The past few admissions cycles witnessed plummeting and even single digit admit rates in engineering programs at many selective institutions.

Additionally, with over two-thirds of colleges and universities offering test-optional admissions over the past few years, and with the growing emphasis on holistic admissions for many programs, engineering essays have become an outsized piece of the application process. For students applying to most engineering programs, the supplements continue to play an increasingly important role.

Students applying to engineering majors would greatly benefit from essays that speak to their intellectual curiosity, ability to collaborate, and problem-solving skills. Here are a few suggestions on questions to ask your students to help them highlight these traits and skills in their supplemental essays.

Intellectual Curiosity

To demonstrate intellectual curiosity, students not only need to talk about a subject, idea, or topic they are interested in learning about, but they also should explain why it is important to them. Showing how they spend their time researching, experimenting, building, and exploring the subject or topic is a great way to exhibit this trait.

Collaboration Skills

To show a student’s ability and willingness to collaborate, begin by identifying and brainstorming on two or three meaningful experiences (preferably STEM related*) in which your student has worked with others on a common goal. Ask the student questions about the challenges faced when working with a team, and help the student determine their contribution to solving these challenges. Have the student reflect on what strengths they brought to the collaborative process. Encourage the student to articulate what they learned about themselves or about working with others as a result of this experience.

*If a student doesn’t have any STEM-related group experiences, anything that shows an ability to work together to achieve a goal will still be worth discussing.

Problem-Solving Skills

Start by asking the student to identify and describe a problem that impacts their community. Have them consider all communities they belong to: their family, school, neighborhood, town, region, or any group they identify with. Next, have them reflect upon what they did to address the problem. This does not have to be something major on a national level, of course. It is not only crucial for them to write about the impact they have had, but they also should reflect on and emphasize the skills they have developed or honed as a result of it.

The most common engineering supplements ask students about why they have chosen to apply to their college (“Why us?”) and/or why have they chosen engineering as their major (“Why this major?”).

Approaching the “Why Us?” Essay

A strong “Why us?” supplement shows that the student has researched the institution and the specific department or college thoroughly. They must show an understanding of how it’s a great “fit” for them academically and socially. It is important for the student to look at the mission and values of the college and how they see themselves fitting into the community. The student should plan on doing an in-person or virtual engineering department specific session and look at research, co-op, and internship opportunities available. It is important to have the student look at the college’s website and explore the specifics of the curriculum and classes they find appealing. The student should also research social and professional clubs that they can see themselves participating in at that institution. For more ideas on brainstorming the “Why us?” essay, take a look at Vita’s “Mrs. C’s 12 C’s to Consider.”

Here follow some “Why us?” examples:

“First, I love how Harvey Mudd has a broad engineering degree and graduates students with an engineering major, rather than students having to study a specific type of engineering.”

“I am really excited how this idea is reinforced through the clinic program; it allows students to take practical knowledge and apply it to important, real-world design projects while giving students the support they need through project managers, faculty advisors, and liaisons from the sponsors.”

“So, the deep focus on the humanities, social sciences, and the arts at Harvey Mudd really appeals to me. The concentration in humanities allows for students to truly understand engineering within the context of the world around us.”

“And, of course, you can’t have a college experience without the community around you. From my virtual visits and my research, I have a sense of a small, tight-knit, engaged community. It seems everyone is trying to help and build each other up, collaborating, not competing.”

Approaching the “Why This Major?” Essay

Start by having the student identify two or three meaningful experiences that have inspired and helped them develop their interest in engineering. Next, brainstorm on what they did to develop this interest over time. Consider activities such as a class project, summer programs, volunteer work, extracurricular activities, internships, research, and work experiences. They can also reflect on the courses they have taken in high school that influenced them to pursue engineering, and perhaps even a specific area within it. Ask them to reflect on everything they have done inside and outside the classroom that has led them to consider engineering as their choice of major and as a future career in the field. This is also a perfect place to talk about why they chose this institution to pursue their chosen major (even if not asked to do so).

See “Why this major? examples here:

“On my bookshelf, where it’s been since I was a kid, you’ll find Really, Really Big Questions about Space and Time. It’s what introduced me to the basic concepts of astronomy, spaceflight, and space exploration. It sparked a passion for what is out there in the universe.”

“I’d long ago discovered everything I’d found in my elementary or middle school textbooks, so I turned to Crash Course and SciShow, two YouTube series, to learn more.”

“I was breathless when the James Webb Space Telescope released its first images. In one picture I could see back to just 300 million years after the big bang.”

By Vita Cohen, MA, MAT, CEP, Cohen College Consulting, Ltd., IECA (IL) and Jyoti Jain, MBA, Jain College Consulting, IECA Associate (CA)