Posts filed under ‘College Visit Report’

Visit colleges in June

It’s always best to visit college campuses when school is in session.  You can sample the dining hall food, talk with real students, read the flyers on the bulletin boards, and listen for enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, students have to fit those college visits into their high school schedules, which aren’t so flexible, so we ended up scheduling a number of college visits during the summer.

Schedule summer visits early in June.  Out of the 7 schools we visited in June, 3 were still in session or at least in finals week.  I’m not sure if this is a northern school phenomenon or what, but check out your target colleges’ academic calendars.  You may want to move that trip to the first week after high school finals, rather than waiting until later in the summer.

We tried to visit MIT the day before Thanksgiving, but the class my son planned to sit in on was canceled so the students could fly home early.   Had we known, we could have attended a morning class and visited with Admissions in the afternoon.   But Admissions didn’t know the class was canceled, either.

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October 7, 2009 at 11:45 am Leave a comment

College Visit: Yale

In our tour group at Harvard were two families who raved about the Yale information session they attended the previous day, saying that Harvard’s just didn’t measure up.  I wish I new what they liked at Yale, because our information session at Yale was decidedly slow-moving and low key.  Still, we saw enough good things that my son is very interested in Yale.

Prime studying spot at Yale Library

A prime studying spot at Yale Library

Residentially, Yale is similar to Harvard, except that (a) legacies can choose to live in their parents’ houses and (b) freshmen are randomly assigned to a house before they arrive on campus, even though they won’t live in that house until sophomore year.  During freshmen year, they are in dorms but with other members of their house.  Advantage: quickly bond with one’s house.  Disadvantage: no bonding with people who are NOT in your house.   Hence, if you want to network with an alum, it needs to be someone who graduated from your house, not just someone from Yale.

Why random housing assignments?  Yale believes that economic diversity is more important than race or ethnicity.

Academically, Yale & Harvard are similar.  Low faculty: student ratio (7:1) .  Science major have an option to earn a B.S. and M.S. in 4 years.   But they also have some differences:

  • A global education is a hot button for Yale.  About 65% study abroad and there is talk of requiring overseas study for everyone.   They even facilitate scientific research abroad (e.g., China).   You can’t test out of the foreign language requirement based upon what you did in high school but you can fulfill it by studying overseas.
  • Double majors are frowned upon as sacrificing exploration of interests but 30% pursue them.
  • Students get two weeks to “shop” classes before they have to lock in their schedule.

Students who have participated in scientific research projects in high school (particularly the juried science competitions like Intel and Siemens) can apply for a special seminar class that surveys all the science topics of Yale’s top professors.  It’s a great way for an undecided science major to get exposure to many areas and professors.  Students in the seminar are expected to spend the spring working on summer research grant proposals.  But beware:  only 70-75 of 220 applicants are accepted into this program and you must have real research experience to get accepted, so connect with a local teaching  hospital or research university by junior year in high school.

Yale now has a calculator on their website so you can estimate what financial aid you will get.  (In 3 years, all schools will have to offer estimates or calculators.)  For middle class parents (incomes between $60,000 and $200,000), Yale is very generous.

July 15, 2009 at 10:28 am Leave a comment

College Visit: Harvard

Finally!  We’ve found a college that my low-key, unenthusiastic son describes as “great”!

Harvard Library

Harvard Library

I’ve always been cynical about Harvard’s reputation and I still think it probably has more cachet that it deserves.  And my insight today is that the students probably aren’t as extremely smart as their SAT scores would indicate, because I’m guessing at least half took test prep classes.

We arrived here a bit leery about the residential college approach, based upon what we read on Harvard’s website.  We left feeling that the residential program was a real advantage and part of how Harvard creates the feel of a small liberal arts college inside a major university.

  • Freshmen bonding is promoted by having all freshman housed in one section of campus and eating in a freshmen-only dining hall.  (And it’s  magnificent dining hall that looks like Hogwarts!)  The freshmen have their own drama and music groups.
  • Intermingling of students from all socioeconomic groups, races, geographies, and interests is accomplished by random assignment to a “house”.  (No sorting hat, but yes, it’s a little like Hogwarts.)  No jockeying to get into the “best” house.  No fraternity rush process.
  • But those freshmen relationships are honored by letting students form into “blocks” of up to 8 students who will be “randomly” assigned to a house together.  So they get to stay with their original best friends as they move to a new dorm.
  • The houses have robust social lives and includes faculty that live in the houses and arrange events for their students.  Student eat in their house (but can eat in other houses, too).  Houses have their own libraries & gyms, so you don’t have to leave except for class…which is nice in the middle of winter.

AP credit is only available for scores of 5 on year-long classes, but a student could essentially graduate a year early by using AP credit to replace all of their elective classes.  That’s a little contrary to the idea of a liberal arts college, but at least it helps with the tuition costs.

There are 4 lecture halls like this one, but in different colors

One of 4 huge colorful lecture halls. There is also at least 1 wood paneled lecture hall.

As a teenager, I didn’t like the idea of attending Harvard because the professors in movies like Love Story seemed to be on an inquisition to find students in the big lecture halls who didn’t know the answer, then intimidate and ridicule them.  I wasn’t thrilled to hear that Harvard still has some large classes.  (The picture on the left shows maybe 20% of one lecture hall).  But the admissions department counteracts that by showing a film of the “Justice” class, the biggest and most popular class on campus, in a huge wood paneled lecture hall, and portraying how the professor gets students to participate.  Personally, I’d prefer to be in a smaller class of, say 15, where we each got to participate, but at least it isn’t a boring talking-head lecture.

Bottom line:  impressive brand name, best professors money & reputation can buy, best anything money can buy, diverse student population due to Harvard’s generous financial aid , and a strong residential life.

My husband’s advice:  visit Harvard last or you risk being disappointed by every other college you visit afterwards.

July 14, 2009 at 7:32 pm Leave a comment

College Visit: McGill University

Montreal Convention CtrIf you can’t qualify for either financial aid or merit aid, there is still a way to get a world-renowned brand-name education at half the price of a private U.S. college.  And, for extra measure, it offers immersion in another language in daily living, but English-language classes.

McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, is generally viewed as the best university in Canada and The Times ranks it as one of the top 12 colleges in the world.  A popular T-shirt reads “Harvard: the McGill University of the USA”.

Because Canadians believe that every student is entitled to post-secondary education and because it is a public university, tuition, room & board is more reasonable than the top schools in the U.S., running from $23,000 to $32,000 for “international” (including American) freshmen living off campus, and less for upperclassmen.  That’s in Canadian dollars, and right now the US dollar buys about $1.15 Canadian, so that’s like getting a 13% discount off the stated tuition.

Admission is based more on grades and test scores and less on extra-curriculars than in the U.S., or perhaps it would be appropriate to say it is more like applying to a public university in the U.S.

For a student interested in foreign languages (particularly French), or international studies or comparative government, McGill offers a different perspective without living on another continent.  About 18% of the students are francophone.  We heard conversations on campus alternate from English to French.

For a student interested in a pre-med track, McGill has relationships with 7 hospitals.  In fact, a neurological institute and birthing center are practically sandwiched between the dorms and the academic buildings.

Montreal is a beautiful, exciting, bike-and-pedestrian friendly city.  The university is tucked between downtown and a large park at Mont Royal, so it has the advantages of both convenience and green space.

Still, with all that going for it, we walked away with the impression that the education and experience would be inferior to what a student can expect at a top U.S. college:

  • Class sizes even for upperclassmen run about 30 students.
  • The university only has housing for 2200 of 24,000 undergraduates, so only some of the freshmen can live “on-campus”.  One of those dorms is 4 metro stops away.  Another is about 5 blocks from campus.  Since the university estimates that living off campus saves $5000/year, there is a big incentive to move off-campus.
  • When the preponderance of students don’t live on campus, they are less involved in extracurriculars on campus.  McGill has 150 clubs….a lower number than some U.S. liberal arts colleges with 1/10th as many students.
  • The cheapest dorms are old cinderblock buildings with tiny single rooms, which we found less appealing than dorms at Texas State University or NW Oklahoma State.
  • Two students described McGill students as “independent, or at least they become independent after coming here”.  That may be a function of a university with large classes, little housing and few clubs…you have to find and create your own opportunities.

Maybe a better way of looking at it is that McGill offers some interesting twists on a typical U.S. public university education.

July 13, 2009 at 6:51 pm Leave a comment

College Visit: Carnegie Mellon

Carnegie MellonAre we simply tired from doing 4 college visits in one week, or was today just “ho hum”?

There was no one thing that really stood out at last fall’s Carnegie Mellon information session, yet my son and I both left with the feeling that CMU was worth visiting.  Today’s visit left us feeling that there isn’t anything that stands out.  Period.

CMU does attract academically strong students.  It has a great track record at job placement.  With a theme of bridging the arts and sciences, it may fit a niche for some students. For a fine arts major, it offers a conservatory environment.  But for a basic sciences guy like my son, there was nothing highlighted today that isn’t offered at just about every other place we’re visited.  (The admissions counselor suggested calling the department heads for more details.)

I thought, last fall, that they offered some full tuition scholarships, which got me excited.  But they have been cut back to “at least half tuition” and the admissions counselor advised us to check the website in August or September to find out what would be offered for next year, as there are those in CMU’s administration who advocate cutting all merit scholarships.

July 10, 2009 at 6:44 pm Leave a comment

College Visit: Univ of Chicago

Univ of ChicagoIt was pouring rain when we got to the University of Chicago, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Impressive stone architecture.   As my husband put it, with all the ivy climbing the buildings, it should be an Ivy League school.  The admissions office is in a building with huge rounded wooden doors.  A visit to the restrooms requires a hike up the stone staircase and through the famed Chicago School of Economics.  It gave me chills to think about the people whose footsteps I was following.

[If you’d like a more modern dose of U of Chicago economic thinking, read the book Freakonomics, which was started by a grad student’s research.  You’ll understand the HBO Series, The Wire, much better.]

The curriculum really impressed me:

  • U of Chicago has an incredibly low faculty to student ratio of 6:1.
  • They leverage that low ratio to focus on discussion-based classes.  After all the lecture halls we have toured elsewhere, I was so surprised at being taken into a classroom that was arranged into a circle that I walked up and down the hallway to check.  Every classroom was arranged in a circle!
  • There is a bit of the Great Books approach to learning, similar to what you’ll find at Reed College or St. John’s.  Our tour guide said that students can pretty much count on reading Marx, Aristotle,  and maybe Kant and/or Smith.  Thus, every student has a shared fundamental understanding of philosophy, ethics, and economics.   And by reading Marx, they get their biases and assumptions challenged.
  • Our tour guide talked about interesting classes, engaged professors and grad students, and being challenged to explore big picture themes like war, love & happiness.  Never before have I heard a tour guide talk about a class not wanting the semester to end!
  • I had always thought of Chicago as the brainiac school of Illinois, where the real intellectuals – the ones who love to learn and discuss and debate – study.   So does our tour guide.  So did an admissions counselor quoted in the New York Times recently.   The University of Chicago admissions counselor spoke about looking for “scholarly curiosity”.
  • As evidence that it is truly a liberal arts college and not a pre-professional place, they offered up the fact that there is no engineering program.
  • Of course, the city of Chicago is used as a resource for classes, with all the exhibits, plays, etc. that the city has to offer.
  • There are some accelerated programs (math, chemistry, & med school) and AP credit options that might allow a student to graduate almost a year early.

Drawbacks?  As my son pointed out, if the classrooms are designed to be interactive, you’d better be good at participating in discussions.   And the professors better be adept at preventing one or two people from monopolizing the conversation.

The University of Chicago offers about 12 full-tuition scholarships and 200 1/3 tuition scholarships.  To win one, you have to impress the faculty, not the admissions office.

From a residential standpoint, Chicago has “houses” like Hogwarts.  Students can dine in their house or, in the main dining hall, eat at their house table…or hang out with friends from other houses.

One advantage at Chicago is the availability of research opportunities.  The medical center is next door.   There are strong ties to physics research facilities.  This year they will open a new chemistry building that is designed to implode – after evacuation – if something goes seriously wrong…which makes you wonder what they are working with in there!

Up until now, I have been leary about sending my child to a research university.  My bias has been that an undergraduate student – particularly an introverted one – will get more opportunities and more attention from professors at a small liberal arts college.  But I’m now realizing that, at a research university, an undergrad can get to know some grad students, see what they have to do, and get a sense for whether that is a path he or she wants to take.

By the way, CalTech and University of Chicago consistently send out the most interesting direct mail pieces – at least as far as this nerd is concerned.

July 9, 2009 at 8:27 pm Leave a comment

College Visit: Northwestern University

My husband describes Northwestern University as the biggest medium-sized college he’s ever seen.  It seemed like we walked for miles and still didn’t see half the campus.  The sciences are primarily in a complex called the Technology Institute, which has an incredible 17 miles of corridors.  (Guys, you’d better learn to ask directions if you want to arrive at class on time.)

My son is intrigued by some of the accelerated programs (HPME for medicine, Integrated Science Program, MENU for accelerated math).  Be careful about choosing NU for these special programs.  Not only are they very limited in numbers but some are incompatible with each other or other programs.  For example, engineers can’t be in MENU, yet those who want the Kellogg certificate (the only business-oriented option for undergrads) MUST be in MENU.

Engineers: take note of Northwestern’s innovative approach.  Freshmen tackle a real-world problem as teams.  At places like Harvey Mudd, these hands-on projects are done as seniors.  Northwestern wants to give freshmen a good feel for whether engineering is really for them. NU also offers engineers a one-year (handsomely) paid internship program called Co-op, that often results in an employment offer.

My daughter originally was interested in Northwestern because of its journalism program, but ended up deciding that she didn’t want to attend there unless she was going to major in journalism.  After interning with a newspaper, she decided journalism wasn’t for her.  Now here we are again…my son thinks he’s only interested in NU if he decides he wants to be in one of their special programs.

July 8, 2009 at 6:36 pm Leave a comment

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