high school science competitions.
Some of the most prestigious competitions (along with generous cash prizes) are:
- Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF): Hosted by the Society for Science and the Public, ISEF is one of the biggest deals when it comes to STEM competitions. Getting there requires students to participate in an ISEF Affiliated Science Fair, held in all 50 states and over 75 countries.
- Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS): Like ISEF, STS is another research competition hosted by the Society for Science and the Public. While ISEF is the largest research competition in the world, STS is a national competition, meaning only students in US High Schools (or US Citizens abroad) can participate.
- Google Science Fair – Google started as a research project at Stanford, so unsurprisingly the company (now known as Alphabet) loves scientists, engineers and people who genuinely follow their curiosity to some intriguing and innovative end. Google Science Fair launched in 2011 and has gone on to become one of the most well-regarded competitions in the world.
- Davidson Fellows Scholarship – Open to US Citizens and Permanent Residents under the age of 18, the Davidson Fellows Scholarship looks for students who are pursuing a ‘significant piece of work’ as defined by experts in their respective fields.
- iGEMS – Initially founded as a class at MIT in 2003, today the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEMS) competition is an opportunity for high school students interested in engineering from around the world to work on serious global challenges using ‘synthetic biology’.
What if You Start Late or Not Sure about Studying Engineering while in Middle or High School?
- Start with the self-paced online courses (free and paid) to explore the areas of your interest. You can also check out our curated list of best online courses. Taking 4 – 5 online courses (over a period of 8 – 12 months) would be great.
- Once you figure out the subject area, attend some of the short cohort-based online Bootcamps or Summer Programs (1-2 weeks). Live tutoring and peer-to-peer interaction would be great. Besides, the shorter Bootcamps are an excellent way to get a flavor of the college-level coursework. 2 – 4 such Bootcamps can be ideal.
- Then you can attend some of the intensive summer programs (3 – 6 weeks). 1 – 2 intensive summer programs would teach you a lot.
- Finally, a research project (lab or virtual) over a period of 3 – 4 months would look great on your CV. If you managed to a publication, that would be icing on the cake. Have a look at the best online research programs for high school students.
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Featured Image Source: STEM Geek