A guide to your first year of studying engineering at university

Written by: Maggie Shui

A Guide to Your First Year of Studying Engineering at University

We talked to eight engineering students and professionals about their studies at university to give you a peek into what the first year of an engineering degree in New Zealand is like.

If you’re not sure what degree you want to do, this guide can help you feel out whether you’d like engineering. If you’ve laid down a ten year plan that ends with you swimming in app developer money in Silicon Valley, this guide… can’t help you think up the next Snapchat. However, this guide can help you maximise your success in the beginning of those ten years. And if you’re currently in the thick of it as a first year engineering student, this guide will give you insights to your degree from both your peers and those who are a bit older.

Here are the engineering nerds we spoke to:


  1. Degree content
  2. Workload
  3. How do I know engineering is right for me?
  4. What I wish I knew in my first year

1. Degree content

Aimee sums up first year as “a very vague overview of the specialisations the university has to offer.”

For brevity, we’ll focus on the content and structure of first year engineering at the University of Auckland, although you’ll find most engineering programmes in NZ structure the first year of the degree similarly.

At the University of Auckland, all first year students do the same seven core courses, and these courses more or less correlate with the various specialisations you are divided into in your second year. Your eighth course for the year is a General Education paper.

Semester One

A. ENGGEN 121 Engineering Mechanics

This is a physics paper. Samantha says it overlapped a bit with mechanics in NCEA and the rest of the paper was like NZQA Scholarship level physics. There’s a broader range of formulae and concepts compared to NCEA, and not a lot of memorising. Tarin says this paper was the biggest step up from high school and Samantha similarly found it difficult.

B. ENGGEN 140 Engineering Biology and Chemistry

As the name suggests, this paper combines biology and chemistry. Samantha says the biology part is similar to NCEA Level 2 biology (the evolution stuff in Level 3 is not relevant). The chemistry part is an expansion of NCEA Level 3 chemistry, dealing with conservation of matter and energy, and equations. Jordan says this paper doesn’t require a lot of bio and chem knowledge – i.e. it’s not focused on learning facts – but, rather, applying small bits of knowledge to problem solving questions. Tarin agrees that this paper has “very little biology and chemistry involved,” but it would be helpful to have taken biology up to NCEA Level 2 or equivalent, and chemistry to NCEA Level 3 or equivalent.

C. ENGSCI 111 Mathematical Modelling 1

This paper involves a lot of calculus, which Samantha says is similar to Level 3 Calculus, as well as statistics and algebra. She suspects Cambridge students might have a slightly easier go at this paper and, sure enough, Ben says A Level Extended Maths is effectively first year engineering maths. Tarin says the paper doesn’t involve many mathematical proofs. Rather, the focus is on applied mathematics – that is, mathematics applied to real life scenarios. This paper also continues on for most engineering majors until third year.

Semester Two

D. CHEMMAT 121 Materials Science

This course is a mix of chemistry and materials. Christina notes that there are lots of blank bits in your course book that you fill out during lectures, so make sure to stay on top of those or you’ll end up staring at your empty void of a course book in despair come exam season. There’s a lot of material (ha ha) in this paper and it’s one of the harder ones, but Christina found it interesting and enjoyable nonetheless.

E. ENGGEN 131 Engineering Computation and Software Development

This course is an introduction to programming, and is oriented towards logic and problem solving. The exam is mainly multi-choice with some short answers and when Aimee took the paper in 2015, most people got a good mark. There are two assignments – one for each programming language taught – and Christina advises to allocate more time than you think you’d need for these.

F. ELECTENG 101 Electrical and Digital Systems

This paper reintroduces what you learned in high school physics, and then takes it further. For the first few weeks, Samantha says the content was very similar to the electricity topic in NCEA Level 3 physics, mainly covering the fundamentals of electricity (AC and DC circuits).

Iron Man flexing those engineer brains and biceps

Either Semester

G. ENGGEN 115 Principles of Engineering Design

This paper teaches you the basics of engineering design, and involves drawing and 3D modelling using a software called Creo. For Samantha, there was a lot of self-teaching involved through practice and watching YouTube videos. Jordan found that taking design in high school helped especially for the drawing components of the paper, which he says amounted to half the exam. This included drawing 3D models from 2D models or vice versa, and drawing alternate views of models.

H. General Education

Your General Education paper is an elective paper where you get to satisfy your lifelong curiosity for astronomy or accounting (why?) or art history. It is an introductory paper that gives you the chance to study a topic unrelated to your degree at a tertiary level. Tarin, who took German, advises not to pick a language if you don’t like lots of small assessments throughout the semester. The General Education courses available at the University of Auckland for engineering students are here and here.

For conjoint students only

ENGGEN 150 Advanced Mechanics and Mathematical Modelling

This paper combines ENGGEN 121 and ENGSCI 111, and is for students conjoining their engineering degree with another degree. You have two lectures per topic as opposed to three, and a single three hour exam. Jordan says the amount of content in this paper is the same as in ENGGEN 121 and ENGSCI 111, but you may have fewer weekly quizzes and peer assessments. The faster pace might make this option more difficult for some, but Jordan and other conjoint students we spoke to all found this paper manageable.

2. Workload

How much work is an engineering degree, really? Degrees like medicine, law and engineering get a rep for being time consuming and stressful, so what can we know about the workload beforehand to prepare ourselves? Here are some of our past and present engineering students’ thoughts…

It’s up to you

Here is something every uni student will tell you: at university, you hold yourself accountable. As Kishan says, lecturers do not care whether you show up to class or not – although it probably hurts their feelings a little bit when they see a near-empty lecture theatre at 9 a.m. And if you’re the dopey kid who always texts your friends asking “uhh what pages did we have to do for maths,” know that your fingers will never type such a question again. Christina says her lecturers never assigned exercises to do, so she learned to pick out and complete exercises out of her own initiative.

Everything’s due in the same week

Samantha and Jordan both bemoaned tests and assignment due dates being in the same week. This is another struggle every uni student knows and, in the words of Tupac, that’s just the way it is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Every assessment counts

You have tests and assignments coming at you throughout the semester, and they all contribute substantially to your grade. Tarin says, “there are many 1% graded assignments that people neglect to complete, but these assignments can be the difference between an A or A+.” This system of assessing throughout the semester might require some adjustment for Cambridge students who are used to one big exam that counts for everything at the end of the year. Matt, who studied Cambridge in high school, found he liked the constant assessments, however, as it took some pressure off from the final exams. Nevertheless, it does mean you can’t slack during the semester and hope to score winning points in the fourth quarter because life is sadly not (the exceptional 1996 movie) Space Jam.

Civil procedure and a perm: efficiency in studying by Elle Woods

Study smart

As your workload increases at uni, it’s necessary to divide up your study time efficiently. Currently in his first year, Tarin has found that he’s improved his study and work habits since his high school days. In Year 13, he did a lot of repetitive things that were a waste of time. This won’t fly at university, however, “because there is so much content in first year engineering. You have to manage the way you learn and find new ways to absorb information better.”

How many hours of studying per day during exam period?

Tarin says, “If you want to get good grades, be prepared to study twelve hours a day during exam period. I’ve gone through five 1B8 books with notes and problems for just one course alone.” Yikes! Samantha has a less intimidating number of eight hours of study per day during the exam period (during which you have no lectures), and that number would be lower during the rest of the semester. Ultimately, of course, this number depends on the individual.

General consensus: it's not that bad

Aimee maintains that engineering is a lot less intense than people imagine, while Samantha says it’s a gradual transition rather than a big jump from high school to first year engineering. The workload increases, but Kishan says lecturers understand that first year students are fresh out of high school. Papers are designed in a way to not scare you off, but instead ease you into what university learning is like.

3. How do I know engineering is right for me?

Picking a degree straight out of high school can feel a bit like being thrown into the deep end. How are we supposed to have enough life experience to know what our vocation is?

The question of why engineering is right for someone is a bit more personal, so we thought we’d hear directly from our engineering students and professionals.


I think the key turning point for me where I realised I really liked engineering was when I realised what maths is really used for. You know how you study all this algebra and the like in high school and think, when the hell am I ever going to use this? It was only until I studied engineering when I realised, wow, this is what it’s used for.

Siri, what is my life’s purpose?


Really, how do you ever know anything is right for you? I'm still not 100% sure of all this, and I'm almost three years in and enjoying it immensely! Certainty is something you can never achieve, but if you would like to develop your problem-solving and project-doing skills in a science or technology field, studying engineering is a sound place to start. Of course, it's not the only place to start, nor is it the best option for everyone. Regarding working in the field of engineering, there is a huge variety of work to be doing, even within specialisations. The skills you acquire can be applicable in pretty much any position (except maybe one that involves a lot of essay writing, if the general feedback about a recent assignment a lecturer of mine gave is to be believed). To sum it up, engineering is for you if you like problem-solving, and would like a broad skillset.


I can’t say for all specialisations, but if you have a desire to understand how things work and find solutions for problems, then I guess engineering is a good start. Engineering isn’t only about maths and physics.


Like a lot of things in life you need to try it out first to see if you like it. At its very core, engineering is essentially problem solving in a wide range of industries. If you love combining maths, applied physics, programming, management principles and other tools to solve problems, then engineering is right for you. (Also, if you love not sleeping and operating solely off caffeine like me 24/7).

4. What I wish I knew in my first year

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Our engineering nerds have plenty of experiences for them to ponder back on with a mix of regret and fondness. Read their insights and hope that they give you the foresight to avoid the same missteps, but achieve the same triumphs.

Go to class

A lot of people regretted missing classes and assuming they could catch up later. Here’s some sage advice from Christina: “You think you’ll be fine, but you won’t.” She also recommends paying close attention to the examples lecturers use during class as they’ll help a lot with your own study. Attend class, kids!

Get over your imposter syndrome

Aimee says she wishes she’d known the GPAs of other students. She fretted during first year about not making it into Software Engineering in second year, believing that a lot of people in her cohort had higher grades than her. Other students also seemed to have more experience in programming – they’d either studied it in high school or dabbled in their spare time. As it turns out, Aimee got into Software Engineering by a wide GPA margin, and she’s now thriving in her third year of engineering. So, don’t be scared at university. Or, if you’re going to be scared anyway, know that everyone else is scared too.

Measure against yourself – not others

Related to the last point, try not to get caught up in comparing yourself to other students. Aimee says, “When you find that class you're good at, it’s easy to watch others struggle around you and wonder if you've missed something difficult and important that you should also be struggling with. Likewise, it's easy to watch someone understand something immediately and beat yourself up about not being able to do the same. I tend to forget that people have different strengths, so the advice I'm trying to live out is: stop measuring your understanding against that of others. You can spend too long thinking about it when you could just be doing the work and improving yourself.”

When the dude next to you doesn’t even follow the instructions but his potion is still better than yours

Purchase textbooks sparingly

Don’t be too quick to purchase those $160 engineering textbooks. Hold off a little while and gauge if you really need them. Samantha says that she found the course books (usually no more than about $30) were more than enough in covering all the content in a course.

You don’t have to know everything

If you were an academic type in high school, you might be used to understanding all the content in a subject. However, this is not always possible at uni and there’s nothing wrong with that. Because our girl Aimee is just a fountain of wisdom, here’s some more insight from her: “You're not going to use most of what you cover in class since it is a general year. Don't get caught up in your inability to understand mechanics or do orthographic projections nearly as well as your friends. And don't think you have to know every single thing in a course to succeed. It's a lot harder to achieve high grades in uni than in high school, but I've found that the depth of the answers expected is reduced. They really can't examine everything in a 2-3 hour exam.”


Uni gets more hectic the further along you progress, so try to make the most of the halcyon days of first year. Christina wishes she’d gotten more involved in social clubs and Samantha would simply tell her younger self to enjoy her free time. Make friends because, in the words of Kishan, “life is easier when you have friends to cheat off,” and don’t let engineering consume your life.

Get advice

Kishan would tell his first year self to do his homework and be well-informed about the degree he was investing himself in. Tarin suggests joining clubs such as ACE (Architecture and Engineering Club) or to go to the Hardware meet-ups, because “going to these events can set a new course of direction for you.” And don’t be afraid to contact experienced people in the field – Tarin is a tutor with MyTuition and got in touch with our founders Jimmy and Roy (both engineering graduates) to get their insights about studying and working in engineering.

Also, you know, you could subscribe to the MyTuition blog.

Many thanks to Aimee, Ben, Christina, Jordan, Kishan, Matt, Samantha and Tarin for sharing their experiences and insights with us!

By Maggie from MyTuition

I want to hear your thoughts and questions! Send them over to hello@mytuition.nz

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