Surviving Eng 1

So I’ve had a few people express interest in a “how to survive engineering 1″ tutorial. Here it goes! Keep in mind that all of these tips are just an opinion, and they should – as any other advice you receive – be taken lightly. I’ll start with some more common questions, and will include some personal advice I have found to be useful in my time as a student and as a developing professional. I’m going to continue updating this based on student feedback, so please let me know if I’ve missed anything!

You might also want to check out my post on first year year.

1.   Picking Courses

For most first years, there will be choices to make when it comes to scheduling and electives. There are really only two things that I think are vital to your success. The first is to avoid 8:30am classes as much as possible. It doesn’t matter if you’re a “morning person”. Trust me. That being said, if you do end up with 8:30am classes (which you likely will), you should go. The second is to ignore all advice on which electives you should take. Don’t look for bird courses, and don’t look for courses that a friend of a friend said was good. Read about the electives, and take them based on your interest. You will succeed in things that you are passionate about. Be aware of the affect a course can have on your opportunities, such as first year economics being a good idea for anyone wanting to get into Engineering and Management.

Make sure you’re taking all the courses you need! Check out the list below for Engineering 1 required courses, and see what your timetable is going to look like. (Please disable Adblock. Support McMaster’s developers)

2.   Get Involved (But Know Your Limits)

Reach out to other people. Join a club, pick up a hobby, or get involved with a charity, NGO, or student group. These all allow you to develop as an individual, while giving you a break from your normal routine. That being said, many students can commit too much. This both can affect your studies, and can end up being a cause of stress. If you find yourself in this position, don’t be afraid to back out. Your success comes first.

It is important to note that some clubs and on-campus groups require minimal commitment. These are more casual clubs and can be joined easily, requiring minimal commitment. There are some clubs that require regular participation (weekly, twice weekly, and even daily). These clubs are much more involved, and some require this participation to maintain membership. Be careful when selecting a club, and make sure you’re aware of how much time you will need to put in. The more serious clubs are generally for those who really want to submit their time to the practice.

3.   The Hardware

This is slightly out of place, but I have a lot of students ask about what computer they should purchase for university. Here’s my two cents. (Disclaimer: I am a developer and a Mac OSX user)

Laptop or Desktop?

Laptop. Mobility is more important than power.

PC or Mac?

Here’s where things get a little more complicated, and I recommend you look a little further than first year before making up your mind. PCs are powerful and low-cost, but are generally known to have a wider range of issues, since there are hundreds of hardware manufacturers and purchase options for machines running Windows. Macs are more expensive, but are better for some programs, due to the fact that they operate in a Unix environment. Due to the size of my explanation, I have included further details at the end of this post.


Brand matters. Here’s a list of the brands that I trust and avoid. Please remember that this is just my opinion, based only on personal experience.

Avoid: Acer, HP, Sony, Dell, LG, Alienware
Trust: Apple, Samsung, ASUS, Lenovo

4.   Eat, Sleep Repeat

Seriously. If there is one piece of advice that really matters, it’s this. Eating and sleeping are incredibly important [1]. All-nighters will happen, and food will be scarce at 4am while living on residence, so always make sure you prepare ahead for both. I had several friends in first year that failed to maintain a healthy sleep and eating schedule, and all suffered academically as a result.

5.   Work Together

Do not confuse this with “share answers” or “sit at a library and pretend you’re all working”. Find people that you connect with, and work with ones that encourage you to do better. Look for people with different skills than you, and learn from each other. Class will not teach you everything you need to know, especially at 8:30am. Therefore, keep yourself surrounded by people with similar work habits (or better). This will not just help you in first year. This will help you forever.

6.   Learn Conflict Resolution Skills

In the real professional world, there is no room for ego. You will be faced with many different types of people, and you will not always get along so easily with them. There are many ways to get around this, and to allow yourself to work with people that you otherwise would not get along with. It may sound weird now, but I promise you will benefit from it for the rest of your life. Too often I see new students struggling to work with each other, their professors, and their administrators. Don’t let this get in the way of your learning.

7. Develop Strong Work Habits

Perhaps the best favour you can do yourself is to develop better working habits while at university. I've seen thousands of first year students come through, and haven't met one with a solid set of work and study habits. If you think you have good work and study habits coming in to university, you don't. You, as much as anyone, need to work on them moving forward. Good work and study habits are the key to a good engineer and a successful career. They also help eliminate stress. Here's some of my advice on how to prepare these skills.

  1. Turn off your phone and log out of all social networks. Do not touch either until you are done. If you only follow this step, your productivity will still skyrocket.

  2. Avoid context switches. This is the primary reason that step 1 is so important. Checking your phone for even a second can cost you 15 - 20 minutes of solid working time. Social notifications are one of the most dangerous things to our productivity. This also goes for "breaks". Study breaks should come every few hours, with stretching in between. Not every few minutes.

  3. Stretch. Get up and walk around. Don't take your phone out when you do. Continue your thought process. Consider your progress or the subject you're working on. Keep yourself focused, but make sure you move. This is for both your physical and mental health.

  4. As I mentioned in section 5, find good people to work with. Friends that distract you are just as bad as phones and Facebook.

  5. If you're having trouble understanding a topic, move to a silent area and stop listening to music! Music is fine to listen to if you're working, but if you're learning, it impairs your focus. This is why people trying to find an address while driving will often turn down the music. We require silence to process new information quickly.

  6. Love what you do. If you find yourself thinking you don't love it every day, don't do it. There will be tough days, but you should find happiness in your work often. It's not worth getting a degree in something that you aren't passionate about. You are in no hurry to find what you love, so be active and always open to new areas of study.

  7. Google. The Internet is your greatest tool. Know how to use it. It's not as simple as typing in a question. You need to learn what to search for, how to eliminate conflicting results, and how to scan for the information you're looking for. This comes with practice, but I guarantee you that a good working knowledge of search is a better aid than any undergraduate textbook.

8.   Use Your Resources

If you want to succeed, you will not be able to do it alone. It is crucial that you are aware of resources available to you and reach out to them whenever necessary. Here’s a list I’ve compiled of student resources. There are many more available, and if you think one should be listed, just contact me!

Please also report dead links

Academic Assistance

[McMaster Student Success Centre]( "Student Success Centre" " target="_blank) (lots of resources here)
[Visit an Academic Advisor]( "Academic Advisor" " target="_blank)

Student Physical/Mental Health

[Peer Support Line]( "Peer Support Line" " target="_blank) (Confidential phone line run by trained student volunteers)
[McMaster Wellness Centre]( "Wellness Centre" " target="_blank)
[McMaster PULSE Fitness Centre]( "PULSE" " target="_blank) (on-campus gym, very cheap and convenient)
[Recommendation: Learn Meditation]( "How To Meditate" " target="_blank)

International Students

[English Language Support]( "English Language Support" " target="_blank)

Students With Disabilities

[IMPORTANT: Register with the SAS]( "McMaster SAS" " target="_blank)

Continued: Mac vs. PC

In my opinion, PCs are most useful for those going into Mechanical engineering, as CAD software (like the one you will use in first year) is seldom available on Unix machines. I have also heard they are more common in Chemical, Materials, and Engineering Physics, thought I have very little experience with these departments. PCs are upgradable, which is especially useful if you intend to have a computer for more than three years, but the upgradability of some newer PCs tends to suffer due to their small size. If you’re going the PC route, brand matters. It also matters where you buy it. Best Buy is a great place to buy a PC and get a decent warranty on it. Ask about their service plan in store. See below for brand recommendations.

If you plan on going into Software, Mechatronics, Electrical, or CS, I highly recommend a Unix machine. This can either be a Mac, or a PC running (or dual booting) Linux. This is because any development you do should be done inside a Unix environment. PCs simply aren’t meant for development (unless you’re developing in Microsoft’s .NET or otherwise). Macbook’s are always a good Unix option, because they are much easier to become familiar with than Linux, come with a suite of applications for the average user, and have an incredible support system through Apple Care (which I highly recommend on any new purchase). Keep in mind that MacBooks will require a Bootcamp partition or [an alternative]( "Parallels" " target="_blank) for first year. For new Linux users, I would recommend Ubuntu or Mint. Both are Debian distros at their core, and will help you become familiar with Linux without sacrificing usability.


[1] June J. Pilcher and Allen I. Huffcutt, Effects Of Sleep Deprivation On Performance: A Meta-Analysis, Vol 19 (4) ed. , Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine, 1996.