Posts filed under ‘Ivy League’

Harvard’s admissions advice

From a Harvard admissions counselor:

  • Harvard's freshmen dining hallThe essay is meant to be a personal statement, not a personal statement.  Try to let them see the real you.  It should be something that only you could have written.
  • SAT scores and grades are used to answer the question of whether you can hack it academically.  That’s a yes or no question, not one of degrees, so inching the numbers up isn’t going to matter.
  • “Well rounded” does not mean you can check off boxes in the athletics, community service, leadership, and extra-curriculars categories. It’s not backwards-looking into your past performance, it’s forward-looking.  It means you’ll have something you’ll want to do at Harvard other than studying, something that you’ll contribute to the community, something that interests you that you can continue to pursue at Harvard.
  • They want to make sure their applicants will make good roommates.

September 22, 2009 at 7:11 pm Leave a comment

My son’s list

As of summer before senior year, here is my son’s short list (in alphabetical order):

  1. Carleton College, Northfield MN – the only small liberal arts college on the list.   A comfortable fit. Size-wise, Carleton is at the bottom of his preferred range.
  2. CalTech, Pasadena CA – Really small, but a fantastic school as long as he doesn’t change direction and decide he wants to major in something other than math or science.  Incredible job placement track record.
  3. Harvard College, Cambridge MA – We were more impressed than we expected.   Strong residential program makes the size manageable.   Financial aid is generous.   Boston is a plus.
  4. Northwestern University, Evanston IL – Has some special programs he wants to explore more.
  5. MIT, Cambridge MA – Like CalTech, but bigger and more widely known.  His original dream school when we started this process 4 years ago.
  6. Stanford University, Palo Alto CA – A little big for my tastes but he loves California and there are more options for majors than at CalTech.
  7. University of Chicago, Chicago IL – The intellectual’s school.   More discussion-focused.
  8. University of Oklahoma, Norman OK – Fantastic financial package for National Merit Scholars and, surprisingly, he feels comfortable at a school with 19,000 students.  Very compact beautiful campus, and he can live on an honors floor and get priority class registration rights.
  9. Yale, New Haven CT – The difference between Harvard and Yale comes down to whether he would take advantage of what Boston has to offer….like pro hockey games.

We’ve visited all of these and now he needs to do more research on their websites to see if he’s still interested in any of the special programs and happy with the course offerings….as well as to get more fodder for the question “Why do you want to attend XYZ University?”.

In case you’re wondering…

  • We never really investigated any other Ivy League schools, other than Penn, so don’t take this as a conclusion that Harvard or Yale are better than the others.
  • The schools with really lucrative merit scholarship programs generally did not appeal to him (which may be why they offer such great scholarships).
  • Originally, he was focused on MIT and CalTech, but, as time goes by, he’s seeing an advantage in leaving open his options for pursuing a non-technical major…even though that’s not what he’s interested in now.
  • My daughter is attending a college that, at one time, was on the bottom of her short list, so I’m well aware that this list could change.

July 20, 2009 at 11:12 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

Prestigious undergrad or prestigious grad school?

If you can get more financial aid for grad school and it is easier to get into a prestigious grad school if you go to a prestigious undergrad school, why would you scrimp on spending for undergrad?

Continue Reading April 7, 2009 at 11:14 am 1 comment

TAMS’ secret weapon

I am convinced TAMS (Texas Academy of Math and Sciences) has a secret weapon – college counselor Sharon Vann.

Sharon guides the students through the college application process, helping them pick courses, determine which colleges to target, and develop their applications.   Her involvement goes way beyond the two 45-minute presentations that the counselors at our public high school put on for students!

I’ve heard Sharon speak three times, at two conferences of the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented (TAGT) and at TAMS Summer Orientation.  She’s a former TAMSter who returned years later on a mission to help these kids.  As a college counselor she has the advantage of focusing strictly on gifted students.  But as a state employee, she feels an obligation to reach out to other students in the state, which is why she is so willing to speak at TAGT conventions.

Tips I’ve picked up from Sharon:

  • Most selective colleges are trying to limit AP credit to 12 credit hours.  TAMS students may not be issued credit for all the college classes they took at TAMS, but they often get so much advanced standing that they can finish both a B.A. and an M.S. in just one year more than it would take to get a B.A., provided they earn both degrees at the same college.
  • Her advice to National Merit Scholars or students with high GPAs is to consider going to their state school or the state schools nearby, as they often give full tuition scholarships.
  • Texas A&M loves Eagle Scouts.
  • She divides colleges into three types and warns that they require different students or different applications & essays.  MIT, CalTech & Stanford look for more math & science activities, leadership and classes.  State schools want variety.  Ivy Leagues and liberal arts schools want students who are well-rounded, at the top of their class, and show leadership not only in math/science but also in non-math/science areas.
  • All students need to read good writing.  Writing skills generally trip up TAMS kids on their essays, because colleges want their personality and beliefs to come out in the essay, not just facts

Boy, does she know her stuff!  If you get a chance, go hear her speak.

November 14, 2008 at 10:35 pm 2 comments


Insights and advice from a parent of two gifted teenagers

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