So you love to tinker on the computer, you’re a whiz at coding—and you’ve managed to pull apart your computer, pop a new hard drive in it, and build it again. Why not pursue your passion for all things computer science and its hardware, and major in computer engineering?
What is computer engineering?
Computer engineering integrates computer science, the study of computation and information, with electrical engineering, used to develop computer hardware and software.
MIT's website sums up the difference between the two majors well:
- Electrical Engineering is a very broad program that starts with basic circuit theory and moves into systems, physics of electronic devices, and quantum mechanics.
- Computer Science majors concentrate on how to make computers faster, more efficient, and more intelligent. Students begin by learning to deal with complexity through modeling and abstraction, and proceed to study computer system design and artificial intelligence.
In some cases, the two disciplines are combined to make a major, and in others, you can only major in one or the other but are still expected to take courses in both subject areas.
Let's take a look at some top undergraduate computer engineering programs.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MIT is world-renowned for its engineering programs, boasting gold standard researchers and academics who teach and produce research. The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science program is by far the most popular on campus, known to emphasize theory rather than practical skills. It offers a flexible curriculum allowing students to pave out their own degree according to their interests. Students are encouraged and given credit for research they get involved in. Unlike engineering programs at other colleges, its program is not capped—students admitted to MIT are free to choose any major. One downside, though, to choosing the most popular program on campus with no capped places: classes are typically large, with between 125 and 200 students filling the lower-level courses.
You’ve got five different programs to choose from in this field:
- Electrical Science and Engineering: majors study circuits and devices, materials and nanotechnology, communications, control and signal processing, and applied physics.
- Electrical Eng. & Computer Science: combines both subject areas into a flexible major that prepares students for careers and research fields where an understanding of both hardware and software systems is essential.
- Computer Science and Molecular Biology combines study in molecular biology and computer science. Students learn to leverage computational biology for careers in such fields as pharmaceuticals, bioinformatics, and medicine.
- Computer Science, Economics, and Data Science: Contemporary electronically mediated platforms for market-level and individual exchange combine complex human decisions with intensive computation
- Computer Science and Engineering: centers on computation structures, artificial intelligence, software engineering, computer algorithms, and computer systems.
Carnegie Mellon University
Computer engineering at CMU packs a punch, ranking number 2 in the nation among other big-name colleges. For a college that looks unassuming, it surpasses some of the more well-known Ivy league colleges in this field—and others, such as business. CMU offers a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering which is a broad and highly flexible degree program comprising core subjects in electrical and computer engineering along with mathematics, science, computer science, and statistics. If you are interested in cybersecurity, you have the ability to concentrate in the one specialization offered through this program - Security & Privacy. Students also have the option of completing a master’s without having to apply separately through the integrated BS/MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering.
If you're interested in purely computer science, the BS is offered through the School of Computer Science.
University of California, Berkeley
Why not study at one of the most prestigious public computer engineering programs in the US? Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science offers an array of cross-disciplinary, team-driven projects which provide many research opportunities for its undergraduate students. The Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences (EECS) combines the fundamentals of computer science and electrical engineering in one major. Like CMU, you can also integrate an MS with your BS through their five year BS/MS program. The program is capped and competition is high amongst Berkeley applicants.
You also have the option to study a joint major—Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences/Materials Science and Engineering (Department of Materials Science and Engineering) or Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences/Nuclear Engineering (Department of Nuclear Engineering). For students interested in materials and devices, a joint major in electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS)/materials science and engineering (MSE) can be valuable. Those interested in nuclear engineering can opt for the latter and study electrical power generation, automatic control, computer sciences, and plasmas in addition to the core courses in electrical engineering.
Georgia Institute of Technology
In the deep south at Georgia Institute of Technology, you can find tinkerers and creators in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Georgia Tech is known as one of the leading technological and scientific research institutions in the nation, and computer engineering is one of the most popular amongst students. You’ll be challenged every single day through class assignments and find opportunities to apply your academic knowledge to the real world through research projects. The program offers computer engineering as a standalone degree (Bachelor of Computer Engineering) and allows you to choose electives grouped thematically in the areas of Cloud Computing; Mobile Computing; Cybersecurity; Internet of Things; and Multimedia and Streaming Systems. During the senior year, students undertake a year-long design project allowing them to develop technologies across a myriad disciplines. It also offers a joint B.S./M.S. Degree Program. Like MIT, be prepared for large classes—the college as a whole has a high student to faculty ratio (21:1).
In the heart of Silicon Valley, you'll witness the entrepreneurial spirit at Stanford—and who knows, maybe even catch the start-up bug... Who wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to study computer science at a college with strong connections to the tech industry? There are lots of opportunities to engage in research and cross-collaboration is common through its multiple interdisciplinary programs and research institutes. Stanford offers a pure BS in computer science with nine different tracks to choose from: Artificial Intelligence, Theory, Systems, Human-Computer Interaction, Graphics, Information, Biocomputation, Unspecialized, and Individually Designed. Electrical Engineering is not combined with this program but instead is offered as a separate major. However, students majoring in computer science are expected to complete some of the School of Engineering requirements including engineering fundamentals, math, and science. Other computer science-related programs are Mathematical and computational science and Symbolic systems, however most students interested in learning about computing major in computer science at Stanford.
So what does it take to actually get a look-in at these colleges?
Computer engineering is a popular program and in many colleges, the programs are capped. Admission rates in general for these colleges are competitive, so expect the admission rates to be even more competitive for these programs, especially where capped. Applicants will generally need to be in the top 10% at your school and at least the 75% percentile across SAT/ACT. Students should choose STEM-related high school courses to help prepare for a major in computer engineering. Many colleges recommend and in some cases require that applicants have taken requisite courses in math, physics, and chemistry.
In addition to the academic profile, extracurricular activities are important. You want to have participated in extracurricular activities that allow you to develop a deep involvement and understanding. Activities where you can also demonstrate leadership, initiative, and self-starter qualities can really show you passion for a subject and set you apart from other applicants. For a student interested in computer engineering, get involved in activities that back that interest—for example, competitive national or state-level competitions in the area of technology (US Computing Olympiad or Google Science Fair) or research (Science Internship Program @ UCSC or Stony Brook-Computer Science and Informatics Summer Research Experience Program) will really show your mastery of the subject.
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