Last Updated: Mar 3, 2014
In my fourth semester at MIT, I took the first applied mechanical engineering course of my career, after more theoretical classes on mechanics, electricity, statics, dynamics, and programming. I had done well enough in these theory classes, but now it was time to get my hands dirty.
I remember very distinctly the first few minutes of the first lecture, in which our professor sought to motivate us more than teach us. He said something akin to the following:
"In China and India are legions of engineers who are just as smart as you are, will work much harder than you work, and will accept much, much lower pay. Do not think that you are going to be able to walk out of here and waltz into an engineering job. If you want to get hired—or at least hired for a salary you'll be happy with—you're going to need to prove that you can add value beyond technical rigor. You must be an innovator—engineering must be your toolkit, rather than everything you offer. This class is the first opportunity you have to cultivate, practice, and demonstrate this ability to innovate."
He went on to say some other brilliant stuff, but this part stuck with me most: to enter the job market and win, you have to be able to demonstrate you can add value to the organization you're joining. In technical fields (primarily science and engineering), to stand out from the crowd of very smart and rigorous competitors, one must show skills beyond technical rigor.
Effectively demonstrating innovative skills (with strong technical rigor) isn't easy. Typical résumé templates and college transcripts do little to demonstrate anything beyond technical competency. Internships help . . . but so many consist primarily of photocopying that a recruiter cannot trust them as a matter of course.
So what do we do about this? First, let's figure out what recruiters are looking for.
What you need to demonstrate to win
Beyond technical competency, recruiters are looking for people to stand out in a few key criteria. Particularly in engineering, research, and related fields, they want:
- Applied thinking: Your theory doesn't stop at the textbook—you can make something real.
- Passion: You're going to show up every day and really put your heart into something.
- Teamwork: You'll play well with others rather than go "lone wolf."
- Hands-on mindset: You'll get down and dirty.
- Completionism: I can't stress this one enough—most great designs that fail do so because they can't deliver. Being able to finish a product and "ship it" successfully is extremely desirable.
As a recruiter myself, I can list off the top of my head some of the best stuff I've seen in applications that I remember even years later:
- Portfolio with impressive blacksmithing work and a self-built forge (mechanical engineer).
- Fun 2D Web-based platformer game (computer scientist).
- Layman-friendly abstract with visuals of neutrino research (physicist).
- Goofy website of a grinning heat-and-beat metallurgist with some metal he wrecked (materials scientist).
- Video of a clunky but very functional spider robot (electrical engineer).
- Detailed home-brewing website with lots of technical detail (bio-chemist).
- EMT blog (pre-med).
You get the idea. These folks get remembered, even if their portfolio doesn't contain wildly technical stuff. (To be fair, in my own recruiting, we weren't looking for technical expertise in a specific field, but general technical brilliance.) Use your résumé to show that you're technically sound, and use your portfolio for all the other stuff you need to demonstrate to catch the attention of a recruiter. Your chances of getting the first interview will go up dramatically, and you'll already have some great stuff to talk about with them.
And I'll share a secret while I'm here: my application to MIT included doodles. They were very technical design doodles, but they were doodles nonetheless. They were submitted directly as scans from my notebook, with a bit of commentary added about each one. The application officers loved them.
The best way to build a great portfolio: do something fun
"But I don't have any of these cool projects!" I hear you say. Why the heck aren't you doing them? I certainly hope that something about your major excited you, and if it does, get to it! Make it exciting! Out of time? Think about what classes (especially electives) in your major allow you to build or research something with a lot of color and a clear end product. Get an internship or do work-study at a lab in your university. It doesn't have to be a sacrifice of your precious free time: take advantage of what you're already doing.
The key point is to go beyond the GPA that pops out at the end. You are doing four years of amazing stuff—show your recruiter what that amazing stuff looks like! Show them you're capable of way more than taking a test!
The same principles apply to the rest of the college experience
The principle above is to be extremely results-oriented. The above post isn't just a random tip: it's something that you really can derive on your own, if you have the right principles at the front of your mind. If, for example, you approach all of your internship and job applications thinking, "What is really going to impress the pants off the recruiter?" then I'm sure you'll come up with awesome ways to show yourself off that are unique to you and unique to that application. Where else can a maniacal, results focus help you in your college career?
This principle and the 10 others that helped me thrive at MIT (and far after) are outlined in my book, How to Crush College, along with a step-by-step guide to applying them in the real world. If you've got any questions or comments, share them below. Good luck, and go Crush College!