STEM Careers: How to Prepare for Admission to a Top University

19/01/202321 minute read
STEM Careers: How to Prepare for Admission to a Top University

One of the fastest growing careers today are in the STEM field and many students pursue a variety of degrees related to these fields. But as demand ramps up so does competition to enter these programs at top US universities. Here we outline what STEM programs encompass and how you can start preparing for them.

What are STEM programs?

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. These subjects are considered to be crucial for the development and advancement of any society, as they form the foundation for innovation and progress.

STEM subjects are interrelated and often overlap. For example, engineers use scientific principles to design and build structures, while scientists use technology to collect and analyze data. Together, these subjects help us understand and improve the world around us. STEM education is important because it provides students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the 21st century workforce. It also teaches critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity, which are essential skills for success in any field. Furthermore, the increasing demand for STEM professionals in various fields like healthcare, transportation, and technology, it is important to encourage students to pursue STEM careers.

In the United States for university purposes, STEM is usually divided into five categories – Physical Sciences, Applied Economics & Management, Mathematics, Computer Science and Pre-Medicine. Here is a list of some of the top STEM schools in the US.

Top STEM Universities in the US
Harvey MuddMITMITHarvard
MITCarnegie MellonUC BerkeleyCornell

Why study STEM subjects in university?

STEM subjects are crucial for students to study because they provide a foundation for critical thinking and problem-solving skills. These skills are in high demand in a wide range of fields and industries, including technology, healthcare, and finance. Additionally, studying STEM subjects can lead to well-paying and fulfilling careers, as well as opportunities for innovation and leadership in these fields. Furthermore, STEM education can help students understand and shape the world around them, and make informed decisions about important issues such as climate change and healthcare. In summary, studying STEM subjects can be beneficial for both personal and professional development and make a positive impact on society.

  1. Helps develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills – These will translate to any major or job a student decides to pursue
  2. Preparedness for the future - PwC forecast that 75% of fastest growing occupations will require STEM-based skills
  3. Career opportunities – STEM subjects are more applicable in an increasingly mechanized world with a focus on skills like coding and engineering
  4. Higher starting salaries - STEM graduates usually have higher starting salaries than other fields.
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What are some STEM careers?

Lots of industries hire graduates with a STEM background. These include research, industry, entrepreneurial, humanitarian and finance companies. Here is a list of some of the top careers in STEM:

  • Computer Engineering - Computer engineering is a common education for people who want to work as computer hardware engineers, which is one of the high-paying STEM careers available today. Hardware engineers create a wide variety of computer equipment and often test and analyze the hardware they have built. They may also be tasked with updating existing computer hardware or managing the manufacturing of new devices.
  • Aerospace Engineering - Students who are proficient in math, physics, and chemistry may be perfectly suited to a degree in aerospace engineering. During this education, students will use both field and class studies to understand the structures and science behind the most advanced spacecraft and airplanes.
  • Chemical Engineering - This broad degree covers the development and design of products that involve chemical and biological changes. Chemical engineers can be involved in the production of drugs, food, fuels, household chemicals, and substances used in mechanics.
  • Material Design – An offshoot of chemical engineering, material design is a field that deals with new supermaterials, structural design, buildings and construction, nanomaterials, as well as nanocomputers. As we try to work with dwindling natural resources, this is a field that will become ever more important.
  • Software Development - A student with a degree in software development will learn how to analyze needs and design computer programs to accomplish specific goals. They may create applications or plan parts or a whole program.
  • Biomedical Engineering - Biomedical engineering is a complex degree that combines multiple disciplines, including biology, medical research, and (of course) engineering. People with a STEM degree in biomedical engineering can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals and laboratories, designing equipment and devices for the healthcare industry.
  • Actuarial Science - There are many educational paths to becoming an actuary, which analyzes financial risk, the most obvious degree choices are actuarial science or finance. These degrees teach students to analyze risk using a combination of science and mathematics. Actuarial science majors are often employed in the insurance industry, but they are also found in scientific research and company management firms.
  • Artificial Intelligence – The new AI ChatGPT has taken the world by storm and other such tools will continue to transform our world. New AI algorithms are being implemented in Finance, Research, Law, Marketing and everywhere else so there is potential for growth.
  • Interplanetary Exploration - New companies, like SpaceX, are revolutionizing how we travel outside Earth’s atmosphere and what we can do once we reach other planets. There is a lot of potential in gravitational waves, solar sails, high speed aircraft and spacecraft.

Why should you pursue STEM degrees in the US?

The US is one of the most popular places for students pursuing STEM degrees. While the UK, Singapore, Japan and Germany also rank high, the US presents certain opportunities to STEM graduates. Here are some benefits to pursuing a STEM degree in the US:

  • Diversity of program choice – Many US universities offer a wide variety of STEM programs, including specialized fields like product and industrial design and artificial intelligence. Plus, many universities allow students to mix and match their classes so you will have the opportunity to pursue classes outside the STEM field as well.
  • Undergraduate opportunities and experiential learning – Universities in the US provide a variety of opportunities to STEM students to take their learning outside the classroom and apply it in real world scenarios. This includes research and internship opportunities, study abroad and summer travel programs as well as concurrent degrees where a student gains experience in two different fields. For example, MIT has a D-Lab where students solve practical problems through theoretical knowledge.
  • Curriculum flexibility – Many universities in the US, like UPenn, Columbia and Wesleyan, offer combination STEM degrees where students pursue non-STEM programs alongside their course of study. These degrees are a great way to learn about two different fields while understanding how to apply STEM subjects in the real world.
  • Work experience and opportunities during studies – Most students in the US are eligible for part-time and full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT) while studying STEM degrees. These are valuable opportunities to gain experience in university
  • Ability to work post-graduation for up to 3 years - Optional Practical Training (OPT) and STEM OPT extension allow graduates to stay and work in the US
  • Longer term employment prospects – The US has an employer-sponsored H1B visa that is an option for those students looking to stay longer in the US.

So how is a STEM application evaluated for university admissions?

STEM majors have gained popularity over the last couple of years and there is a lot of competition for specific majors. STEM subjects have had a 43% growth for intended majors in applications. Since 2014/15 Engineering majors grew in popularity by 12%, while enrollment in Math and Computer Science went up a whopping 82%! Plus, international students are now pursuing these degrees more and more in the US, ramping up competition even further. So, it is important that your admission profile has all the necessary elements to succeed in impressing the officer of a top university.

When it comes to evaluating a STEM application, admissions committees usually perform a holistic evaluation of each application. The committee looks at each application in two different ways: Absolute Achievement and Relative Achievement. Absolute achievements are things that can be measured and things where you could maybe stand out against other students in a very explicit way. For example, are you really involved at your school, or in a particular activity, or do you have a lot of awards and accolades, do you have better grades than other students from your school, or better test scores.

Relative achievement is your potential and includes your opportunities, challenges and interests. Officers look at what type of school you went to and what opportunities you got there, what kind of unique challenges you faced in your life that show your attitude and your effort could be an indicator of your future success. The last piece of course is your own interests. Admissions committees want to see that you're bringing your full authentic self, including your humor, interests, hobbies or academic direction that you have, all to the table and reflected in your application.

Application Review Process
Absolute AchievementRelative Achievement
ImpactYour opportunities
AccoladesYour challenges
% Rank/Testing (within school)Your interests

In the US, STEM activities are typically divided into two main – research endeavors and real-world endeavors. Regardless of the activity, there needs to be some real-world relevance to both. While research endeavors are usually quantifiable by publishing and depth, real-world endeavors are usually driven by a student’s own interest. For example, if you develop an app to tackle an issue in your community or you lead a club that provides coding lessons to underprivileged kids. However, research projects are not required by all STEM schools. Universities like Stanford tend to be more well-rounded and don’t always ask for research projects while MIT and Harvey Mudd College are more technical and require some research-based projects.

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What can you do to build your STEM profile?

When applying to STEM programs it is important to understand that there are different admissions requirements and considerations based on what stream you choose. Here are some specific requirements for the four broad STEM streams:

  • Engineering - Many schools have specific engineering essays that ask you to detail why you want to study engineering at this school specifically. When applying for these programs it is best to name specific courses, professors, and programs that interest you and relate them to your background.
  • Computer Science – This is an interesting field as it is a combination of learning a foreign language which is programming, as well as hardware architecture and theory. These programs tend to look for students who want to learn like the mindset about how to build things using code.
  • Traditional Math and Science – Applying to these programs is usually the same as applying to any other major. You should consider declaring a major that fits best with your high school story and you don’t have to declare your major until you are a sophomore.
  • BS/MD – These are very specialized programs where you can be admitted to medical school at the same time as you're admitted to undergraduate school. You still have to do four years of undergraduate but then you don't have to apply to medical school again. Typically, unless you're a U.S citizen or permanent resident it's very unlikely that you would be admitted for these programs. Most programs have a question about your motivation and the interview process is significantly important as most programs only take 20 students!

Once you figure out what program you are interested in, it is time to figure out whether you have what it takes to go to a top STEM school. You should start planning your profile early enough and make sure to include all or at least some of the following:

Three Pillars of your STEM Application
Take the right courses and testsEngage in extracurricular activitiesShow your leadership capabilities
• Four years of Math: Algebra II, Trigonometry, Pre-calculus, Calculus (even Statistics) • At least three years of science: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, including labs • Any Computer Science or Engineering courses offered at your high school • Four years of English, 2-3 years of a foreign language and 2 years of Social Studies • If possible, STEM courses at a local college • As many AP exams as you can - consider self-studying or working with a tutor • SAT subject test in Math II, along with at least two others• STEM clubs like ISEF, Robotics, Math and Science Olympiads, FIRST Lego League, or Girls Who Code • Volunteer at a hospital if you are interested in the BS/MD path • Fill your awards section by entering competitions - i.e. AIME (American Invitational Mathematics Examination) • Any other activities that you like and show your interests• Institutional positions - Student President, Organization Ambassador, New Initiative Within a Club, Club Leader, or School Council Member • Innovative positions - Startup Founder, Organization Director, Leading a Campaign for a Cause, Starting an app, or Starting your Own Competition

How can Crimson help?

Crimson Education is the world’s leading US admissions counselor. Our student’s high rate of success is due to our unique model which pairs students with top university graduate experts who work 1:1 to perfect every part of the application.

Our counselling model includes help at all stages of the admissions process - from university selection strategy, test prep and personal statement/support, to extracurricular mentoring and interview practice. You can schedule an initial video consultation to begin your journey with Crimson!