How do I get into engineering?

How do I get into engineering?
Find out about routes into an engineering career – whether or not you want to go to university – and the grades you’ll need.

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What A levels? What grades? Degree first? Straight to work? Professional qualifications

There are plenty of jobs within the engineering industry, both for graduates and for apprentices. If you’re studying for your A levels, Scottish Highers or equivalent there are two main routes for you to choose from. You could either go to university to study for an engineering degree before starting work or join a higher apprenticeship programme with an engineering employer after sixth form, which would mean you could earn and learn at the same time.

Choosing between university and an apprenticeship scheme isn’t necessarily straightforward. You’ll need to consider a range of factors, including the level of qualification included in any apprenticeship or school leaver programme and your future earnings. Our advice on whether to go to university or get a job will help you decide. Here, we’ve set out the qualifications you’ll need either to study engineering at uni or get an apprenticeship, and we’ve explained how each route leads to an engineering career.

What A levels do I need for a career in engineering?

If you want to take a degree in engineering you need an A level (or equivalent) in maths. In many cases you also need physics. Some chemical engineering degrees ask for maths and chemistry instead; some ask for maths and physics; and some ask for all three.

For some degree courses it’s OK to have A level maths and a science subject that isn’t physics. However, in these instances physics is sometimes still described as ‘preferred’, sometimes only a limited number of science subjects are OK as an alternative (eg chemistry is more commonly accepted than biology) and you’re less likely to get in without physics if your maths A level doesn’t include mechanics modules.

For some very prestigious universities it is helpful to also have further maths. For example:

  • At some University of Cambridge colleges further maths is essential, and even at the others it is still very much liked.
  • The University of Oxford states that further maths is ‘helpful to students in completing this course, although it is not required for admission’.
  • For the University of Bristol’s engineering maths degree it is ‘encouraged but not required’.
  • For Imperial College London’s electrical and electronic engineering degree further maths is preferred as your third A level (in addition to maths and physics).
  • Durham University comments that ‘students that have done A level further maths tend to find the first year maths at university much easier’.

To get onto an engineering higher apprenticeship or similar you’ll typically need maths and science A levels. Some employers ask for specific science subjects and others don’t, but maths is often requested.

What grades do I need for a career in engineering?

If you want to get into a top university to study engineering you will typically need A* and A grades in your A levels or equivalent. Universities that aren’t as highly ranked often ask for As and Bs.

Engineering recruiters tend to be more concerned about what grade you get in your degree than what university you studied at. When you’re choosing your degree, focus on selecting a course you think you will do well on at an institution that will support you.

Entry requirements for higher apprenticeships aren’t typically as high. Some employers don’t specify grades; some ask for C grades or above at A level; others set a minimum number of UCAS points, typically between 240 (CCC) and 280 (BBC).

One of the schemes with the highest entry requirements is Roll’s Royce’s manufacturing engineering higher apprenticeship, for which you’ll need three A levels at grades A* to B (though you can get onto its engineering higher apprenticeship with A* to C grades).

Getting into engineering by taking a degree first

If you decide to get a degree before starting work there are hundreds of courses to choose from. You can opt to study a particular aspect of engineering or keep your options open with a general engineering degree. You can also choose between a course that leads to a bachelors level qualification (which typically takes three years in England and Wales and four years in Scotland) or one that leads to a masters level qualification (which typically takes four years in England and Wales and five years in Scotland). See our advice on choosing your engineering degree discipline and what to consider when comparing engineering degree courses for more information.

Many engineering employers run graduate schemes for those who have completed an engineering degree. As well as a job to do, you are likely to receive formal training and might have the chance to try out different roles to see which suits you best.

There are also many jobs for graduate engineers with companies who don’t run formal graduate schemes. Often these are with smaller organisations that need someone to come in and do a particular job straight away.

Joining an engineering employer straight after sixth form

A number of engineering employers run higher apprenticeships, which are aimed at those who’ve just finished their A levels (or equivalent). You’ll end up with different qualifications depending on the company you join – some offer the chance to gain a bachelors degree; others offer a foundation degree (which is equivalent to the first part of a degree but not a full degree), or an HND or an HNC, for example.

All programmes involve combining a job at your employer with part-time study. You might work Monday to Thursday and then spend Friday studying at a local college or university, or attend college in blocks of a week or more at a time. You’re also likely to need to give up some of your spare time to study at home. However, your employer will typically pay all of your tuition fees.

You’re unlikely to be guaranteed a permanent job at the end of the programme. However, if you do well your employer is very likely to want to keep you, especially having gone to the time and expense of training you. It may also offer you the option of continuing your studies to a higher level.

If you’re not offered a permanent job, you'll have nationally recognised qualifications that will help you find employment elsewhere.

An alternative to doing a higher apprenticeship is to take an intermediate apprenticeship or an advanced apprenticeship. However, these are lower level qualifications for which you don’t need A levels.

Becoming professionally qualified as an engineer – and how this relates to salary

Many engineers choose to become professionally registered. This means that a professional body has certified that you have the right level of skills and knowledge in your job area to meet its benchmark. It gives public recognition that you know what you are doing (which can help you look good to potential new employers or clients) and allows you to put letters after your name. Generally speaking it’s not essential to become professionally registered, though some employers might require you to do so.

There are different levels of professional registration. The highest is chartered engineer, then incorporated engineer, then engineering technician. On average, chartered engineers earn more than incorporated engineers, and incorporated engineers earn more than engineering technicians. However, there is lots of variation from job to job and company to company. Find out more about engineering salaries.

The quickest and simplest route to chartered engineer status is with a masters degree; the quickest and simplest route to incorporated engineer level is with at least a bachelors degree. However, it’s also possible to get there with lower qualifications, if you can prove that you’ve reached these levels of learning in another way. For example, there’s a recognised route from an HND, foundation degree, NVQ4 or SVQ4 to incorporated engineer status. And you can work towards qualification as an engineering technician even without these qualifications.

Engineers work towards becoming professionally registered over a period of time while in employment. Typically you’ll need to gather evidence that you’ve experienced the range of work and skills expected, which might take a couple of years, then present this to your professional body and have an interview. You might also have to sit an exam or write an extended essay.

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