How Difficult Is Engineering School? The Workload and Different Engineering Majors

Updated on March 13, 2020
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Katy mentors and educates young professionals beginning their careers and financial journeys to make informed decisions.

How Hard is Engineering?

"Engineering" sounds like a difficult discipline. It involves more math and physics than most students want to take.

It's true: studying engineering is hard!

But some engineering majors are more difficult than others. And even though the classes are rigorous a dedicated student can make it through.

Are you trying to decide whether to study engineering in college? Or want to know if the course load is worth getting an engineering job? Read on to learn about what the coursework is actually like.

Engineering Degree Return on Investment (ROI)

As far as four year college degrees go a B.S. in most engineering fields has one of the best values available.

You can think of return on investment in education as the earning potential of a degree minus the cost of getting that degree.

The cost of completing a degree in a specific field doesn’t vary much at the same college so the determining factor for ROI will be the salary you earn after graduating. Since engineering is up there with finance in high average starting salaries you can see why many students choose an engineering degree for its value.

Of course this simplified metric makes two huge assumptions:

  1. You graduate college in 4 years with a degree
  2. You get a job after graduation using your engineering degree

But those two events are not a given!

In fact, each has huge challenges. More than half (60%) of students who start out freshmen year seeking an engineering undergraduate degree do not graduate with one. Your chances will improve if you can find an internship while studying.

This article discusses how difficult studying engineering really is and how to decide if it's the best choice for you.

Why Studying Engineering Is So Challenging

Why is engineering so hard? It's so difficult because engineering programs try to prepare their students to enter the workforce. This means teaching them to solve really challenging problems. This requires a lot of studying and perseverance.

Usually it's the math or the workload that students struggle with. Let's look at both the math and the workload needed to get through a degree.

Is Engineering Math Hard?

Engineering students will need to learn Calculus I, II and III, differential equations and statistics. Aerospace and Electrical require a few more specialized math classes than others like Mechanical, Civil, Software and Petroleum.

The math courses are challenging but students have many resources available to help them. In general, if you were able to do well in your first Calculus class as a high-schooler then you have the skills to learn the more advanced math required for engineering in college.

Student’s Workload

The problems most student face in completing a degree isn’t just the rigor of the courses. With enough tenacity and sharp study skills even a mediocre math and science student can get through engineering undergrad. The real challenge is that students have to apply that incredible work ethic to every difficult course they take.

Undergraduate students take 5-7 courses each semester. In less rigorous degrees about half of those will be easy electives. But in technical programs those “electives” are challenging courses that apply the advanced math you learned in other courses. That means there’s little room for slip ups.

In short, it’s easy to fall behind and be discouraged. A tough college program teaches you persistence and resourcefulness as much as it teaches technical skills.

Easiest Engineering Degree

What is the easiest engineering degree to earn?

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How Hard is Engineering School?

No matter what degree you choose the 4 years it takes to get a Bachelor of Science in any engineering field takes discipline. Most engineering curriculum start out with the same 2 years of math, physics and economics.

The difficulty of graduating varies a bit through the different engineering fields. Each one has slightly different applications in the job market and requires different specialized courses.

Studying Mechanical Engineering

A Mechanical Engineering degree takes a lot of discipline. Students will need to take introduction electrical, computer science and materials classes while still focusing on their major.

Depending on the program expect specialized courses to be in machine design, feedback and CAD. Students also have the opportunity to take elective courses in machining or robotics.

How Hard is Electrical Engineering?

Electrical Engineering is viewed as the most challenging of the core engineering fields. The reason for this is the heavy weight of advanced math students will need to apply in their electrical courses.

In their last 2 years students will learn more about electrical design and power efficiency.

Studying Civil Engineering

Civil Engineering is a very useful degree on its own and also sets the student up for exciting specialties. The civil classes that focus on building and design use mechanics (Physics 1), which is one of the more intuitive fundamentals. You will have to pass Physics 2 (electromagnetism) and advanced Calculus courses but don’t have to worry about applying them.

Specialized courses for Civil involve surveying and learning about building materials.

Chemical Engineering

Chemical has a rigorous curriculum. These students need to learn all the fundamentals required by basic engineering and then have the added challenge of chemistry and mass transfer. Chemical Engineering programs usually require more lab time than other disciplines which can make the workload even more challenging.

Aerospace Engineering Difficulty

Aerospace is rightly seen as a particularly challenging course of study. It is even more difficult than mechanical engineering because it has similar courses and then takes students through more focused elements. Unlike other specialties, Aerospace majors will take Linear Algebra and apply it in their specialized courses like orbital mechanics.

Software Engineering Difficulty

Software Engineers don’t have the foundation in physics and materials that other students go through. In a way this can make the course of study easier for someone who quickly catches on to computer science concepts. Advanced courses will focus on data structures and maybe machine learning.

Toughest Engineering Degree

Which engineering degree is the hardest?

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Is Studying Engineering Worth It?

Engineering college is tough and for many students it will be the first time they struggle in a math or physics class. This makes you wonder whether it’s worth it to continue.

To decide for yourself whether continuing your engineering education is the right choice for you take the time to think about the career you’re setting up for yourself.
If the courses that are making you regret pursuing a Mechanical degree are labs and circuits that you don’t expect to see again after graduation then keep going. But if you realize that the challenge and ambiguity of problems is what bothers you then engineering will not be the best career choice.

Get Help with Hard Classes

No matter your major, engineering school can be a struggle sometimes. If it gets to be too much don't be afraid to ask for help.

You should have an adviser or a school counselor who can point you to resources. Also talk to the professors and TAs in your most difficult classes and ask how to bring your grade up. It will be hard work and even if you're smart it will require you to build great time management skills.

College vs The Real World

Talk to a mentor either in your internship or at your college to get a better idea of what real-world work looks like. They will help remind you that the four years you spend in college don't really reflect what working life will be like.

Completing an Electrical Engineering or Chemical Engineering degree will not have all the same challenges as jobs in those fields. But it does give you a good introduction. Spend some time researching job opportunities in your area of study. This should give you a good idea of what the day to day life is like as an engineer.

© 2018 Katy Medium


Submit a Comment
  • profile image


    4 months ago

    i am thinking about doing an engineeering, but itlooks difficult. what should i do?

  • profile image

    Paul Richard Matthews 

    5 months ago

    I disagree with the statement of Aerospace Engineering has harder Maths. I have a BEng Hons, and a Masters in Engineering. My specific course was Mechanical Engineering and Design. Because i was involved in the petroleum industry, i had to study Thermodynamics, and fluid Mechanics, its well know that these two specialist topics are hardcore math orientated.

  • profile image


    5 months ago

    I have to disagree with you on Software engineering not requiring math. You do use many discrete math and advanced algorithms in your studies. Advanced Object Oriented concepts and algorithms include many advanced mathematical concepts in programming. Depending on the program, many areas can over lap with machine intelligence and data structures and data analysis. Most programs require electives and many students doing a master's or PhD can option to take on advanced systems engineering and electrical engineering courses prior to graduation.

  • profile image


    8 months ago

    Depending on your location mechanical engineering is a broad topic can include several majors such as material science and aerospace engineering. Especially in Europe where you are mechanical engineer but specialised in Computational mechanic/CFD, material and process engineering, structural analysis..

  • profile image


    15 months ago

    Civil engineering does use advanced calculus throughout their classes. I have not taken a single civil engineering class that did not use advanced calculus. Structural analysis and Steel design (courses required by all civil engineering majors) even uses partial differentials.

  • JR Cuevas profile image


    23 months ago from Philippines

    Thank you Ma'am Katy, just one more year and I'll become a certified civil engineer. Have a great day Ma'am!

  • KCO profile imageAUTHOR

    Katy Medium 

    23 months ago from Denver, CO

    John, thanks for the insightful comment on Civil Engineering! The statement just comes from Civil being perceived as easier and the successful graduation rate being higher. That doesn't necessarily mean it actually is easier. I'll have to think of a better way to state that so it's not misleading.

    Anyway, good luck with the rest of your education and starting your career!

  • JR Cuevas profile image


    23 months ago from Philippines

    I guess I have to disagree with your statement, "Civil Engineering is known as one of the easier diplomas to get".

    I myself is a civil engineering student currently in my last year and running for a Latin Honor. I must say, this course path is really challenging. The first two years may be quite easy for some but once you study the major fields, it becomes strenuous. From design to intensive long computations, everything is exhausting.

    Civil Engineering is one of the widest scopes of engineering. You'll learn different fields for civil engineering. It includes Bridge Engineering, Pre-stressed Engineering, Geotechnical Engineering, Transportation Engineering, Structural Engineering, Highway Engineering, Water Engineering, Earthquake Engineering and more. The fact that you are talking about the safety of people and their lives is a big test.

    Anyways, still, this is a good article. Giving interested students to take engineering a glimpse of what it is like taking an engineering course.


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