When it comes to selecting a specialty within engineering, the options are as varied as the colleges offering the disciplines. There's mechanical, chemical, electrical and many others, making it tough sometimes for college applicants and students who want to build and design things decide on a focus.
Experts in engineering – which has grown in popularity at the undergraduate level in recent years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics – say there's a benefit for students who know in the beginning of their college application process what type of engineering they want to study, as opposed to trying to switch majors during the latter half of undergrad.
At Villanova University, prospective students must indicate what type of engineering they'd like to study in their applications but can freely switch between disciplines throughout freshman year, says Randy Weinstein, a professor of chemical engineering and associate dean of academic affairs in the school's college of engineering.
By sophomore year, if students are still wavering, they'll risk not graduating in four years.
"They can change after that, but then they're going to be behind," he says.
Only 59 percent of first-time, full-time college students who started at four-year schools in fall 2007 graduated within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And a longer time in school can lead to increased student loan debt.
To get started on the right foot, prospective students who are trying to figure out which type of engineering best fits them can build a few devices and connect with national organizations, experts say.
"Our admissions team has a number of websites that they recommend," says Sharon Wood, dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas—Austin, which also requires college applicants to indicate on their applications a specific field within engineering in which they'd like to major.
One of those sites is tryengineering.org.
"It gives students a feel for the different fields of engineering, what type of job opportunities are available in each field," she says.
College applicants can also connect with organizations such as the National Academy of Engineering and the American Society for Engineering Education for guidance, says Gary May, dean of the college of engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "All these different engineering professional organizations have pre-college outreach," he says.
Many colleges as well offer programs that help high schoolers learn about different aspects of engineering.
At the University of Texas—Austin, prospective students can participate in information sessions to learn about various disciplines.
"They get to meet with other prospective students, they get to meet with our current students, our advisors, and this gives them a chance to ask questions and get direct answers," says Wood.
Georgia Tech has the Summer Engineering Institute, for underrepresented minorities in high school, and Villanova also has summer learning opportunities.
Weinstein encourages applicants to look into Project Lead the Way, which brings curriculums for science, technology, engineering and math to elementary, middle and high schools around the U.S., and the FIRST Robotics Competition. The competition allows teens to build and program robots that compete against each other.
He says the best way to figure out which type of engineering you like best is to get your hands dirty.
"Buy a drone and see if you could do something different with it. Can you go fishing with it?" he says. "Buy a chemistry kit and see if you can figure out a way to waterproof your iPhone."
High schoolers should, "see what it is you like to do and like to solve," Weinstein says.
For 21-year-old Bowen Brown, his childhood activities set him up for his college major.
"When I was little, I liked to play with video games, and also magnets and things like that. So I was kind of interested in electronics but also like the physics of the electrical engineering," says Brown, who's now an electrical engineering major at Villanova.
Teens can experiment with drones and chemistry kits to learn more about engineering, one expert says.
Female helicopter mechanic examining wiring with flashlight
Future engineers can get advice and professional guidance from organizations such as the National Academy of Engineering and the American Society for Engineering Education, one expert says.
After completing an engineering summer camp run by Johns Hopkins University before starting ninth grade, he knew what type of engineering he wanted to study. "I picked the engineering from that camp," he says.
No matter what aspect of engineering college applicants decide on, it will enable them to have a successful career, says Weinstein. Students in engineering learn to problem solve and think creatively, which can lead to working as a Wall Street analyst, consultant or other jobs, he says.
"An engineering education allows you to do anything after you graduate," Weinstein says, "including being an engineer in your discipline."