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So you want to be an engineer? …but you’re not good at math? Get Over It!

want to be an engineer

I hear a lot of kids say, “I don’t think I could be an engineer because I’m not good at math.” Yet these same kids have built go carts, figured out how to make things go boom, and have found ways to launch potatoes with incredible force. What they don’t realize is that it took a fair amount of engineering ingenuity to accomplish these tasks. More than the fear of crashing or blowing off a finger, they are afraid of the “math” that it takes to become an engineer.

Granted, a small percentage of graduate engineers will work in a R&D setting that will require high level math. However, the reality is that the vast majority of engineers that graduate will work in industry. If you look at what they do, day in and day out, you will find that they need to be very good at algebra.  You know, y = mx + b kind of stuff.  Engineers get giddy with excitement the handful of times they get to use the TAN key on their HP-85 scientific calculator.  Kind of makes me want to brandish my K+E slide rule with 22 scales.

“Wait…  Did you say algebra?! So you’re telling me that the majority of math that
engineers do every day is the same stuff that I learned from Brother “Jumpin’ Joe” O’Meara my junior year of high school?”


That is exactly right. Engineering is not so much being good at math but more about having a passion for understanding how things work and interact. Let’s take a parabola as an example… y = x2.  Boring, right? Why should you care?


use-this-oneWhat if your teacher asked “Do you have Dish TV?”… Then went on to explain that your dish collects radio waves from outer space. No matter where those radio waves hit the surface of the dish, they all bounce to the same point (the focus).  That point has an amplifier that can take those very weak signals and present a signal that allows you to watch the Rams beat the Bears on national TV.  Congratulations!  You just learned a practical reason to care about parabolas!


Thomas Edison did poorly in his math classes in school, but went on to patent over 1000 inventions. In engineering, what matters more than love of math is being a person that wants to understand how things work, likes to take things apart, and likes to put things together to make the world a better place. If you look around your garage and think “I can make an automated robot that takes the trash out from these miscellaneous pieces and parts,” you might make a great engineer. Don’t let the fact that you don’t see the redeeming social value of calculus get in the way of becoming an engineer!

Yes, in engineering school the math sequence can be intense. Some of the classes will kick your butt. Suck it up!  Every one of us have taken classes in which we “toughed it out.”  For me, one of those classes was Financial Accounting. I still couldn’t tell you a credit from a debit, and I have an MBA. Loved Finance. Hated Financial Accounting. Still had to pass it to cross finish line. Like anything in life, there will be things you just have to survive to achieve the goals you have for yourself.  Don’t let a couple of pesky math classes stop you from being a great engineer!

John Schott

By: John R. Schott, P.E.

John is a Principal Electrical Engineer and the President of EPIC Systems, Inc. As a young boy, he too had a passion for understanding how things work.


Written in collaboration with Eric Coale.

11 Responses to So you want to be an engineer? …but you’re not good at math? Get Over It!

  1. Jared Rice October 17, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    Great blog, John – Giving young kids confidence that they can achieve something great is key. You don’t have to be the best at everything to achieve your goals; you need confidence, discipline and perseverance.

  2. Chris October 17, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    Very true. Most engineers will never touch high level math unless they are in an R&D setting. Also, good engineers are generally logical thinkers.

  3. Jim October 18, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    Great blog, I am going to have my son peeps read it.
    I thought your true calling was to be a M.D, but now i
    am thinking teacher. P.S. I have worked with John on
    engineering projects from Rocket sleds for Boeing to
    designing a factory to make chili,and the clients have
    always been thrilled with results. JL

  4. Jefferson November 4, 2013 at 7:07 am #

    I couldn’t agree any much more. I love to take apart electronics like my Xbox, built model jets as a hobby when I was younger, go to an Aviation technician school while still in high school, and my one Calculus class has me in that rock in a hard place. It’s tough. I’m starting to doubt myself that I’m capable of even handling higher mathematics just to be awarded that golden diploma that says you’re qualified to build and think. Reading up on these articles I’ve been given a new sense of hope, maybe I may not be good at math now, maybe not tomorrow, but for sure I can the day after tomorrow if I just work hard enough. I suppose it’s one of those things you have to conquer in order to do what you love. Heck, I felt like I was on top of the world when I use to get mathematics correctly and ace all my quizzes, home works, and tests. Calculus is a struggle but maybe it’s because I have too much on my plate right now. The time to just sit down and clear my mind isn’t there anymore. Stress is becoming a major factor in my life right now. Honestly, I do need more soul searching to see if Engineering is for me and I would love to shadow an Aeronautical Engineer just to make sure this is what I want. I think I need time and patience. That and money because college is expensive, haha. Thank you John R. Schott, your words of wisdom and knowledge are uplifting.

  5. John Schott November 4, 2013 at 12:19 pm #


    You sound like you should be an engineer. Maybe to get through the calc sequence in college, you will need to take a little lighter load. Or, take it during the summer when you can concentrate on one class.

    I recommend you find a GOOD tutor. Find someone who can explain things to you in a way that you can understand. If someone ever explains something to you that you don’t understand, ask them to explain it again. You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if you have the right tutor. If not, politely thank them and look for a new tutor.

    Bottom line… MAKE IT HAPPEN, DUDE !!! You da man!

    Call me if you need some encouragement.


  6. David DeWitt November 4, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    The issue of math comes up often with employers, students and educators. Mr. Schott is right on target. There is no doubt that algebra is the key. I’ve always felt that it is as much about the equal (=) sign as it is about the actual numbers. Once students start to think about how one set of circumstances are dependent and related (=) to another set of circumstances they are more than “half way home”. The other subject I am super supportive of is Physics. Physics is all about how things around you really work. Physics can also be even taught without numbers to get young folks interested. You can always add the numbers later.

    I’d enjoy speaking with you or Mr. Schott further on any of these topics. I am usually at the office number most days from 9-3.

  7. Anushree Bagwe April 19, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

    Thank you Mr. John. This article gave me some confidence. I flunked at maths and I am still not sucking it up, I guess I will have to start soon. I suck at calculus and now I have started hating it. Your article gives me a renewed hope in myself. Thanks again!
    P.S.-I am a student from India.

  8. Abraham Martinez May 13, 2014 at 4:01 am #

    Im very interested in majoring in electrical engineering but yes my only thing stopping me is the whole math part it puts me down knowing im not so great at math …. Im recently a senior in highschool and about to graduate but im so confused wether or not to pursue my dream of been an engineer what do you think?

  9. urfli May 17, 2014 at 3:37 am #

    I sucked at math. This is true story.I even sucked at fractions, it takes weeks for me to find the LCD.
    I took a removal exam in Integral Calculus 3times. Almost failed Diff Calculus as well.


    I’m a software engineer at Lexis Nexis.

  10. Carissa October 8, 2014 at 10:53 am #

    I was an A student in high school, but was horrible in advanced algebra even though I applied myself. I went into the service and have been away from classes for four+ years. So it was something that concerned me greatly in an aeronautical field where I’d like to eventually become an industrial engineer, to think that I might not be able to manage the mathematical course studies. I may very well give it a shot due to this and similar input I’ve received.

  11. Benjamin Nechmad October 23, 2014 at 3:50 am #

    I just wanted to say that I am a senior in high school and I’m considering majoring in Civil/ Environmental engineering. I’ve done a lot of thinking and realized that I’ve always loved building things and the only thing that’s in my is my “okay” math skills. I’m very nervous for the Calculus and other math I will have to take in college but this article certainly gives me confidence that I will be able to succeed.

    Thank you

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