Factoring Direct Entry vs. Pre-Engineering Into List Building for the Engineering Disciplines

Written by  CIT Consultant Suzy Fallon

Direct entry engineering, also known as direct-admit engineering, allows students to be admitted directly into an engineering program as a freshman.  This means students don’t need to apply separately to an engineering program after completing general education requirements or prerequisites. Direct entry programs tend to be highly competitive and selective.  If a school offers direct entry engineering, they may not have an alternate pathway into engineering or a very restrictive one.  One example of this is the University of Wisconsin Madison. The student must indicate their first choice major as engineering on their application and are required to list a second major of interest outside the College of Engineering.

UW Madison is a representative of the most selective programs in that it will likely be difficult to internally transfer into engineering once enrolled in another college within the university.  This is perplexing and probably frustrating, but external transfers, i.e., students transferring from a completely different college or university,  may have a slightly easier time transferring into engineering depending on the student’s current major and institution.  It must be said that this is not a wise or recommended strategy because highly selective direct admit programs are likely to get only more selective and restrictive.

There are colleges/universities that offer less competitive yet excellent direct entry programs.  One that comes to mind is Iowa State University.  Iowa State allows undergrads to apply directly to their School of Engineering and even allows them to come in as undeclared engineering majors.

Another option for future engineers is applying to schools offering a pre-engineering pathway. To make matters complicated, pre-engineering has different definitions based on the offering institution. 

  • First,  at some schools, pre-engineering is a two-year curriculum pathway that prepares the student to transfer into a four-year engineering program (ex: UW Eau Claire.) 
  • Second, at other schools, the pre-engineering pathway is designed to prepare students for graduate school-level engineering programs (ex: Macalester College.) 
  • Third, the notion of pre-engineering can be used to describe what are called 3-2 engineering programs. A 3-2 engineering program is a five-year dual-degree program that allows students to earn a liberal arts degree and a BS in engineering. Students spend three years at a liberal arts school and two years at an engineering school. (ex: St. Olaf College; St Olaf also offers an engineering concentration meant to bolster a 3-2 application or graduate engineering study.)
  • Fourth, a pre-engineering program is designed to facilitate the successful transition of qualified students into an engineering major and can provide a structured pathway of coursework to prepare students to enter a university’s engineering program.  Some schools with direct-entry engineering programs funnel students who do not meet the criteria for the direct program into their pre-engineering programs. (ex: University of Colorado – Denver .)

So, what does this all mean to the student who wants to study engineering and is trying to create a college list?  If a student knows early in high school that they want to study engineering, they should take the most rigorous math and science classes available.  If there are engineering electives offered, those should also be explored. The more selective programs either require test scores, e.g., Purdue, or heavily prefer submission of scores. 

In addition, universities look at extracurriculars that demonstrate interest or exploration in fields of engineering.   These activities will give students opportunities to share more details in essays, obtain meaningful teacher recommendations and bolster other aspects of their application.  These clearly set on engineering students, should have a list that includes direct entry and a variety of pre-engineering programs.

If students are interested in engineering but are not absolutely sure what they want to major in,  then it’s recommended that they consider more of the pre-engineering pathway programs. Adding a couple of direct entry programs of varying admission difficulty is also recommended.

For either type of student, visiting schools to explore their engineering facilities, including labs, workshops, and classrooms, is essential.  We also recommend that students sit in a class, talk to students, and meet with professors, if possible. Both types of students should also talk to people working in the field of engineering.  Start with your parents!  Who do they know who is an engineer? Those contacts can likely connect you to professionals in different functional areas, e.g., mechanical, chemical, bio-tech, etc.  And don’t forget your school counseling office.  Does your school offer pre-professional exploratory programming?  If yes, take advantage of it.  If not, make an appointment with your school counselor to ask how they might help you in lieu of those courses..

Your CIT consultant will recommend all of these things and can help you evaluate different programs and options.  Your consultant will also recommend special CIT programming to help you stand out in your college applications. Because most engineering programs are competitive, selective, and likely intense, it will be important to do research early and throughout the college application process.

A final thought.  As you create your list of colleges, please keep an open mind and explore all of the different ways a person can become an engineer.