Rajat Thaker, an alumnus of the American School of Dubai, graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) in Computer Engineering this year. The young man, who is planning to pursue a career in software engineering, is a New Grad Software Engineer (aka "Noogler") at Google.

He reveals how he prepared for the college admissions process, what his mentors helped him focus upon and how he made it to Google.

Excerpts from an interview:

What preparations did you take while applying to UIUC?

I made sure to keep up my grades and extracurriculars. Apart from that, Peter Davos at Hale, recommended some good books to learn more about engineering applied in the real world and other general reading material.

What made you shift from Electrical to Computer Engineering? What factors led you to pursue Computer Engineering?

I got my first taste of coding in high school around junior year. I didn’t have time to decide whether I would want to pursue it further so I held off and continued exploring in college. In my first year, I realised my interests definitely lay in Computer Engineering and since the program was conjoined (the department is called Electrical and Computer Engineering), it was pretty easy to switch.

How easy/difficult was it to move from one discipline to the other?

It wasn’t simple. I had to put in another formal application, but having already been accepted into the Electrical Engineering program I didn’t have to reach any sort of benchmarks in my GPA or reapply as an external student.

It’s definitely easier but if anyone is thinking of transferring majors I highly recommend doing your research and talking to advisors before you take the leap.

What kind of support did your mentors offer you before, during, and after you applied to university?

I received a lot of great advice throughout the journey. They identified my strengths and weaknesses almost immediately. Throughout my application process, we discussed how to cover all of our bases, optimise the timeframe that we had and prioritise becoming a competitive candidate.

Towards the end, we discussed potential programs further, and once I had made my decision we were able to discuss what life and UIUC would be like and how I could optimise my life there.

What were the three major takeaways from your mentors that helped you grow holistically, balancing personal and professional interests?

1. Discussing their experiences at college (they went to some great universities!)

2. Being upfront about where you are and where you want to be. Being an engineer was a lifelong dream, but computer science really hooked me. I would’ve probably had a lot less success if I jumped at Computer Science and never even have considered Computer Engineering as an option (which I think was the best decision I could have made).

My grades weren’t stellar, but I was taking a lot of difficult classes and that worked in my favour. There are many factors that go into the admissions process so the more they know about you the better they can help.

3. Research, research, research. One thing Hale gave me was access to people who knew everything about everything, but they couldn’t help me if I didn’t ask about it specifically. Take initiative!

What factors helped you land the position at Google?

Network. Explore their resources (they want you to succeed at these interviews)!

Take up some hobbies outside of computer science/engineering to set yourself apart.

Keep your technical skills sharp.

What three tips can you offer students aiming to pursue computer engineering?

1. Imposter syndrome is real. Don’t focus on what others can do, focus on yourself.

2. Explore as much as you can.

3. Connect with a lot of people.

Anand Raj OK

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