Sunday, November 7, 2010

Application Inflation: When Is Enough Enough?

Congratulations to me! I pressed submit on my Early Action applications to the University of Chicago and Boston College, and now I'm back to blogging after weeks of essay revisions consuming my free time.

Allen Grove at recently posted about the volume of applications students are sending in To How Many Colleges Should I Apply?, and it got me thinking about how I'm contributing to the admissions fad "more is better" in terms of application numbers.

To quote Grove, "NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, recently published their report on the "State of College Admission 2010." The study showed that in 2009, 75% of students submitted three or more applications; 23% submitted seven or more applications. Those numbers have been creeping up over the past couple of decades as the number of college-bound students has increased and online applications have made applying easier."

I am one of those 23% of applicants referenced as applying to more than seven colleges, so I feel some obligation to explain that to the adults and peers who constantly ask me "why so many?" The basic reason for me is that the colleges I'm interested in all happen to be highly selective. No matter how qualified you are, if one in four applicants are admitted at your "target schools," there's room for doubt of admission, and so my list has grown slightly out of precaution.

A fantastic article  titled Application Inflation: When is Enough Enough? was just released today by Eric Hoover, a writer for The Chronicle, the leading publication on higher education, in conjunction with the New York Times. Beginning with the question of why the number of applications institutions receive seems to be edging higher each year, Hoover looks into a few powerful examples of college marketing campaigns and their effects on drastically increased application numbers.

The first example on the table is the University of Chicago, which experienced an unbelievable 43% increase in applications last year. This change is attributed to multiple factors, namely the introduction of Jim Nondorf (formerly at Yale and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) as Dean of Admissions for the College, the school's adoption of the Common Application over their formerly "uncommon" application, and the extensive use of a marketing firm to attract more students to campus.

Students and alumni from Chicago have complained that the marketing campaign has transformed Chicago from an interesting place that drew in niche students into a more generic imitation of what a college should be, all in the name of drawing in more applicants. While Chicago used to pride in its eccentricity and deviation from the admissions norm, it now seems to be chasing averages.

So why are colleges embarking on multi-million dollar spending sprees to lure in more applicants, many paying the college board 32 cents per name, only to reject an overwhelming majority of those who apply? Many colleges claim that an increasing volume is a must in today's competitive market as an indication of institutional growth, and that increasing selectivity boosts everything from the college's credit score to alumni giving to their U.S. News Ranking, if only insignificantly.

The benefits  of bringing in more applications are dubious at best. There are many downsides to increasing application volumes as well, taken most seriously Georgetown, a school which has chosen to keep off the Common Application to keep its applicants down to those most dedicated to attending the school. It additionally wishes to provide an interview to each applicant, which it wouldn't be able to do if the college switched to the Common Application and application volume shot up double digits each year.

As Hoover's article illustrates, the debate for quantity over quantity isn't limited to paper; it affects the students who are ultimately hurt by these admissions tactics. He recounts the story of a minority applicant who was urged to apply by Harvard:
A Harvard representative contacted Sally Nuamah her junior year of high school in Chicago. Ms. Nuamah had good grades but an ACT score she describes as low. Her parents, who came from Ghana, had little money. As she welcomed the admissions rep into her living room one day, she was nervous. “I was like, ‘Oh, goodness, I don’t want to disappoint anyone,’ ” she says.
Ensuing conversations brought mixed emotions. “I felt that I was pushed and given motivation,” she says, “but on the other hand, I wondered if what they were telling me was feasible.” She knew her scores were below the average for Harvard students. Nonetheless, she applied. Months later, a rejection letter came.
Ultimately, it is a sad reality that a majority of these added applications each year are from under-qualified applicants who have no chance of being admitted, only of feeding the admissions frenzy of annually increasing volumes of applications and associated costs. However, as a current applicant myself, I see no alternative but to feed the fire until I receive some acceptance letters a few months down the road.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

College Essays: from Writing to Revising

This is as crucial a time for me as it is for all of you Seniors. I've been reading about the application process for years, and now my first deadline is less than a month away. Panic? Not really - that was for junior year. I've ultimately learned how to control that inevitable anxiety about the process by doing things early and learning to objectively critique my own application and essays.

I've now written my main Common App essay, main supplemental essay that I'll be sending in a few applications, and my personal statement via the Common App's "additional information" section. "How are you managing?" people ask. Basically, I'm setting optimistic deadlines for my essays, teacher recommendations, and mountains of paperwork that come with this process. Now I have everything done... in rough form. I feel really relieved to have all of my essays at least started, even if I haven't edited them yet. The ideas are there, and I now have time to go back and revise, to help explain myself through these essays by connecting the thoughts and making sure everything makes sense.

I'm now onto stage two of the writing process: revising. As simple as this may sound, it's not just checking for grammar like you've likely gotten through high school doing: it's mapping your essay in an outline, making sure every point makes sense and logically flows from the one before it. The only way to be able to see this level of individual-point analysis is to start seeing things objectively. For me, this means putting at least two or three days between when you first spill out your ideas from when you next attempt to edit. You really need to pay attention to how you're telling the story, and not making any assumptions about what the reader already knows. This is really challenging, so if you haven't developed that eye for objectivity, give the essay to one of your parents, siblings, or friends to read. Chances are, you've skipped some logical links.

 I have linked below some really helpful blog posts from Brown University's Admissions Office Blog, and I would really suggest reading them. One point I love that helps with objective analysis is to outline your essay after you've written it to see if it met the criteria you wanted to get across when you started writing. What does it say about you? How could you tie in more information about yourself to make the essay resonate with and compliment your resume and transcript? The post on choosing a topic is really helpful also: there really aren't any cliché or exhausted topics, but there are definitely dull and typical ways to write about them. The post asks you to objectively ask yourself what the topic (and subsequent essay) says that makes you stand out from the applicant pool, and helps the admissions office see what you would contribute to the campus.

From the Brown University Admissions Office Blog, Prospects and Providence:
Getting a Personal: The Writing Process
Getting Personal - Choosing a Topic
The Personal Statement in Context

One thing I love about the Brown Admissions Office Blog, Prospects and Providence, is that their writers are real admissions officers at one of the most selective universities in the world, and yet they don't come off as intimidating. Everything is written to help the applicant, especially in terms of stress management and taking a really hazy process and breaking it down in to manageable pieces. As a final note, I couldn't agree with them more about their approach to taking the essays in context (the last article). Your essays are important, but try to focus more on ideas than writing at first, and everything will fall into place. The essay is ultimately just another tool for the admissions to learn about you, so put in the time and show off your skills. Embrace them and start writing and revising, seniors!

P.S. Hope you had an awesome Harry Potter Homecoming, BHS!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

College Admissions Office Blogs

Some of you have probably gotten emails from colleges of interest with a link to the school's own "admissions office blog" to help you get to know the office/college. Some posts are silly, some are serious, but they all help to provide hints as to what the officers are looking for and speak to the vibe on campus.

Some blogs like UChicago's "The Uncommon Blog" are all over the place, with multiple authors writing off-key, sometimes whimsical, mostly intellectual posts about their very diverse and fulfilling pursuits at Chicago. Recent posts range from "Transformers descend on Chicago" about the upcoming movie's filming in Chicago, to "Summer Research" following some exciting projects.

Other college admissions office blogs are much like my own: attempts to clarify the college admissions and selection process. Blogs from Tufts and Dartmouth offer really useful information with a lot of outside info on student life and stories of memorable applications the counselors have seen.

Here are some of my favorite college admissions office blogs (some more active than others):

University of Chicago - The Uncommon Blog
Swarthmore College - Parrish Beach Patrol
Brown University - Prospects and Providence
Perspectives from Dartmouth Admissions
Vanderbilt University - The Vandy Admissions Blog
Tufts University - TuftsBlogs
MIT - Admissions Blog

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Importance of Campus Atmosphere

Everyone always wants to know how important the demographic of students on campus is. Well, coupled with the location of the school, it can greatly define one's college experience, as I've experienced firsthand through my two six week pre-college programs. That reassuring proverb endlessly spewed by adults "you'll find your niche anywhere" or "people everywhere are pretty much the same and you'll find your crowd" now seem incredibly uninformed to me.

I use Northwestern as an example of a school that simply didn't fit with my personality. When I first arrived on campus for my pre-college program two summers ago, I was wowed by its historic, prestigious feeling, and I soon came to love its natural beauty and proximity to Chicago, not to mention it's awesome location in Evanston. This satisfaction soon changed once I began the second week of classes (anthropology and history) and we were still solely in lecture format, even though my classes had only 5 and 12 other students respectively. There was zero class involvement in either of my classes, and after class my professors promptly got up and left, not leaving room for questions or discussion. I was simply disappointed that for so much money, my education was what one would expect from a community college class. For that much money, I now expect the intimacy provided only by extremely wealthy universities who can provide an intimate liberal arts experience (think Ivies) and small liberal arts colleges themselves.

In addition to academic disappointments, the social environment slowly grew more taxing on me. Though I at first loved the lively nature of eventful nights and sporadic trips into Chicago, this lifestyle really started to drag on my studies, and things became so social that I had very little time to study. I realized that the school was just not compatible with my priorities: most people there really wanted a 50/50 balance of work and play, as opposed to my 70/30 preference. On top of that, play at Northwestern consisted of things like going to the beach and joining Greek life, rather than doing something intellectual like going to a museum or play, which is much more valuable to me.

Thus, in terms of both academic focus and social scene, Northwestern simply did not fit my personality. I later realized that most people who graduate from Northwestern go into pre-professional fields like business or medicine rather than intellectual pursuits such as going into academia or further graduate school. This is a minor distinction to make, but I think it really has a huge impact on the academic experience. People who love learning and want to continue learning for the rest of their lives choose small liberal arts schools or more intense universities that are more focused on the intimate, genuine academic experience and don't go to large, state universities or schools like Northwestern.

Harvard provided a completely different environment that was much more compatible with my personality. Specifically, Harvard had a much more academically intense student body that had a much more valuable balance of work and play. This meant that I never felt pressured to skip out on work like I did at Northwestern, and I could really be myself much more with friends taking the time to do meaningful studying and just going out  for fun on nights and weekends. Students were also much more interesting, and the things we did outside of class were extremely engaging but also intellectual, whether it meant seeing a noir movie, stopping in one of Harvard's many free museums, or wasting away hours exploring the COOP bookstore.

Ultimately, I want you to leave with the message that student demographic does matter. College should be an experience to facilitate your existing personality and interests, throwing in some twists along the way as you find yourself. It should not be a vastly different and uncomfortable experience where you are constantly fighting your environment, even if it's only in small ways like I realize I now was at Northwestern. Campus visits are the best way to gauge the priorities and general demographic a school has, but guides like Barron's Guide to the Most Competitive Colleges, the Fiske Guide to Colleges, and the Princeton Review's Best 373 Colleges guides are a great way to get a feel of how a school falls on the study-hard/party-hard spectrum and should help you find the place that will really speak to your personality.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

College Rankings: the right way to rank

When most people (and colleges) reference a college's "ranking," they're typically referring to U.S. News & World Report rankings that have been running steady since 1983 and have helped to transform a once moderate admissions process into one that's far more competitive and stressful, both for colleges and applicants. But that's old news on an old topic I've written about before.

I want to share with you a few other means of ranking colleges that will hopefully help some applicants prioritize their lists and get a better picture of the school that fits their priorities. Take these sources of information loosely, as studies like the Wall Street Journal and Ph.D. study have pretty small data sizes and the difference between 4th and 12th place might be less than a 5% difference. The general idea is that even making it on these rankings should be impressive.

The Wall Street Journal "Top 50 Feeder Schools" is a list of colleges that send the highest percentage of graduates to Ivy League and other top law, business, and medical graduate schools. I like that the list includes liberal arts colleges and gives you a good picture of how successful very small colleges are at producing successful graduates. Most of the rankings are as you would expect; Harvard, Yale, and Princeton take the top three, but there are some small colleges like Williams (5) and Pomona (13) that also prove that they have a formidable reputation in graduate school's eyes. I think this is a great reminder to go to the school that fits you best, even if it is a tiny liberal arts college that no one has heard of, and a testament to the idea that names don't always mean everything.

Another metric I like to use is the percentage of graduates who go on to get a Ph.D. Again, merely making the list is a really impressive indicator of academic excellence. These rankings are nice in that you can look up individual departments to see what schools have strong programs for a given major. Especially for those of you looking to go onto non-professional graduate school, to something like English or Physics, these rankings would be a great source to reference even if not for a Ph.D. Another trend that has helped me a lot is that this figure tends to be associated with how intellectual or nerdy a college environment is, so there is definitely a lot to work with out of this study.

The Forbes magazine rankings "America's Best Colleges" uses a similar approach to U.S. News & World Report but uses slightly different weighting and factors that make these rankings more about value and educational quality versus U.S. News's emphasis on endowment and reputation. They based 25 percent of their rankings on seven million student evaluations of courses and instructors, as recorded on the web site Another 25 percent depended upon how many of the school’s alumni, adjusted for enrollment, are listed among the notable people in Who’s Who in America. The other half of the ranking was based equally on three factors: the average amount of student debt at graduation held by those who borrowed; the percentage of students graduating in four years; and the number of students or faculty, adjusted for size, who have won nationally competitive awards like Rhodes Scholarships or Nobel Prizes.

Rankings are never a sole criterion on which to choose a certain school over another, but these metrics are really user friendly and have done a lot of the deciding work for you; take advantage of them!

P.S. Try making your own ranking at StudentsReview that's customized based on what matters to you. Additionally, the Princeton Review allows you to look up colleges you're already interested in to see where they ranked on the publication's most recent lists such as "best campus dining" or "students study the most."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Great College Lists and Profiles from Allen Grove

August 11, 2010

Allen Grove of runs a great college admissions blog for that I consider to be top tier, along with Jacques Steinberg's New York Times Education blog: The Choice. One of the best features on Allen Grove's site is the "starter lists" he makes akin to the "best and worst" lists the Princeton Review's college guides are famous for. I find these lists really useful when sorting between the over two thousand four year undergraduate programs in the country; Grove brings lesser-known colleges really worth considering to life in his short lists and convenient descriptions. Furthermore, Grove has an unbelievable grasp of the American higher education system as a whole and offers great application and admissions advice.

20 Most Selective Colleges
Ivy League Schools
Top Catholic Colleges and Universities
Top Liberal Arts Colleges and 20 More Great Liberal Arts Colleges
Top Public Liberal Arts Colleges
Top Public Universities
Top Undergraduate Business Schools
Top Undergraduate Engineering Universities  and Top Engineering Colleges
Top Universities and 10 More Great Universities
Top Women's Colleges

Also of note are Groves's lists of "top picks by state" which break down great schools by geography. I hope you Illinoisians will appreciate the "Top Illinois Colleges" page!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Common Application is live, Class of 2011!

The Common Application went up on August 1st, 2010 for the High School class of 2011 who will be entering college in the fall of 2011. Don't tell me you haven't been waiting all summer for this moment... maybe just me! In any case, the Common App is now legitimate, so you can add the schools you're interested in applying to, get all of the address/family/education background questions out of the way, and find out the fees and supplemental applications associated with each college. If you haven't done so, register for an account now so that you can start taking advantage of the resources the Common App makes available, even though most applications aren't due until November (early programs) or January (regular decision).

As far as opportunities to get started on your essays before school starts, this is the time to start! I would recommend that everyone work on the required Common App "pesonal essay" first, and then go on to school specific supplemental essays, which are unique to each college and will only be read by that particular school.

This year's Common App essay choices are as follows:

Stay posted for advice on writing and revising your essays. I have attended three workshops on writing the college application essay and will be sure to fill you all in! I'll also be reviewing the book 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, Third Edition: What Worked for Them Can Help You Get into the College of Your Choice (Harvard Crimson). For now, here is a great exercise to get started.

The Ideas Exercise - Facing a blank Word document with a blinking cursor taunting you? Don't know what to write about in your essays? This exercise is designed to get your mind loosened up to writing freely. It should preferably be performed with paper and pen, but it can also be done on a computer word processor. Set aside ten minutes of time at a desk in a quiet area with no distractions, and simply begin writing. Here's the only rule: never, never stop writing. Even if you run out of things to write (or type) about, simply write "I have nothing to write about. I have nothing to write about." Before long, you will notice that you "have something to write about... this one time..." and so the exercise goes. Simply getting those ideas out on paper shows you after a few brainstorming sessions, which things you naturally think about in the world. Do you write mostly about your past experiences, about other people, about places in your future, or about the meaning of life? That's the gist to capture in your essay first and foremost: your approach to the world and the way you really think. (Exercise courtesy of a writing workshop I attended at Harvard.)

In addition, here's a great resource on the application process in general that also addresses the common apps and shows a few strong sample essays for you to get an idea of what is expected: Allen Grove's article on the Common Application ( - college apps).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Dartmouth College

Hanover, NH
July 24, 2010

After my second trip to Dartmouth and a good deal of research, one would think I would have a decisive opinion on this small research university located in Hanover, New Hampshire. A two hour bus ride brought me from Harvard through progressively more rural and beautiful landscape, until we arrived in Hanover. The small town located on one side of Dartmouth’s campus really meshes with the college, providing loads of accessible eateries and coffee shops in addition to a CVS, Gap, and a movie theater. The campus itself has an amazing New England feel with stately, uniform brick buildings and a huge “campus green” that provides a central open space for ultimate frisbee and other student activities throughout the year right in the heart of campus.

Dartmouth’s main draw is the amazing academic experience it is able to offer as a small liberal arts university. Dartmouth’s campus holds only around 4,200 undergraduates and  an 1,800 graduate students in medicine, engineering, and business, but that doesn’t stop it from accomplishing great research. Dartmouth is often regarded as providing the experience of a small liberal arts college, simply on a larger scale. The college prides itself on all of its courses being taught by full professors (matched only by Brown among Ivy League competitors) and having no teaching assistants, thus providing students with arguably the most intimate teaching environment of any Ivy League school (along with Brown). In fact, the teaching at Dartmouth is so good that the college was ranked number 1 among national universities for “Best Undergraduate Teaching” by U.S. News & World Report.

The idea of such an “intimate” academic environment stems mostly from the absence of graduate students in most departments. The idea is (like at most small liberal arts colleges) that without grad students around, there’s nothing to detract from the undergrad experience, and professors can both invest more time and effort into teaching undergrads and call only upon undergraduates to help them with research, since there are no graduate students to hog research positions. It could thus be said that Dartmouth’s defining attribute is the availability of opportunities for students of all ages (no upperclassmen advantage) and intensities (no preference for majors over non-majors).

Dartmouth also maintains a unique academic calendar colloquially known as the D-plan. The college runs on the quarter system, meaning that there’s a fall, winter, spring, and summer quarter as opposed to the a typical fall and spring semester. In order to graduate, students must take only three out of the four quarters each academic year, that ushers in a lot of flexibility that students have come to love. During the Freshman and Senior years, students are required to be in residence the whole academic year, so as to secure a proper introduction and conclusion to their academic experience. During Sophomore and Junior years, however, students may spend any term on campus, on leave, on a FSP (foreign study program), or on an LSA (language study abroad). This sort of freedom allows students to customize their academic experience and get great placement into internships in say the winter, when their competition (other university students) is tied up in the semester schedule. Another great example of availability is the required “sophomore summer” on campus, where sophomores rule the school with most upperclassmen gone and get top academic priority among professors and also get to try out leadership roles in campus organizations that would be taken up by upperclassmen.

Here's the broad outline for scheduling. Any term marked "R" means in-Residence on campus. As you can see, Sophomore and Junior years are where the real freedom lies:

Here's a sample schedule for a typical student:

All of this furthers the idea that the school is all about facilitating any experience for each and every student as best they can. This ultimately means awesome resume building, many would argue, at the expense of a truly academic experience as offered at most other semester schools that spend more time in depth on academics and have higher academic expectations during the regular year with fewer distractions. Personally, I think the D-plan specifically speaks to the type of people who want an “in and out” experience in college that doesn’t offer the attachment and typical college environment that most students grow to love.

One Dartmouth student seriously critiques the D-plan in the Dartmouth newspaper article “D-plan Dilemma,” citing that the alleged D-plan perks of more available internships and study abroad programs first of all aren’t all they’re cracked up to be since most such programs aren’t flexible enough to accommodate the D-plan. Secondly, the D-plan destroys clubs and relationships, since friends and couples can go a whole academic year without seeing each-other due to a frenzy of FSP and LSA programs, coupled with the risk that many students don’t get their first choice program and have to settle with what’s available. Student organizations can also go consecutive quarters without having the whole group together to make important decisions or to run events. The author also comments that though this jumble increases diversity of activities and opens up leadership roles to more students, the ultimate effect is to stifle group capability, especially for demanding groups like student publications, sports teams, or arts and music groups. Maybe the semester system doesn’t sound so bad after all!

Everything I’ve mentioned so far had a pretty neutral effect on me, but what really turned me off from the school was the overwhelming presence of Greek life on campus, a system in which over 60% of students participate. Dartmouth was, after all the inspiration for the movie “Animal House” which notoriously depicted the ravages college students and alcohol are capable of causing. Greek houses are everywhere, though it should be noted that they are all non-residential Greek houses, so they don’t carry the exclusivity often associated with such groups. Because the houses are small, they are merely social spaces for students to gather and eat, not to sleep, so all students still live in common university housing. My tour group was hazed repeatedly by shirtless frat guys and loud music blaring from frat houses, even right across from the school’s amazing library. To me, the Greek scene was just too dominant to be an appropriate part of social life, and it appeared to strongly detract from the academic experience rather than enriching campus culture overall.

Ultimately, this beautiful college in Hanover, New Hampshire provides an amazing undergraduate education with a very unique D-plan academic calendar and awesome student-professor interaction. However, it’s social scene and general student demographic may not appeal to everyone, and this school should be thought of as occupying a very particular niche among the nation’s top colleges.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Harvard University: why has everyone heard of it?

Sunday, July 4th
Harvard University campus

A Happy fourth of July from Harvard University! During my term at Harvard so far, I have had the opportunity to dine three times a day in the magnificent building pictured below. What appears to be a giant cathedral is actually home to Annenberg Hall, Harvard's main dining facility. What most universities would consider a most prized architectural feat has been transformed by Harvard from a "spare parts" civil war memorial building into one of the most heavily used buildings on campus. If they're using this outstanding facility as a cafeteria, just imagine what else this place holds in store!

Let me first give you a snapshot of Harvard from my stay here so far. Harvard commands an indescribable sense of awe and prestige all around campus. Through the oversized buildings and perfect, New England style campus, pretense runs thick in the air. The volume of tourists running through Harvard Yard averages 8,000 per day, while the Yard itself holds only a few academic buildings and Harvard College’s 1650 first year students. Tour groups of up 50 persons pass through the yard every half hour, and even in the summer, when there are only 6,700 students enrolled in summer school out of the school year’s 20,000, Harvard is a crowded place.

Being enrolled in summer school there now has revealed to me how eager high school students across the world are to enroll in by far the wealthiest, most prestigious university in the world. Out of the 1,200 or so high school students enrolled in summer term through the Secondary School Program, over one in three was drawn to Harvard from a foreign country, and almost every fellow student I’ve talked to here has set Harvard as their first choice college (not me). I hate to disappoint them, but their chances of admission are astoundingly low overall, and even lower for international students, the group for whom admission seems most in demand. For the class of 2014, Harvard College received 30,489 for an entering class of 1667 freshmen, setting Harvard’s admit rate at a record low of 6.9%.

So what exactly draws all this attention?

To begin with, Harvard claims a lot of impressive feats: it was the first institute of higher education in the United States; it has the most alumni U.S. presidents, supreme court justices, and senators of any university; and is additionally ranked number 1  by the following widely cited rankings: Academic Ranking of World Universities, U.S. News & World Report America's Best Colleges, and the Times Higher Education review. In terms of resources, Harvard has the largest endowment of any university in the world at $25.6 billion, and the largest university library collection in the United States with over 80 libraries containing over $15 million volumes.

Understandably, the undergraduate experience these 30,000 yearly applicants are seeking is one emphasizing the university's opportunities and resources, not to mention the immeasurable value of a Harvard stamp on one's degree after it's 400 year prestigious legacy. Despite the college's top notch academic resources, these survey findings published in the Harvard Crimson denote my general impression of the undergraduate experience at Harvard:
Prevalent stereotypes about how Harvard undergraduates have less fun than their peers found empirical confirmation Tuesday, when the Boston Globe reported that Harvard students gave lower ratings to their college experience than students at other elite schools in a 2002 survey. 
An internal Harvard memo analyzing data from the survey found that Harvard students rated their overall satisfaction at 3.95 on a five-point scale, compared to an average of 4.16 at the 30 other schools surveyed, the Globe reported on Tuesday. Harvard students gave lower ratings than peers to the level of interaction with faculty members and the quality of social life. 
This satisfaction rating placed Harvard fifth from the bottom in the survey of the 31 colleges comprising the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE). The COFHE includes all eight Ivy League schools, other top research universities like MIT and Stanford University, and leading small liberal arts colleges like Amherst College and Williams College.
 Ultimately, Harvard is not necessarily the most enjoyable place to spend one's undergraduate years, but I would argue that it offers the most opportunities, exposure to top faculty, graduate level coursework, and decidedly the most talented, luminary, and ambitious entering class of any undergraduate program in the world. Harvard's academic intensity and general academic program are, of course, a given. In fact, I won't even go into the specifics of student demographics and teaching style, as I have in nearly every other review, because Harvard is one of the few schools that I truly believe has everything one could want in an undergraduate education. For example, I recently acquired a book called "Find the Perfect College for You: 82 Exceptional Schools That Fit Your Personality and Learning Style," which matches students with colleges that match their Myers-Briggs personality type; in this book, Harvard is one of three schools compatible with each and every personality type (the others are Yale and Princeton). However, what really distinguishes Harvard from other top colleges is its true international focus. Close your eyes and imagine a place where the smartest and most ambitious young adults from all over the world literally come together into one confined area to learn and share and challenge each other. Now open your eyes - I'm speaking of Harvard.

This is very arguable, but my personal academic philosophy (and that of many top colleges) is the emphasis placed on the caliber of people around you in the college or university setting, in the sense that most students learn more during their undergraduate experience from their peers than from their coursework. This is why, for example, I take college rankings and entering class statistics as a serious indication of the quality of a college; diversity of opinion and intellectual prowess tend to come hand in hand with competitive admissions (holistically, not just based on test scores and GPA). With this in mind, Harvard is likely able to be the number one producer of Rhodes and Marshall Scholars and U.S. Presidents not because their is something magical in the water of Cambridge, MA, but because the sheer age and wealth of the institution has attracted the best and brightest minds from across the world, and that collaboration is what really produces extraordinary results.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

University of Chicago Essay Questions released for 2010-11

As you can see from many previous postings on the school, the University of Chicago has always been one of my top choices, and I couldn't agree more with the school's ancient academic philosophy. Recent additions to social improvements and amenities on all levels of the university, from re-introducing a football team (they used to be a member of the Big Ten!) to implementing the house system of living for undergraduates, have made that age old, gold standard, academic intensity more accessible and enjoyable for enrolling students. If you've not looked into the school, I would highly recommend it for those who prioritize "the life of the mind" (as the college's saying goes).

Chicago has long been defined by its quirky, intellectual essay questions, mentioned in a few previous posts. If you want to get a head start on Chicago's application for the 2010-11 application, the just released essay questions are as follows:

Essay Option 1: Find x.
Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK

Essay Option 2: Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006

Essay Option 3: Salt, governments, beliefs, and celebrity couples are a few examples of things that can be dissolved. You’ve just been granted the power to dissolve anything: physical, metaphorical, abstract, concrete… you name it. What do you dissolve, and what solvent do you use?
Inspired by Greg Gabrellas, A.B. 2009

Essay Option 4:Honesty is the best policy, but honesty won’t get your friend free birthday cake at the diner.” - Overheard in the city of Chicago.
Does society require constant honesty? Why is it (or why is it not) problematic to shift the truth in one’s favor, even if the lie is seemingly harmless to others? If we can be “conveniently honest,” what other virtues might we take more lightly?
Inspired by Eleanor Easton, a second-year in the College

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Application Process Begins for the Class of 2011

As you might imagine, I have been waiting several years to get to the point of applying to college myself and I am feeling very confident so far that I can remain in control of the system, not the other way around. I will be blogging about my own application process as I experience it, hopefully before my blog's guests so that any advice can be of use.

This is the real thing; we rising seniors are just months away from sending out thick envelopes into which snippets of our very souls have been poured. However, as goes my very strict policy whenever I counsel people - no freaking. Period. Even though many consider me to be a college fanatic, I'm seldom "stressed" by college admissions because I understand the process well and think of the process and of myself as an applicant, fairly objectively. I seriously condone "feeling a school" or using the term "whatever" or "whim" in conversation about admissions. Your applications should be deliberate and the schools to which you apply should truly match your expectations and personality. This doesn't mean that reach schools are out of bounds (I love to see them), it just means that you either do an application 100% or you don't do it at all, no matter what the school. Many applicants get lazy and use the excuse that there are no right schools for them or that they are indifferent about where they go. These applicants have not looked hard enough for the school or schools right for them. If you are experiencing confusion into the late fall, contact a counselor or myself for some direction.

Thinking about the process ahead of time is incredibly important. Even though applications to most schools aren't due until January 1st, this doesn't mean that whatever you are thinking on December 31st should be what determines a large part of your future. I have gotten into the habit of producing a personal list of colleges almost every day, whenever I think about college. This way, I find my mind clear of college clutter, and I'm able to capture that important detail that made me (on that particular day) favor one college over another. After several weeks (or years in my case) of these notes or scraps of paper, you will have better insight into the way you think about the process and about what you really want. For example, I have always liked Bowdoin College in Maine, but it has never been on the forefront of my mind and has never really been my top choice college. However, after going through many notes, I was able to trace my attachment to a variety of different factors that I soon discovered defined much of my impression of that school. Even though it has seldom been my top choice college, I noticed that it has been my number two or three consistently for over two years, thus making it a really important school on my list, since I have unwittingly become rather attached to it.

Here is an example of my college list, which has gone pretty much unchanged over the course of the summer. Especially for those applicants considering Early Decision or Early Action programs, as I am, it is a great idea to write out lists to see where your priorities lie and which schools would be good early application choices for you. It's okay to get strategic here. After you have been indecisive about a number of schools, it's fair to say after a certain point that you would be happy at any of them, and it is okay to apply Early Decision I to a reach school and Early Decision II or Early Action to a somewhat less selective school just in case your reach doesn't work out. Make lists. Make lists. Make lists... And stay posted for college visits I will be doing on day trips from Harvard: Amherst, Boston College, Tufts, Dartmouth, Brown, and Yale will likely be covered in addition to Harvard itself!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Adam Wheeler fakes his way into Harvard

Whether you have or have not heard about the Adam Wheeler "Harvard hoax" in recent news, the college admissions and guidance field is scrambling for justice and further investigation of the case of Adam Wheeler, a 23 year old Delaware native who fabricated dozens of pieces of crucial information over several years, ultimately getting into Harvard on false pretenses.

The story initially seems like an elaborate scheme of deception, but it becomes remarkably clear after examining the steps Mr. Wheeler took to get himself into this predicament. Step by step, his entire life became fabricated on paper until he was building lie after lie into a truly unbelievable set of personal accomplishments.

Wheeler began his college career at Bowdoin, the school he attended for a two years after coming from a public high school in Delaware, where he graduated in the top 10% of his class. This strong but still reasonable academic career is starkly contrasts the alleged 4.0 at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA (questionably the top prep school in the country) in addition to a perfect 2400 SAT. With these outstanding statistics as well as one year of straight A's from MIT (also falsified), Wheeler was admitted to Harvard's incoming transfer class just after being dismissed from Bowdoin for "academic dishonesty."

While at Harvard, Wheeler maintained mostly A's and B's and was a generally strong student. His aspirations, however, were above his performance letter. While applying for a Rhodes scholarship in what would have been his Junior year at Harvard, one of his professors noticed that his application had plagiarized the work of another Harvard professor. Wheeler abruptly  left Harvard while under investigation for his falsified transfer application; he was apparently expecting another dismissal. Following dismissal from Harvard, Wheeler began a new set of transfer applications, this time to Brown and Yale.

Ironically, none of this came to surface with authorities until Yale began to look into his application, and contacted his parents at home. They revealed that Wheeler had been dismissed from Harvard for academic dishonesty and essentially brought the scheme to an end. Yale ended up contacting both his true high school in Delaware, which revealed Wheeler's true identity, and Phillips Academy, which confirmed that Wheeler did not attend that school.

The implications of this story are huge and have made several articles in the New York Times, the first of which recounts much of the tale told above and ends with updates on Wheeler's trial hearing. The second article is more interesting for members of the college admissions community. It displays Wheeler's falsified resume as publicly released by Harvard and also covers the implications of this story for the world of college admissions. If Wheeler was only turned in by his parents and never truly caught by authorities until then, how many other students are attending top colleges under false pretenses? There is no limit to how many students could be enacting similar concerts of fraud without ever being detected. If not simply for exciting the community over a deep concern, this should serve as a wake up call for higher education in the United States, hopefully adding in some checks to the system to be sure this can never happen again, though it undoubtedly will.

Wheeler is on the hook for $45,000 in financial aid and awards he received from Harvard and plead not guilty to offenses involving larceny, identity fraud, falsifying an endorsement and pretending to hold a degree. The ensuing trial is sure to incite a lot of attention.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Kenyon College and campus geography

Gambier Ohio,
April 2, 2010

I have long considered Kenyon for its strong, Eastern liberal arts values coupled with a familiar Midwestern feel to the likes of Carleton or Chicago having a different atmosphere than their peer institutions. I decided to visit Kenyon to offset the mostly East coast colleges I have visited. Visiting the campus with a friend from Ohio and seeing the school in person really brought me back to the Midwestern attributes that I value but seem to forget as attributes like ranking and prestige somehow manage to end up as top priorities.

So first off, let's begin with the campus. Kenyon has long been considered one of the most beautiful schools in America, recently earning a place on Forbes' "World's 20 Most Beautiful College Campuses" list. The article sums up the appeal of Kenyon's strategic spacial planning, rural location, and Gothic architecture in the following quote from Forbes' most beautiful college campuses:
Mike Evans, a principal at Norfolk, Va., design firm Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas Company, says to be beautiful a campus must have a "signature campus space as a carrier of the campus brand." At Kenyon College, that space is "Middle Path," a 10-foot-wide footpath that serves as the Gothic hilltop campus' central artery. More than just a trail, it's a village green for the tight-knit campus community. Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, who teaches 17th-century poetry at Kenyon, says the college, both isolated and pastoral, is "a small place to think big thoughts."

The environment of Kenyon is largely defined by the aforementioned "Middle Path," which aims to integrate all of campus into one linear channel of interaction. The most interesting thing to me is that Middle Path doesn't only span the college grounds; it also spills off campus and continues to form the main street of the tiny town Gambier (population 600). In fact, the town is straddled by campus buildings, with several underclassmen dorms also along Middle Path on the other side of town. The seamless feel of the campus community really just works here. During the fair weathered months, farmers and locals sell goods at a market along middle path, and local music enhances the relaxed feel. Along Middle Path, by far the most communal geographic item I have seen on a college campus, people and place overlap to create a natural residential environment.

Ironically, Kenyon came off as almost too communal for me, with students reporting only 15-20 hours of work per week, compared to the average Williams student working upwards of 40 hours per week while still maintaining strong campus community and a very enjoyable residential life system. During a class I visited at Kenyon, which was a mid-level sociology class, we examined the implications of age, wealth, and race demographics on the movie rental choices Netflix users from certain areas, which was popularized by the New York Times publishing a snapshot of data on their website. Though it was exciting to predict how "tasteful" of a film a community would pick based on its social demographic, I seemed to be just as good at it as most of the students, who had just finished a series of reading assignments on the matter. That is, the class seemed to be fairly common sense, and I doubted that many students in the class were challenged or even wanted to be challenged. Even for a sociology class, the course material was far more political and flimsier than that of any course I have ever sat in on, which are typically much more challenging social science courses. Essentially, I was not blown away by the students, who, though extremely likable, simply weren't of that near-genius caliber of the students I met at more rigorous schools like Carleton and Bowdoin.

In the end, I really enjoyed myself at Kenyon and will definitely add it to my list as a safety school. I learned a lot on this visit and it reminded me of how impressive a school can be in a number of material and statistical ways yet still not be quite "there" in terms of the intensity and overall rigorous experience I'm looking for in college.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Offbeat" Essay Topics

As a junior myself, I have begun to look into essay prompts for the class of 2015 application cycle at top schools. Here are some unique examples, mostly from very elite colleges, which have proven especially challenging for applicants and interesting for admissions officers.

Of note are the questions that are distinctively open ended, mostly from more intellectual places like Chicago or Tufts which thrive on their obscure, creative, engaging insights into what would otherwise be fairly flat topics.

Elite colleges require such unique essays for a number of reasons:

First, they want to weed out students sending generic essays to multiple schools (i.e. "I would love to attend _____ institution because _____" or "I have influenced my community because ____") and simply changing out the college names with the "replace" function on Microsoft Word. Students who aren't committed in the application process to writing 4, 5, or even 10 serious supplemental essays can thus be quickly weeded out by generic or underdeveloped responses to such interesting, fundamental questions.

In addition to demonstrating applicant commitment, these interesting essays provide the only insight into how applicants think and what new things people will pursue in college rather than simply assessing what they have done or who they are- things which are already demonstrated through the generic Common Application essays.

1. How do you feel about Wednesday? (University of Chicago, 2002)

This topic was inspired by a student. However, it was optional. Students did not have to share their thoughts on Wednesday if they did not feel comfortable doing so.

2. What outrages you? (Wake Forest, 2009)

For most students? Questions like this one. We think admissions officers are looking for a particular answer, like "genocide." Wake Forest claims they just want to know the real you, but they're just being obnoxious.

3. Write a haiku, limerick, or short poem that best represents you. (NYU, 2009)

Oh please, NYU
College essays are stressful
Don't make me do this.

4. In the year 2050, a movie is being made of your life. Please tell us the name of your movie and briefly summarize the story line. (NYU, 2009)

College admissions officers like to throw in "fun" questions like this to relieve a bit of the stress high school seniors face while applying to college. I don't think it's working.

5. What is college for? (Hampshire College, 2009)

Small liberal arts colleges like to pose deceptively simple questions like this one. I'd probably come up with something cheesy about forming close personal bonds and broadening myself intellectually.

6. Are we alone? (Tufts, 2009)

This question is one of several options for prospective Tufts students this year. I'm wondering how most people will interpret this one -- I immediately thought of extraterrestrial life. In any case, I'm betting most students will pick a more generic essay that involves less thinking.

7. Make a bold prediction about something in the year 2020 that no one else has made a bold prediction about. (University of Virginia, 1999)

UVa is another college that offers several interesting optional essays each year. Colleges claim they truly are optional and you won't be penalized for not doing them.

8. Write a short story using one of the following titles: a.) House of Cards, b.)The Poor Sport, c.) Drama at the Prom, d.) Election Night, 2044, e.) The Getaway. (Tufts, 2009)

This is an unusual essay, as it's asking for something fictional. But I'd imagine any prospective creative writing majors would be quite happy to pen a short story rather than a revealing nonfiction essay.

9. How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.) (Chicago, 2009)

I had to include another UChicago one -- they're just so odd. This university likes to use offbeat questions because it draws in a different kind of student -- a bit eclectic and intellectual -- which is just what Chicago is looking for.

10. You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit Page 217. (UPenn, 2009)

This topic was popularized by UPenn in the '80s, and many other colleges have adopted it over the years. There's a (possibly apocryphal) anecdote about a father who called an admissions officer to ask if his son could send his essay in late, as he wouldn't have time to finish his 300-page autobiography before deadline.

The full article appeared on CNN's college admissions page on November 19, 2009.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Swarthmore College

Swarthmore, PA
March 27, 2010

Since most of you have probably not heard of Swarthmore, let me briefly assure you that it is indeed a top college worth considering. Swarthmore is a small liberal arts school of 1490 undergraduates located half an hour southwest of Philadelphia, in the sheltered suburb of Swarthmore, PA. Swarthmore’s main attributes are its honor code - which is descended from the college’s Quaker origins, its honors program - through which one third of the student body undergoes a quarter of their credit hours in rigorous graduate level seminars, and for its blend of a rich liberal arts background with practical programs such as majors in engineering and public policy. For the class of 2013, exactly 50% of students were in the top 2% of their class, and 15.7% of students were admitted.

From what I’ve just told you, Swarthmore seems like a one of a kind school, and it is in many ways. I went on a campus tour expecting another New England liberal arts college akin to Williams, Bowdoin, or Middlebury. What I saw was ultimately quite different from that expectation and belongs in its own category. My initial reaction was that the immediate campus atmosphere was far more friendly and quirky than those aforementioned, typical liberal arts colleges. The campus almost looks like it belongs permanently in spring, with dollhouse-like white trim and fences everywhere and gorgeous, well maintained grounds and foliage. Meanwhile, students are out soaking up the sun on the lawn, creating a really welcoming environment. Now, contrast this scene with typical collegiate gothic campus with students scurrying around like robots, not acknowledging each other. This is the first major distinction that Swarthmore brings to the table, already securing it as a place of utmost community, as inspired by its Quaker founders. To further this theme, many campus buildings are open 24/7, the college has only one communal dining hall, and faculty have office hours at least twice a week.

Next, take in Swarthmore’s academic prowess. It is currently ranked third among all liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report, behind Williams and Amherst. It is also ranked third in the country, behind only small engineering colleges, for the percentage of graduates going on to earn PhD’s, which is nearly one in five students. This is the typical study for gauging how intellectually oriented a college is. However, Swarthmore is also competitive in graduate school placement for professional schools such as business, law, and medicine, as it was ranked tenth in the nation for placement into top programs by the Wall Street Journal.

This clearly outstanding academic program doesn’t train the best students in the country by coincidence. Swarthmore has tailored its academic program to near perfection over its long existence. The most distinctive part of this program is the option students have to take any major on what is called the “honors” program, which is more focused and graduate school oriented than the typical “course” option, which allows for more course freedom. I can’t tell you how many times it was stressed to me that neither program is “better” or more rigorous than the other; they are simply different styles of learning. The colleges distinctive honors program requires four double credit seminars in the major to be taken each semester over a students junior and senior years. These seminars are capped at ten students and really practice graduate level immersion in coursework. Honors seminars meet once a week for extended amounts of time - usually around five hours - and are discussion and theory based responses to the ungodly amounts of reading assigned between weekly classes, which is typically a few hundred pages. Keep in mind that these seminars count for double credit, so a junior or senior schedule in honors consists of one honors seminar and only two elective or major required classes. For this reason, many students opt to take only course majors so that they can still take advanced non-honors courses in their course major and also fit in three classes, both elective and major oriented. In either case, all Swarthmore students must submit a thesis to graduate. However, honors applicants must defend their thesis in an hour long oral examination by external examiners, typically experts in the field from other institutions, while course majors must only submit a written thesis. Ultimately, one in three students at Swarthmore chooses to major with honors. Though no prospective student can know already whether or not honors is for them, this is an amazing resource available to students and it really highlights Swarthmore’s main priority of outstanding, intense academics. The school seems to understand an academic balance between student-teacher interaction, with an outstanding ratio of eight students to each faculty member, with an amazing amount of student activism and ownership of their own Swarthmore education. My tour guide stressed that the academic experience at Swarthmore permeates all times of the day and all corners of campus. The academic experience depends more on the quality of the student body than on the professors or the academic program.

Swarthmore’s general academic philosophy is bringing together new ways of thinking into every classroom. In the information session I attended, the admissions representative spoke of a tree in the middle of the room. He went around the room calling on prospective students, asking their intended major and supposing ways they might think about the tree; the biology major attempts to classify it, the physics major analyzes its structure, the sociology major wonders how people have interacted with it, the history major wonders why and when it was planted, etc. This seems very indicative of the academic soup brewing at Swarthmore; students of all different perspectives with their own ways of thinking rub off onto others and constantly create new paths of thinking. This type of exploration and meshing together of students with varied interests is incentivized the the college through extensive pass/fail course options. For all students at Swarthmore, the first semester is taken entirely pass/fail. This gives students the opportunity to assimilate to the expectations of academic and residential life at Swarthmore without overwhelming them with grade expectations. In addition, students may take four other courses pass/fail. For science or math oriented students, this means that they can take that intense literature course they have been eyeing without fear of earning a bad grade. For artistic or language based students, this means that you can take a few of your three science or math classes in Swarthmore’s distribution requirements for pass/fail credit. The school has thus developed an academic program that encourages new ways of thinking and minimizes the risk to students that typically forces them to graduate without branching out academically.

Anyways, in case this academic scene seems a little overwhelming, Swarthmore also offers an interesting, balanced social atmosphere. With Philadelphia only a twenty minute train ride away from the Swarthmore campus, a brief escape from academics is typically welcome among Swatties. The school has two small fraternities that offer the campus a social break on the weekends. One guidebook I typically profile for all schools, the ISI guidebook, really framed Swarthmore as a liberal place. Swarthmore recently attracted national criticism when it canceled its football program to enact more serious affirmative action policies - certainly a controversial, but meaningful change. From the admissions video I watched, students seemed amazingly down to earth. Each student had their own story to tell and both their academic interests and extracurricular involvements seemed extremely well grounded in unique passions. Students seem to be those “organizational kids” who somehow manage to take advantage of every opportunity available to them, and are phrased more as “hard workers” than “geniuses.” Everywhere I went on the tour, there were dozens of posters for guest speakers, club events, and social activities all for the next weekend. My tour guide furthered that students frequently get behind in their schoolwork because they overload on the many social and extracurricular options at Swarthmore. Strange social activities like “screw your roommate” and a yearly “pterodactyl hunt” in addition to a ton of school provided alcohol on the weekends seem to liberate students from their academic blinders. The administration seems to have a great grasp on what the students need to balance intense academics with a constructive social scene, and students seem generally satisfied with the overall experience.

Early Decision results from The Choice

As you may know by now, I am a huge proponent of Early Decision programs as a way for students and institutions to connect over a common interest in bringing the most motivated, eager students to world renowned campuses across the nation.

Here are the admissions statistics from the 2009-2010 admissions season for Early Decision and Early Action programs. The accompanying article is very typical of those published yearly by guidebooks, noting exaggerated increases in applications.

I found these interesting simply because they vary so much from school to school. As opposed to the common story pitched by guidebooks that applications increase 20% at every school, every year, these statistics are pretty refreshing. Of course, at many schools, admissions chances are bleaker than last year (see the University of Chicago with a 56% increase in Early Action applications this year).

However, there is really only a substantial difference in about a quarter of competitive schools. Plenty of colleges like Williams got as much as 12% fewer applications this year, with most liberal arts colleges just about flat year over year.

In case you were wondering, there is still hope for most of us out there, and the admissions process is not cycling out of control - for this year at least. The problem with the process as a whole is that it is not forgiving year over year, and often times decisions come down to pure luck depending on where we are in the cycle at the particular time an applicant applies. Unfortunately for students seeking admission to places like the University of Chicago, this year was outright devastating.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Davidson College

Davidson College
Davidson, North Carolina

March 25, 2010

I came to Davidson not knowing what to expect of this unique liberal arts college located in the “research triangle” of suburban North Carolina. Davidson brings together many unique, impressive pieces into one really solid liberal arts experience; first- Davidson is the smallest school in the United States to boast a complete set of Division I athletic teams, second- Davidson is one of the few nationally competitive small liberal arts colleges located in the south, third- Davidson boasts amazing graduation rates into top professional schools, and fourth- Davidson boasts the social feel of a large university with active students, established greek life, and amazing school spirit.

Stepping foot on the campus, I couldn’t help but feel welcome. The campus is huge, the grounds are neat, and the stately Georgian brick buildings are consistent with the school’s large endowment. The school was founded by a group of Presbyterian Christians, one of whom was Woodrow Wilson’s father (Wilson even attended Davidson for a few years). The once religious focus of the campus has eroded over time into a non-sectarian “honor code” emphasizing moral, religious values minus the exclusivity of a specific denomination. The honor code is a formal set moral principles that all students agree to follow. An honor board composed of students thus takes care of all discipline on campus. As all students have pledged never to cheat, steal, lie, etc. on campus, the school has a sense of trust in its air. As a result, classes require mostly take home tests, most buildings on campus do not have door locks, and the library does not have security scanners for books. Though it may sound like a minor part of campus life, it is crucial to the sense of community that I got to know while visiting Davidson.

My immediate fear was that the school would be overbearingly athletic. This concern was indeed a legitimate one, but I have learned to look on athletics in a new way. I initially believed that an athletic focus would detract from the academic quality of the student body or perhaps the arts culture on campus. When I explained my concern during the information session, however I got a satisfying response that seems to sum up Davidson's community ethos. The counselor explained that a lot of people come to Davidson not really caring about the athletic element. This counselor was, for example, a theatre major. He soon noticed that athletics became a major part of his life at Davidson, though, as he wanted to support the school that he loved, and wearing red face paint and cheering on their perennial “sweet 16” NCAA basketball team totally changed his outlook on athletics. As opposed to the athletics detracting from the arts experience or from academic focus, athletics seems to inject a campus pride into the school community. For the arts, this means sold out musical events just as popular as athletic events, and in the classroom, this means refreshing student perspectives with an active social setting in which to live and learn.

Facilities around campus were amazing, especially the athletic facilities. For a school of such a small size, Davidson is absolutely tops for athletic facilities and programs. Typical buildings such as the library and student union felt comfortable and well maintained, though nothing at the college was very original. As comfortable as campus facilities were, I was a little disappointed by how concentrated all of the academic space was. All departments (and classes) that are not hard sciences are housed in one giant academic building. Though the building is very sophisticated and possesses newly renovated classrooms, I feel that this condensation of separate departments mashes disciplines into an uncomfortable conglomeration reminiscent of high school. As opposed to the organization at most small liberal arts colleges, wherein smaller departments get their own houses just off campus and larger departments get their own medium sized building on campus, this felt like an impersonal - dare I say bureaucratic - way to learn at a place that is so proud of its close-knit community aesthetic.

I mentioned earlier that Davidson’s southern location really distinguishes it among schools. Along with Washington and Lee, it really is one of the only top liberal arts colleges located in the south, though its geography ultimately played little part in my impression of the campus. That is, Davidson, North Carolina provides an environment similar to the college towns I visited last spring break along the eastern seaboard. The students at first seemed a little bit homogeneous- mostly athletic, well dressed (wealthy?), and white. I got to seeing a lot of interesting people on the tour though, so I don’t think the school is narrow set or plain. Davidson seems to provide the diversity of an eastern liberal arts school coupled (perhaps just diluted) with a southern state school feeling of WASPY athleticism. In addition to the campus, the town of Davidson felt very neutral and was not overwhelmingly southern. Everyone I saw was noticeably well dressed and the quirky shops around campus fit well into the “quaint” New England town feeling while maintaining a comfortable and practical feeling of suburban America.

Overall, Davidson is clearly a gem of the south. It probably won't stand out for me in the long run because its strong suits, notably its athleticism and its well rounded, white, southern student body, were simply not priorities of mine, though they are certainly conducive to a high standard of living that is probably the closest you can get to having a true “college experience” at an academically rigorous liberal arts college. Personally, I’m still looking at Northeastern schools because they aren’t afraid to sacrifice the traditional athletic state school effect in exchange for added diversity, greater academic intensity, and a generally more open, liberal experience for students than what is common at Davidson.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Insight into the Admissions office of UChicago

The following article is quite dated (from a 1999 Newsweek issue), but quite telling as for the kind of thinking that admissions officers are forced to utilize when forced to meet so many quotas. What may seem to be a negligible distinction between two applicants often makes the cut, and the article lists a few great examples that most people wouldn't have caught on to.

I mentioned quotas before, and I think the U of C approach to them is interesting.

"Their ethnicity, something that many applicants don't divulge, still isn't known in the aggregate. Chicago prides itself on using no gender, racial, geographic or other quotas in deciding whom to accept. "We're not 'building a class,' creating this ideal little world with so many of these and so many of those," O'Neill says. "We accept the best, and hope to get as many as we can."

This is a constant struggle for me when I am looking into campus demographics; trying to objectively interpret a campus culture from mere statistics or snippets of student input. What I have found true for most schools is certainly not consistent with Chicago's statement above; most top colleges are indeed statistically (racially) diverse, but are still overly homogeneous in opinion and politics.

This statement is surely taken into account by people viewing "diversity" statistics, but I don't think most people account for how true this problem really is on college campuses. The product of this thinking is generally an unbalanced and overly liberal student body which, though open to new ideas, is intrinsically closed to much of America's real political sentiment, inadvertently hampering campus "diversity".

The article is linked here: University of Chicago Admissions - Newsweek

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Question and Answer

I have a question for the expert... I got C's in geometry last year for both semesters. I am considering retaking the second semester over summer school this summer to get an A so on my transcript so that I would have a C then an A with the grade replacement. Does this really matter to colleges? Should I just use the summer to get ahead in an interest of mine like psychology instead? Do colleges really look at your freshman year?
-Sally Sophomore

This is a tough call. Really, the only downside to the C's is that they will lower your GPA. As to the specific grades, you can explain them to colleges in a counselor note or personal comment on how they were "hard earned" and you weren't just slacking off. Basically, make it clear to colleges that those grades were the exception to an otherwise strong transcript.

The more I read about colleges, the more I realize that you have to play offense to succeed in admissions. Playing defense and defending your past grades just so that you can meet the GPA averages of a college won't do you much good if that only gets you to be an "average" applicant.

Basically, the perfect applicant has a passion. This is what everyone tries to have one or two of, but they are often unimpressive. Let's face it, it's hard to have college level interests at our age! Becoming passionate about something and loosely framing all of your extracurriculars (and work experience) around it should be your main goal, and that might compensate for some mishaps earlier on. For you, this could be something like teaching (tutoring), working, or spending your summer developing an academic passion that spreads beyond the classroom by using summer school to proactively (rather than defensively) boost your grades and demonstrate interest in a new subject.