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How Not to Get an Engineering Degree

posted Apr 9, 2014, 6:43 PM by Christopher Ellison
In high school, I really didn’t study.  I'm not bragging; I just went to a public school where there were very few good teachers.  Most of my classes were very rote and predictable, and I could coast through by doing homework in class and ignoring the teachers.  It wasn't like I was trying to blow off my education, though.  I had plans; I just knew they weren’t going to start until college.  I knew I had to get out of town before I'd be able to get to someplace that would hold something interesting.

I applied for and was accepted to University of Illinois’ College of Engineering in Urbana-Champaign during my senior year of high school, and I decided to hit the ground running when I got there.  Though I blew through high school with little effort expended, I knew that college was going to be different.  I knew UIUC’s reputation and who I’d be competing against.  I figured, given the quality of my high school, that I’d need to hit the ground running just to catch up.  As soon as I graduated, I signed up for a summer calculus class to try to get up to speed before the fall. I didn't do much that summer other than work and study, which turned out to be perfect practice for the next few years.

Throughout college, I tried to continue this run.  I would sign up for 3 or 4 lab courses per semester, loading up with 15 or 16 hours of core courses most of the time.  I'd stack an elective or two on top of that.  I perpetually felt that I needed to catch up with everyone else, so I pushed myself to do more.  I took summer courses.  I sat in on some of my friends' classes from time to time.  I spent an enormous amount of time trying to force information into my brain.  Some semesters, I slept in the lab building between all-nighters, just trying to find the time to finish up all three final projects that were coming due within days of one another.  Other semesters, I barely left my room, thinking, "The lectures are all recorded, so I can just sit and study, watch the lecture, take lots of notes, and never have to stop staring at my computer."

Therein lies the problem:  I pushed myself beyond my level of competence.  I thought I needed to push myself to keep up, and I thought that was a good thing.  To an extent, it was; I got involved in things that I otherwise would've missed.  But I pushed myself too far.  I couldn’t keep up with my coursework, so I didn’t do as well as I should have.  I didn't prioritize socializing, so I didn't meet a lot of friends in college.  I burnt myself out during semesters and came home during break to collapse and do nothing for a week or two.  I gained weight and lost confidence, and I didn't come out of it all as healthy or happy as I'd hoped I would.

My college career was almost the perfect example of how not to obtain an engineering degree... but it still taught me some important lessons.  Despite not doing as well as I would've liked, I still came away with a solid education from a good engineering school.  I figured out, to some extent, where my interests are.  Most importantly, though, I learned firsthand about managing workload.  I learned exactly what level of workload I can handle, how to handle heavy workloads for short bursts, and how to optimize my output as much as possible.  I can't say how many times this has helped me in my career, as I am intimately familiar with how I need to manage my time to get my work done without just burning time.  Looking back, I sometimes wish I could have gotten more out of my undergraduate experience, but that doesn't mean I learned nothing from it.  In some ways, I learned quite a bit more than I'd ever hoped.  Sometimes I miss it; I didn't always mind the effort because I always felt like I was learning something, even if it wasn't always quite enough to get me the grades I wanted.  Sometimes I miss the long hours in the lab and the early morning lectures.

But I never, ever want to go through it again.