#079 How to Build the Right College List for Engineering Majors with Jennifer Stephan Transcript



Lisa Marker Robbins  00:44

I reminisce on days when I hear across our great room has the Christmas tree and be amazed and maybe a little disheartened that my oldest Trent had nearly finished the mass of Lego set he had just opened hours before. Years later, his birthday wish list was consumed by computer component parts. And I had an inkling he might be headed into engineering. Or maybe you if you don’t, that doesn’t resonate with you. Maybe you’re thinking your student hasn’t yet shown those signs. But you yourself are wondering if engineering might be a fit, and you want to know with certainty. So how can you know? And how does that change building a responsible and targeted college list before it’s time to apply to college? My guest Jennifer Stephen has strategies for you to figure it out as she leans into her bath experience as a Dean of Academic Advising and undergraduate studies at a school of engineering and as an independent educational consultant specializing in students interested in STEM careers. I’m Lisa marker Robbins, and I want to welcome you to College and Career Clarity, a flourish coaching production. Let’s dive right in to a great conversation. Jennifer, welcome back to the podcast.


Jennifer Stephan  02:12

Oh, thank you so much for having me back. Lisa, I had a lot of fun last time, and I’m excited to speak with you again today.


Lisa Marker Robbins  02:19

We should tell our listeners you were here for episode number 58. Back in February of 2023, where we talked about the highly competitive nature of computer science, college admissions, and you gave us great advice. And recently spoke at a conference on our topic at hand today, you know, I mean, as a former engineer yourself, and as a professor, as a dean, you’re bringing a wealth of knowledge on this topic, too. So we’ll link to the past episode in the show notes. But we’re gonna focus a little bit more on just engineering, not focus on computer science today, and arm our families with some great information.


Jennifer Stephan  03:01

Sounds like a great plan.


Lisa Marker Robbins  03:03

Great. Okay, so let’s start with you know, I get this question a lot. My specialty is helping students figure out their college major, the right college and that future career so that they’re making a decision that’s aligned to their personality, their values, their strengths, their aptitude. And there’s engineering, you know, as, as more really more of an umbrella term, right? field. And even the Bureau of Labor Statistics has engineering as a job, family, the category, but then there are specific job titles in there. We’ve got, you know, aerospace engineers, we’ve got civil engineers, we’ve got computer engineers. So in your experience, as an engineer, and as a dean, How crucial is it that a student understands that specific niche in engineering, if they’re thinking about, they might know they want to be an engineer, or maybe they’re only considering it right now? How crucial is it to know like, I want civil versus chemical engineering or materials engineering.


Jennifer Stephan  04:14

It’s not crucial at all. I work with students who have a clear idea of what they want to study that is based on good information and good insights about themselves experiences that they’ve had. And I work with students who just know they liked math and science and wonder if they might want to study engineering and, you know, between those two extremes, and there are a range of schools out there that may be a good match for any one of those types of students. There are schools, universities, very often large state universities that admit by major and have very strict or parameterized criteria for transferring between majors or changing your major. And then there are even colleges that are not at universities where students can study engineering and have a lot of flexibility about, about doing so. And in between as well.


Lisa Marker Robbins  05:07

So let’s talk about that because you and I go into or so up close to this topic that I, you know, some of our listeners are just starting this college bound fate. So I want to I want to build on a couple of things that what you just said made me curious about. So number one, let’s kind of define for our listeners, university versus college because they’re used, you know, in in the vernacular, they’re used interchangeably, but they are not. So I’m gonna let you, you as a dean, I’m gonna let you speak to that.


Jennifer Stephan  05:39

Yeah, thank you. Very good point. It’s a good distinction. It’s one of the first things I start with when I start working closely with the student is what’s the difference between a university and a college? And you’re right? We in the US here, at least say, Oh, you’re gonna go to college. And we mean, either college or university and even the name of the institution is sometimes misleading. There are universities that call themselves colleges and colleges that call themselves universities as an example. For example, Boston College is a university being based in Boston, all my students are always amazed by that. They’re like, Wait, why is it called Boston College, and then there are colleges that call themselves universities as well. The major fundamental difference between a college and a university is the type of students that they educate. So the type of students educated at that institution, small or let me just say colleges, most are small, educate only undergraduate students primarily. And universities, typically educate students both on the undergraduate level and the graduate level, maybe doctors, attorneys, you know, there’s a medical school of veterinary school, at dental school at school of diplomacy at School of Law at business school, where you can get advanced degrees. So colleges are where you go straight out of high school, and they don’t educate anybody else. But students straight out of high school and universities educate people straight out of high school, but also those who already have an undergraduate degree. So and there’s some fundamental differences, that then that means for the undergraduate experience, if you go to a college, you can pretty much expect because you are, who they educate that everything is focused on the undergraduate experience, whereas at a university, and there are pluses and minuses to this, there are multiple constituencies that they’re catering to, and need to satisfy the needs of not just undergraduates, but graduate students. So at a university, you might experience you might be taught by a graduate student, that’s not typically going to happen at a college at college, you’ll be taught by faculty, because there are no graduate students. Typically, colleges are smaller, they may have one campus, usually, they may have one school, one set of requirements, one degree, they may have a smaller number of majors and a smaller number of faculty, universities often have more of everything, multiple campuses, more faculty, more programs, more flavors of a given area, more ways to study biology, and more degrees and more schools and more sets of requirements. And the trade off, you know, is that with more, sometimes you get less of a undergraduate high touch focus than you would have at a college. So there are some real distinctions between what you could expect at a university at the college.


Lisa Marker Robbins  08:20

You know, that is you’re saying that I often, like when I’m working with a student on a look at their list of schools that they’re considering, you know, usually a family by the time they’re even thinking about college maybe has a few ideas like oh, you know, that might be a good school. And, and it’s, it’s based around a variety of factors, right? It could be where mom and dad went to school, or grandma and grandpa could be around was just familiar. It could be around sports teams early on. And I often say it’s like, when we would play with our kids. You know, what doesn’t fit right? There’d be a series of like, a little kit, a series of vegetables, and they throw a fruit in there, right? And it’s like, which doesn’t fit? And you go, Oh, okay. Sometimes students come to me and I’ll see like, maybe I know, a list of heavy hitters universities. And then there’s this college thrown in there. And I go, okay, that doesn’t really fit. So let’s have a conversation here. Because really the, I mean, I think you’re saying college or university, there are pathways into engineering at both. And academically, your experience it really on the social fit, if that’s what you’re looking at, you’re gonna have a different feel of like, what is that home away from home and what does that academic experience like, but there are options for engineering at both, right?


Jennifer Stephan  09:49

Absolutely. And a few to pick up on a few things that you’ve said. I actually like it when or I think it can be a uh, interesting when a student does have a list where there are some schools that don’t fit the fruit among the vegetable, because, yes, there are students that know exactly what they want to study, and they know exactly the type of school that they want. And we do see those, but you know, those types of students, but there are students who are still figuring out, do I want a university or college? Do they really even know what that means all that you and I are talking about. And so I really love it if the list itself, not every single school on the list is a perfect match for the student. But as as a whole, the list itself has options for the student. And, you know, I’m reminded of my oldest daughter, if I can overshare a little bit here who’s now 26. And when she was applying to college, and when she ultimately choosing, she was choosing in the end between Swarthmore, which is a small liberal arts college that has a general engineering program, and Tufts University, which is a university that has a school of engineering. And this is, by the way, before I was at Tufts, so I really always needs to know that tufts was hers first. And she was admitted there when I had no association to Tufts that she, you know, later I joined the community. Tufts is a full fledged University with a full school of engineering with six engineering departments 16 engineering degrees, Swarthmore has one you know, engineering degree general engineering. And I’ll never forget, I was at the time at Wellesley College and I was reading for the board of admissions they are and the dean of admissions at the time is Jen deja Leigh, she since left Wellesley, and she asked me how my daughter’s college search was going. And I told her what she was choosing and, and she said, how wonderful and awesome that she has a real choice. You know, she had other schools in the list that were very similar to Tufts, I will name them and, you know, she said, same difference like that, you know, and so to see the that, you know, you have a choice for a general engineering program at a small liberal arts college versus a School of Engineering at a school, you know, that and the School of Engineering at Tufts, we can get into this more there are other schools like this out there allows a lot of flexibility, it does not admit by major, you can even actually move between the School of Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Engineering fluidly and easily. And so that was why my daughter was a student who I thought you said this earlier, I looked at and thought, I think she really be a good engineer, my husband said the same thing. We’re both engineers ourselves. But you know what that’s like if mom and dad who are both engineers, come in and tell a child, they should study engineering. So I said, instead, I’m gonna build a list that allows for her to figure out on her own whether or not engineering is her path and schools like Swarthmore, Tufts, Johns Hopkins, my alma mater, by and large, there’s an asterisk there for biomedical engineering, which we can get into. Right, right, you know, rose to the top of her list so that she would have flexibility and choice. And as she went through her college search process, and gained clarity about what she wanted, the list contained options for her.


Lisa Marker Robbins  13:01

You know, what I love about that is the, obviously, I mean, you’re in academia. So you probably started on time. And when we start on time, which I mean, I honestly feel like, Hey, if you’re, if you have a second semester, sophomore in high school, let’s start to having these conversations, let’s start looking at colleges and start doing the work. And when you do that, on time, it’s actually a process that educates the student. And, you know, we’re both moms that in it, we’re knee deep in this world, but for our for our clients. They’re not and so you’re you’re learning, and you’re educating as you go through the process, which is a beautiful thing. And you’re right, you know, when you’ve got two parents that are engineers, and you’re seeing signs of engineering and the kid, they don’t want to hear that from mom and dad, you know, they need to figure it out on their own. It would be like two teachers telling their kid to be a teacher and that kid might be a great teacher. I mean, that’s what I like about, we give everybody in my college major and career course, the Berkman assessment. And literally, the Job List that we’re able to give the student says, You look a lot like it, it gives you on a 100% scale, you have 100% of the attributes that we measure that happy engineers have, or, you know, happy interior designers have or Happy Teachers have or social work or whatever. And then it’s not mom and dad, you know, saying oh, you should go do this. So I love the idea of using and I want to say that to our families like use this process, to learn and educate. You know, absolutely.


Jennifer Stephan  14:48

I always say to my families that to me, the process is as important as the outcome because they learn students if they engage, if they I always say to my students, you will get out of this process what you put into it. You have to beat me, you know, I can’t do it all right. But if you meet me halfway or even more than halfway, you know, you will learn a ton and you learn from the visits you learn from the research, you learn from the conversations that you have the essays that you write, when you have to write a y f a Y, Swarthmore essay for engineering, you really think about whether or not a liberal orgas with a general engineering degree is a good match for you versus, you know, a school that’s got a very pointy, deep, you know, engineering program, you have to sift through those things. And so you learn from that. Yeah,


Lisa Marker Robbins  15:34

I love what you just said. And I, this is something I suggest frequently, actually, I think I just have an Instagram reel on it recently about look at those essays. Because anybody our listeners might not know this, you can start your common app that nearly 1000 universities and colleges accept. And you can keep it out, you can start as a sophomore open your account, you can go in there and take a peek at what essays are the specific colleges asking the student to answer right now. Now those might change by the time your students a senior, and they’re never locked in until August 1 Going into the senior year, if we need to warn everybody, they are subject to change. So don’t start physically writing them. But when you look at many, many, many colleges are asking why our college? Why that major at our college, I had Andy Borst, who’s the Director of Admissions at ui UC University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign on episode number 57. He actually was the week before you were in February, you were episode 58 on computer science, he was 57 on a mission, my major, they asked two questions, they say, why that major? And what are you going to do with that major, I think it helps knowing those essays. We’re not asking anybody to write those essays years in advance, but it helps direct the thinking and the activities of what you’re doing now.


Jennifer Stephan  17:02

100%. And you know, even more broadly beyond engineering, of being up here in Boston, I have always have a lot of students who say they want to go to Boston College, and then they’re surprised that there’s not engineering there, there is a new program, but it’s not a, you know, a full fledged engineering school. And then they’re always surprised that they’re going to that it’s a religious school, they don’t realize that and I say look at the essays and you know, yes, they’re gonna ask about service, they’re gonna ask about faith, they’re gonna, you know, and right, oh, that’s, that’s their mission, that’s their value. Those are their values. So, similarly, engineering schools that ask about impact how you’re going to change the world, you know, are telling you what they value. So when you’re thinking about engaging in your activities, or even when you you just look back and reflect on your activities. You know, I think it’s great when students are doing things that interest them, not because it’s an Impressive, impressive to an admissions officer, but because it’s something that’s genuine and born from within and they care about, that’s when we all shine the most right? So I’m not saying kick things for certain reasons. But as you collect on your activities, think about how you have impacted the world and through engineering. Yeah.


Lisa Marker Robbins  18:15

You know, that’s in module four of my course, we talked about, like, using curated experiences to get clear on what career in majors fit in. I think what you just said there. You talked a lot about the importance of extracurriculars, when applying to computer science majors in particular, maybe even more important, probably more important than applying to an engineering major. Right?


Jennifer Stephan  18:42

I would say so. Yeah. Because it’s such a more highly saturated field. Yeah. Right.


Lisa Marker Robbins  18:46

And so it was, you know, and Jennifer says saturated means there’s an overabundance of students who want the university or a college could enroll a freshman class of computer science majors many times over at any university or college. And then they’re going to really look in like, okay, we’re only going to take kids who really, really, really know, engineering, while competitive to get into academically is not nearly as saturated or as over enrolled. So but you know, that idea of, and I love your advice, don’t do it. Don’t build your extracurricular list to be impressive. Use it to get clear on your path, like I had a student one time he thought he wanted computer science. He’s, he is a probably a senior now at the University of Michigan. And he thought he wanted to go into computer science. He did many activities sophomore that summer after sophomore year of high school, kind of came to the conclusion that he it wasn’t a fit and he was and then actually there was a an adjacent activity that he happened with one of his extracurriculars that was business finance related. And at the end, he said he was very disheartened. And I said, Are you kidding me, that’s a win, you gotta clear that that’s not your path. And that’s a really competitive major that’s gonna look different. And now, you know, he’s at Ross School of Business up in Michigan. So use his extracurriculars to help you figure out because a kid who I want to go back to this something you said earlier, which was, you know, you don’t have to be entirely clear. I wonder if because you’re so focused on STEM careers, and you’re, you know, in a college of engineering, computer science, the families that you work with, where the kids aren’t clear, do you feel like if they start a little earlier, they tend to get clearer by graduation? Or is it students that you’re advising independently? Not through tufts? But are they the ones that like they’re thinking about, maybe they start the process a little bit later that they just don’t have that certainty going into college application season?


Jennifer Stephan  21:04

So I think that starting early can only help. But it’s not necessarily a cure, all right, because there are just developmental stages and the, you know, ability of receptivity of a student in terms of being able to kind of move through certain, you know, I guess we could say, had a certain growth, right. And center and


Lisa Marker Robbins  21:26

you, right, I mean, they all mature at different rates,


Jennifer Stephan  21:28

right? Exactly. So sometimes I’m working with a student, and I say, I know your listeners can’t see my hands. But you know, I’m having them spread out wide. I say, you’re here now, and we’re going to and I narrow narrowing my hands, we’re going to narrow over the time that we work together before you head to college. And for some students, they will become quite clear, and others know they’re gonna go to college. Not exactly knowing, but they’ll have some clarity. So maybe it is going to be engineering, but they don’t know what type of engineering so we should look for an engineering school that is supportive, there is advising and also curricular flexibility for moving between the engineering majors. And


Lisa Marker Robbins  22:06

let’s let’s really get into that now as well. With our remaining time, I want to dig deeper into that, like, what families can be looking for what questions they should be asking, because as you and I know, admission by major exist on a continuum. Some colleges and universities don’t admit by major at all, and some are extremely rigid, you better know. And we’ll just Okay, so we’ll just throw out Johns Hopkins real quick, as an example, generally flexible. And there’s one giant exception. If you do not apply to biomedical engineering, as a senior in high school, the door is firmly shut forever, you will never go from an any other kind of engineering into that biomed. But all the other areas of engineering are flexible. They’re


Jennifer Stephan  22:59

100%. And as I think I mentioned earlier, that’s my where I did my undergraduate work, yeah. When I was there, the BME program, biomedical engineering program was brand new and fledgling. And I have so many friends who graduated from that program that are now being me, it’s working in the field. And they’ve actually kind of laughed and said, you know, how rigid it’s become, you know, because they were kind of helped, you know, be part of, of building it, and it’s becoming, you know, what it is today. But generally, aside from what you said about the BMV program is 100%. True. Aside from that, however, Hopkins is extremely flexible, and you can go there, and you can start as a physics major, and you know, later just move into electrical engineering, let’s say or start as an electrical engineer and switch to mechanical or so on and so forth. So, by and large, it’s a more flexible engineering school than some but as you know, there are those schools out there that do admit to major, you know, Carnegie Mellon for computer science is another example. Just like Hopkins, if you don’t get it to see us at the time of admission, your chances are exceedingly low. A lot of these schools, the two we just mentioned are private institutions. But a lot of the schools that do admit to major our larger state universities like UW for, let’s say, computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, some of the UCs, University of Texas.


Lisa Marker Robbins  24:24

Let’s spell those out for our listener, sorry to interrupt you because, again, we’re up close. So UW University of Washington, the CU is the California system. And then they do tend to be public. So you’re right. That’s something that Andy and I had talked about, you know, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign admits by major university of Minnesota, I mean, lots do at some schools. I know here in Ohio at The Ohio State University. Some majors are admission by major. Others are pre majors and have more flexibility. So you have Do your homework families, right


Jennifer Stephan  25:02

100%. And it’s so hard to know. And it’s sometimes it changes to, especially in these highly competitive fields, even at Tufts before I’ve been at Tufts for seven years now, before I was at Tufts, they admitted directly or there were, you know, caps or limits to the number of biomedical engineering majors. And, you know, that is really, that that went away before I started at Tufts, they redid things because that was against the philosophy there, which is that any major is available to any student with some caveats that you’re, you know, on track and to do the graduation requirements online, that cetera et cetera, like that. But the point is, they’re not just putting external caps on numbers of majors and pas for admission?


Lisa Marker Robbins  25:43

Yeah, I, you know, I think to another question, I would encourage our, you know, our listeners to dig into when they’re looking at this, and this is, this applies to all majors, but I’m sure if anybody’s made it this far into the episode, they’re interested in engineering and stem, also, not only look at the criteria, so I’ll pick on my daughter’s at the University of Cincinnati, she’s going into her senior year there, at the time that we’re recording this, we should say in June of 2023. And if you’re admitted to engineering, like you can switch easily, if you meet there, they say we’ll take anybody on a change of major, if you meet the academic requirements, that’s related to GPA, you and I know that it’s hard to get the same GPA in college as you had in high school. So don’t be surprised, it’s probably going to be lower. And they account for that they colleges know that. But look at what those requirements are. But then you’ve got Purdue University, and I talked about this, if people go to my website, and I’ll put a link to it. To learn more about the course we have a free video for families that that actually talks about this in there, Purdue would be a good example. If you go to change majors there. Yes, they say change of major is possible. And then you’ll see they they’re very upfront. And I encourage parents to dig into this. It’ll say like, if you want to switch from a different major or different engineering major into aerospace, it literally says in bold letters, italicized space, extremely limited. But other areas of engineering, it’ll say, non competitive, very open. So do your homework. Because you don’t want to land. I mean, kids generally don’t like transferring out of their college that they started at, to find another college. And so do your homework and ask the question, so that you’re not, if you’re unclear, you’re not applying to a university that’s very rigid and very restricted, and not a lot of opportunity to change. And if you’re clear that you’ve done the work, you’ve got the maturity to make those decisions and you’ve dug in, then it’s okay to put those schools on your list.


Jennifer Stephan  27:59

100%. And you’re making me smile, because I’m reminded about a student who was a tough student who I never worked with as a, you know, he was just a tough student, he transferred out at Tufts, I had no interaction with him, I just approved his transfer, outworn, whatever. And he called me up literally a week into the fall, he was at the University of Notre Dame. And he said to me, can I come back to Tufts? And I said, why let’s talk about this. He goes, I had no idea that I would have to take two religion classes of the School of Engineering. And he said, I didn’t know there was a religion requirement. And I have to take two religion classes. And I laugh. That’s what happened to him is a different story. The point is that, yes, you have to do your homework, you have to know, if you’re going to a school, what are the goals, we know, it’s not just about getting in, or it’s not just about the social, you know, attractions and other reasons that the school may be a fit, it doesn’t those things are really not going to matter if you can’t study what you want to study, or if you’re being asked to do courses, or you know, requirements that are not aligned with the way you want to spend your time and your effort and your energy. And he didn’t want to take religion courses, you know, and so, not a surprise, again, I made references early or it’d be seen when if it’s a religious institution with a mission, there may be those types of requirements. So pay attention, don’t just get caught up in the the glamour of the school or whatever else is attractive to you. Look closely at the academic offerings. And if one of your needs is flexibility, you want to make sure you have that if you are know what you want to study and you have good reason for knowing what you want to study. And we are all confident about that. The flexibility piece is is much less important. But if you do want flexibility, and I’ll tell you at a school, like tufts in the School of Engineering 50% of our incoming engineers don’t know which field of engineering they want to study. Yes. All right school for them. Exactly. Exactly.


Lisa Marker Robbins  29:53

Where are you? I use C and Purdue would not be


Jennifer Stephan  29:57

exactly exactly


Lisa Marker Robbins  30:00

Well, this has been really fantastic. Jennifer, the time always goes quickly. I know we’ll have you back. You’re a wealth of information, you know what you’re talking about. So thank you for making time.


Jennifer Stephan  30:12

Of course, of course. Lisa, thank you for having me. And I look forward to continuing to talk about this or other exciting computer science, stem engineering or related issues. Some other time in the future.


Lisa Marker Robbins  30:24

Great. And if families want to get in touch with you, we’re going to link to how they can reach you in the show notes you love working independently with those interested in STEM majors?


Jennifer Stephan  30:35

Yes, I do. I do. Thanks again.


Lisa Marker Robbins  30:42

Jennifer is a wealth of information on anything stem and providing insights from the college side. My college bound challenge for your family this week, is to look at some of the supplemental college essays for clues on how you and your students should be thinking about where to apply and what the college swanned to know about their choice of major and law school. To help you with this task, I created a short tutorial on navigating the common app to find these essays. You’ll find it at flourish coaching co.com forward slash college dash essays and all link to it in the show notes. If today’s episode was helpful to you, please share it with a friend who needs us to and by the way, even if your friend isn’t interested in engineering or STEM careers and majors, they can still benefit from my college supplemental essays tutorial. So grab that link and share it with any college bound student you know, sharing following the podcast rating and reviewing helps us resource more students to launch into a successful future. Thank you for listening to the College and Career Clarity podcast, where I help your family move from overwhelmed, confused, to motivated, clear and confident about your teens future