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College tour wrap-up

November 19th, 2011

Twelve universities. Roughly 3,200 miles driven. Plenty of impressions that started to crowd each other towards the end. A few obvious judgments and a number of decisions of greater nuance.

Four additional colleges that did not fit into our travel plans were also in the mix. Two of those were from the cheaper/safer category. One was a school with a tremendous appeal to Becky which was located too far for a day trip and yet not conveniently enough to combine a visit there with a stop at another college on a two-day journey. Finally, one other was initially removed from our target list despite placing near the top in terms of matching Becky’s interests, because of mixed reviews we had about it from acquaintances; we eventually reinstated its candidacy but only after we could no longer make reasonable arrangements to visit it before the start of the holiday season. For all of those we figured that we would apply to them regardless and then visit them in spring before the enrolling deadline if they ended up as finalists.

Clearly, we positioned ourselves towards stretching the accepted upper boundary of the number of applications, with the common wisdom suggesting six to eight would be most appropriate. It was mostly down to the disappointing returns for a few of the last-year high school seniors we know who got turned down by many of their top-choice institutions despite having superior credentials. We wanted to give ourselves a wider range of options in case the few colleges we really would jump at a chance of attending did not feel as warmly about us. (In full “hedging risk” mode, I insisted on adding those couple additional “safety” schools to the mix even though I was confident that the chance of Rutgers deciding to pass on Becky was virtually nil.)

If you have been following this series of posts, you know that one of the schools on the itinerary was not really ever in the mix. Of all of the others, we outright eliminated just one single institution which ended up with little in its favor over others on our scale of combined parameters (standout/unique academic opportunities, distance, location, cost-vs-assistance, etc). Which still left us with 14 destinations.

Then, events took an unexpected, although definitely positive, turn. Not fond of procrastinating until the last possible moment, we have been working through and submitting applications to our firm target schools just as we were completing the trip itinerary and deciding on whether to apply to others. Since Rutgers has always been one of those firm targets, it was one of the first in our queue to submit. Unlike most of schools on our list, it employs a rolling admission process. To our immense surprise, it took but a single week for them to come back to us with a congratulating letter on being accepted to the university.

Now all of the remaining schools had to be additionally considered along the “would you go there instead of Rutgers?” parameter. That quickly eliminated three more schools from the list – one of the “hedges” and two that did not excite us enough to compensate for the disadvantages of their cost and/or location. (The other “hedge” did not get eliminated because we had already applied there by the time we received Rutgers acceptance, in order to maximize scholarship chances.) It also left one school hanging in the air, as I argue that acceptance to Rutgers makes it irrelevant but Becky leans towards applying and pushing the final decision to spring.

So, the end count is more manageable: Either 10 or 11 schools, of which we already fully applied to more than half. The remaining applications, bar aforementioned one, are to the schools that we would strongly consider over Rutgers if accepted, so the work is not yet finished.

It will be full four months before we know what we are finally choosing from. I’ll keep you posted.

And in case anyone is interested, only five states of the Union eluded detection of their license plates on our travels: Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Yes, we saw both a Hawaiian and an Alaskan plate, curiously within a couple of miles from each other.

College education

College tour impressions: Georgetown

November 17th, 2011
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The last stop on our tour. A level of fatigue certainly sets in. It’s not that we are not enjoying campus visits anymore, rather we are challenged to differentiate. Our first few visits each generated a couple of pages of notes. Our last few – less than a dozen lines each.

But Georgetown scored in top three on the initial matching test, so it had to be part of our itinerary.

The campus is a self-contained little city with very little vehicular traffic. There are some impressive Gothic buildings around the main green, the rest is more block-y and utilitarian, but well coordinated in its entirety.

Outside the main gates are pretty residential streets. Less than ten minutes away by foot is the vibrant commercial center of Georgetown, with theaters, cafes, shops and markets. Anyone who’s been following my ruminations on the subject will immediately recognize that close proximity to city life vaults the college to the top of Becky’s personal rankings.

There are some unique programs offered at Georgetown that blend Becky’s various interests rather well together. We already know it from our online research. After spending half an hour of our own on campus, addled by aforementioned touring fatigue, we are ready to conclude that we like the place and will be applying here.

Then the info session and the campus tour make an effort to spoil the impression. First, we get an admission officer who not just talks fast, but also has clear problems with diction. She breezes through her Powerpoint-aided presentation swallowing sounds, words and sometimes whole parts of the sentences. Not that big of a deal for us – we sat through a dozen of these already, we can piece together what she is telling us from seemingly unrelated sounds. And the slides are in front of us anyway. But some people in the audience are obviously new to the process, they want clarity, they can’t keep up, and yet they are uncomfortable stopping the lady and asking her a question – they neither want to appear dumber than the rest of listeners, nor can they expect a comprehensible response (which may no longer be accompanied by a visual aid).

Not surprisingly, the Q&A session at the end of the presentation peters out several minutes before the tour guides show up – a definite first on our trips. Once the simple yes-or-no questions are done, no one dares to ask something that would elicit a long series of sounds from the presenter.

Only a few colleges allowed us to pick the tour guide whose introduction appealed to us the most (the majority randomly matched a kid with a section of the auditorium). We had better returns on average with the random assignments than with picking our own guide. At Georgetown, we did not fare too well at that. The kid we thought would be the best choice turned out to be reasonably personable and articulate, but he was so married to his script that he would undergo an almost visible transformation every time something messed up his cues. He would then stutter, search for words, construct incoherent sentences. He could not answer any single question any way other than to put it off for later (if the script did not reach the appropriate point) or repeat word-for-word a previous part of the script (if we already went through that part before). Watching him trying to conjure an answer to something outside of the script was downright painful.

The highlight of the tour was the ascent to the rooftop terraces of senior housing, with sweeping views over Potomac and parts of DC. In sunny weather, the vistas are magnificent.

It was a brilliant sunny day, so we capped our last leg of college tours with some leisurely downtime in Georgetown village, where Becky met up with her pals from a summer immersion program and I had lunch with our Virginia-residing friends. It’s always nice to augment business with pleasure.

I felt it was a bit ironic that we managed to come away with a positive impression after both main components of our visit proved disappointing, but Georgetown definitely makes the cut.

College education

College tour impressions: College of William and Mary

November 16th, 2011
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For a student who wants to aim high and cannot be lured to a no-name school, cheaper college education these days means a single option: Going to a public institution. Even as an out-of-state student, your costs at a state school will be at least 25% and possibly 40% lower than at most upper-tier private universities. And quite a few of those state schools can hold their own in comparison with most non-Ivy-League institutions.

A couple of state colleges (not counting Rutgers, the cheapest for a NJ resident) popped up on our initial target list, and we specifically aimed at visiting at least one on our itinerary. W&M got selected not only because we could combine going there with another visit, but also because it tested the boundaries of how far from home Becky was willing to go.

Killing all the suspense, I’ll say right away that we came to a conclusion it was a bit too far for her tastes. Around six hours driving, coupled with serious restrictions for having a car on campus for freshmen and sophomores, basically eliminates any possibility of weekend trips home, which may not end up as an important ability once she starts her studies, but is an important nice-to-have as she chooses the place to go.

We liked the campus. I expected the architecture to be more grandly colonial and felt it was somewhat undistinguished, but it is mostly pleasant and pretty.

We did not hate the surroundings. The campus sits next to a large shopping and dining area, which continues into the Colonial Williamsburg section. I imagine the town of the size of Williamsburg cannot sustain a variety of off-campus entertainment for too long, but the W&M campus location is definitely livelier than in some other cases on our earlier visits.

Becky had a pretty good interview with a current W&M senior. It only lasted twenty minutes or so, but she felt she managed to impress the girl she was speaking to, for whatever that’s worth.

We enjoyed the info session. It started with an engaging video presentation that was not a straight-up advertisement of the likes we’ve seen elsewhere. It mixed fast-sequence photo slides with short monologues by professors and students extolling virtues of each other, all of that interspersed with quick takes of a guy running around campus on a scooter who turned interesting facts about the school into instant comic relief.

The video was followed by an admissions official who probably did not tell us anything that we did not know already, but had an excellent stand-up comedy sense and kept the audience entertained with pointers on how avoid application mishaps. There was one kid senior assisting her, who gave canned answers to a bunch of mediocre questions. I was not impressed with him until he was thrown what turned out to be a curveball by the admissions lady, and he dealt with it with a kind of self-deprecating humor that I always admire.

The campus tour lasted a bit longer than we thought it had to. The kid leading it was talkative and natural, but peppered his speech with too many instances of “like” and “so”. He was likeable, nonetheless. He took us into a few buildings, which were all serviceable if not exactly remarkable.

In terms of fields of study, W&M has everything that Becky would find interesting but nothing that could be called unique. It did not especially impress us, but also did not put us off in any way. On balance, it is a pretty good school and the first words out of Becky’s mouth when we started our trek back were “I like it”.

And then she qualified it: “It’s probably too far”.

College education

College tour impressions: NYU

November 1st, 2011
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NYU had a chance to become my own alma mater. They blew that opportunity when I was offered way too few transfer credits based on my Russian undergraduate studies. (I went to a cheaper school that offered me full two years of transfer credits plus a generous merit-based scholarship.)

I don’t hold grudges. And when a school features as an excellent match for my kid’s interests and has the built-in advantage of being located in a vibrant city district just an hour away from home, it clearly pushes to the top of our list even before we had a chance to try it on.

It so happened that we were visiting NYU during the inexplicable October snowstorm. Our first bad-weather college visit could, theoretically, skew the overall impression towards negative, but Becky happily concluded in the end that she liked it even in the bad weather.

We first had a very lively information session. The value of those talks greatly depends on the person conducting them, and I have already noted in this series my lukewarm feelings towards some of those. The session at NYU was lead by a talkative and very natural lady who made jokes at the right time, emphasized critical points without going on boring tangent, moved things along, avoided sounding patronizing, and generally kept our attention throughout the hour.

She spent a fair amount of time explaining NYU’s global presence, which seemingly takes the idea of studying abroad to the next level. A student can enter NYU at two (soon to be three) “home” colleges in different parts of the world, but then can go and study within NYU on a dozen of campuses in Europe, Asia, or Australia. Apparently, even freshmen have the opportunity to do that, and the only limitation is the availability of specific classes that one wants to take at a particular location for a semester. Anyone familiar with our family’s wanderlust would recognize how appealing that sounds to Becky. (Not to minimize study-abroad opportunities at other schools, but they are normally presented as something available primarily to juniors, and often through collaboration with local institutions abroad, which could mean better immersion, but also an added hassle of logistics.)

There is also a School of Individualized Studies, which is not something we’ve seen elsewhere. Yes, many colleges offer students ability to double- or even triple-major, or sometimes even “create your own major”. But this is the first time I’ve heard of an institutionalized approach to shaping undergraduate studies to the interests of the specific student. Given wide-ranging interests of my daughter, we find it very intriguing to shed the “undecided” label in favor of “individualized studies”.

The weather obviously interfered with our college tour, so we were only able to quickly move from one building to another, with our tour guide giving us a talk and conducting a brief Q&A session at each stop. The library was impressive in a modern, 12-stories-high atrium kind of way, but the student center, one of residence halls and one of the academic buildings left minimal impressions. We recognize that in the middle of a huge city we are not looking for either surpassing beauty or quaintness.

The tour guide at first seemed as if he was trying too hard to make us like him and the college, and when he slipped in that he was both a Rhodes and a Marshall finalist this year, I thought the kid was blatantly making it up. But then at some point he started talked academics, specifically about his own studies, which incidentally were an eclectic mix of computers and philosophy through the Individualized school, and he practically morphed before our own eyes into an articulate lecturer with a clear command of complicated subjects, which was rather impressive. We had an annoying family on our tour who wanted to know “how well someone who needs a lot of hand-holding would have their hand held at NYU” and “how would a conservative student fit into the left-wing mayhem that is New York City”. I felt sorry for the kid for being publicly labeled by the parents, but our tour guide showed a lot of maturity in deftly dispatching those questions. I liked him a lot more towards the end of the tour than at the beginning.

With all that New York has to offer in terms of lifestyle, networking and career development, plus the appealing things about the college itself, NYU firmed up its position as one of our top choices after this visit.

College education

College tour impressions: Rutgers

October 25th, 2011
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With the exception of just a handful of the States in the Union, for a student aspiring to the Ivy League-level education, the nearby state school gets designated as a “safety” choice: An institution with a much better chance of being accepted to than those super-selective top schools, but something that will only be considered for matriculation in the worst-case scenario of no other schools admitting said student. Of course, in this day and age, the state school offers by far the cheapest option among Top 200-250 schools nationwide for an in-state undergrad.

Rutgers did not figure very high on the list of matches for Becky’s interests. That was somewhat surprising in itself given that as any huge school it offers about a hundred majors, but several other states’ public schools came up as better matches. Yet, it is nearly a lock for her to get admitted to it, given her grades and test results, and I’d be a fool to ignore the fact that Rutgers is considerably more affordable than the schools she has at the top of her list.

And if you remember what I said at the start of this series, I do not believe that any school outside of the very top tier of undergraduate education offers a truly competitive advantage to its students over another institution within several dozen places on any given ranking list. Yale or Cornell vs Rutgers? Yes, quite possibly a significant competitive advantage for the Ivies. Boston College? Likely, not so much.

Which makes Rutgers a very real possible choice for us. So we had to go and try it on for size.

It is the biggest school we’ve seen, spread across five campuses along a state highway. To me, that is immediately one of the biggest drawbacks of the school, the high probability of having to use the bus system to get to some of your classes. The buses may be well-run and frequent, but there is still a big inconvenience in having to “commute” to classes while living on campus.

The smallest and most central campus is located in the center of New Brunswick and is an example of a city-integrated campus that Becky finds very attractive. It has quaint streets and houses, plenty of local entertainment within a short walk, shops and eateries around the corner. Freshmen are unlikely to be housed there, but something to look forward for upperclassmen.

There are two adjacent campuses (really, it is one campus with two names) to the south of that, still within close distance of the city center. These two look distinguished and venerable, befitting a school founded in XVIII century. One of them offers only female housing, which is a bit of a weird concept in our times. The other has some of the interest-centric housing that Becky finds quite intriguing.

Two newer and expanding campuses are located well to the north of that in the adjoining town. There, the spaces are considerably more open, and the architecture is contemporary and mostly unremarkable (with exceptions). Most of the freshmen happen to live on the northernmost (as the highway goes) campus, which means plenty of traveling on that bus system.

In fact, our campus tour was almost entirely bus-enabled. We were driven through all five campuses, with a pesky junior pointing out highlights beyond the windows. She did not have a good script to explain to us why she chose Rutgers (well, she was a New Jersey resident, duh!) and an even worse example of someone choosing Rutgers over MIT (the person apparently received a full-ride scholarship at Rutgers, which tipped her hand, I imagine, as opposed to any academic considerations), but otherwise she did a pretty good job.

We got off the bus to view a dorm “show room”, which turned out to be of a reasonable size for a double.

The info session started with a 10-minute video advertisement for the school, which was followed by a pretty long rapid-fire presentation by a recent graduate who looked somewhat older than her graduation year suggested. She threw lots of facts and numbers at us, meandered into descriptions of events that held little interest for the audience, but also pointed out a couple of important details that we did not yet notice ourselves on the school’s website. Not a complete waste of time, even though I started to feel that way half-way into her talk.

Overall, we did not see anything off-putting, and Becky found quite a few things she could put into a “plus” column. Rutgers is a no-brainer for us to apply to.

College education

College tour impressions: Swarthmore

October 14th, 2011

The second liberal arts college on our itinerary is the one that offers an engineering degree among its majors. Doesn’t that make their “liberal arts” designation invalid? Not that it matters to us, as already mentioned in the past.

The college grounds are simply gorgeous, worthy of a royal residence, with a long tree-lined alley running across the green meadow up to the main hall. That main building, in its colonial palatial splendor, stands out from all other structures on campus. The rest of the buildings, both academic and residential, are almost understated in appearance, predominantly contemporary in design, and most importantly harmonious in presenting a well-thought-out and agreeable pattern. Leafy pathways, green lawns and common spaces, lots of natural light inside – beyond attractive.

It should be noted that we happened to visit during the short fall break, with majority of students leaving campus for trips home. The serenity of the place surely must decrease on a normal school day.

The school is small. The smallest of all we are visiting, in fact, with only 1,500 undergraduates in total. I admit that my perspective is skewed, since I have never lived on campus in my life and cannot really imagine what it is like to spend nine months of the year living in a fairly closed community. Is two thousand people, faculty and staff included, enough a population size for a person not to feel constricted in their choice of close acquaintances? Or do you need at least five thousand to be able to make your picks? Ten? Me, I am not overly fond of crowds and strangers; a small community where everybody knows your name and you know everybody not just by sight would be perfect for me. Becky is not that different from me in that aspect, even though she goes to a huge public school nowadays. Part of what she liked the most about her comparatively small private school in London was that she got to know everybody there.

Location is a consideration, though. The campus setting is rural and, while it is not exactly in the middle of nowhere, going someplace outside campus requires a fair amount of walking along not exactly pedestrian-friendly streets. Or you can take a train into Philadelphia – the station is right at the edge of campus, the ride is 25 minutes long, the trains run about as frequently as you would expect a commuter train to run. In all probability, once the novelty of hopping on a train to Philly or taking a walk to the nearby mall wears off, Becky would spend most of her time on campus. The question of a small population morphs into “not only it is small, but you cannot readily take a break from it either”. She assured me that it would not be a problem for her. I have my reservations, but I am possibly over-analyzing it.

The guy leading the info session was a comparatively recent graduate of Swarthmore. He talked seemingly without much of a structure on a range of topics, providing us with snippets about campus life and his insights of what made the college different from others. At first, I did not think the session was very useful, not the speaker was any inspiring, but upon reflection, I realize that we did hear a number of things that allowed us to compose a rather unique opinion about the institution.

Among the ideas that I heard that stuck with me were the emphasis on collaboration between students (to the point – which I hopefully misunderstood – that individual brilliance was not worth as much praise as a collaborative effort that generated only an average outcome); a policy of not calculating any GPA or rankings across the student body (which, to me, reduces the long-view incentives for the best students to remain on top, even as it may be masking the realization for lower-rung students that they are not doing well overall); and even an absence of any grades in the first semester of the freshman year where all classes are graded Pass/Fail (which totally removes incentives for the brightest and makes the mediocre appear just as good in comparison). Suffice it to say, I am not entirely on-board with those concepts. Maybe, I am missing the fact that every student at Swarthmore is so brilliant that any attempts to incentivize their academic performance are inherently futile.

Becky, on the other hand, had not much of a problem with those. She’s just not much into competing anyway.

The campus tour was lovely. We were given a choice of a tour guide, and the girl we randomly picked was very natural and charming, who quickly won us over by talking to us, interacting rather than presenting. She took us into a student center, a library, an academic building, and then used her own dorm room to illustrate residential accommodations. Sounds a bit silly, but seeing a messy room that someone clearly lives in gave us a better impression of the living arrangements than pristinely made up “show” rooms elsewhere. Coupled with all the other tour highlights, we came away feeling that we learned quite a lot about Swarthmore.

A different college from all of the other places we’ve seen. A definite “yes” to apply, in Becky’s book.

College education

College tour impressions: Drexel

October 11th, 2011

Sometimes people check out stuff they come across in the infomercials.

Drexel was nowhere near our list of targets for Becky’s higher education. It is not big on liberal arts and humanities subjects, instead priding itself on offering strong programs in applied sciences and professional lines of study. Not at all what our undecided applicant is looking for.

It did send us quite a number of mailings, just as many other schools did. But whereas most of the other schools attempted to entice us solely with variations of rah-rah slogans such as “You deserve the best!” (meaning, of course, that they are, naturally, the best) or “Imagine yourself here!” (implying that there is hardly any reason to imagine any other destination) or “You’re such a star, we want you!” (which any reasonable sixteen-year-old would see through as meaningless flattery), Drexel supplemented their “we’ll give you VIP treatment” pitch with highlights of some pretty cool programs available at their School of Media Art and Design. Given that we wanted to check out at least one other school besides our home state university that was sitting well outside the Top 50 ranking, and coupled with its relative proximity to us, we included Drexel on our itinerary, giving it a distinction of being the only school on our list whose mailed ads to us worked to some degree.

Unfortunately for Drexel, nothing else really worked.

As much as Becky enjoys the idea of living on a campus in a large city, the amount of through traffic and noise on the streets occupied by university buildings was a bit too much. As little as she cares about architectural composition of the campus, there was too much of uninspiring industrial structures on or around campus; sprinkled with some cool-looking modern buildings, to be fair, but not to a large degree. The main university building, which used to be the entire university when it was first founded, is actually quite delightful inside and out, with a grand central atrium, arched balconies on all levels, a museum-worthy collection of artifacts and an impressive picture gallery. Since that was the first building we went into, everything else went downhill from there.

UPenn alums in my audience will undoubtedly tell me that University Town, encompassing both UPenn and Drexel, has a lot to offer in terms of diversions (and downtown Philly seems to be but a stone throw away), but we must have been on the wrong streets and did not see much of that. I have little doubt that happening areas, full of restaurants and shops, were just a couple of blocks away, but not seeing that firsthand left us with a feeling of being in a wrong part of the city.

One of Drexel’s main selling points – its strong Co-Op program of paid internships at major companies for literally all undergraduate students – is a plus (although one quickly realizes that taking the most advantage of it means getting your undergraduate degree in five years, rather than four, while paying for each of those years as if it was a standard year of study). Having to declare your major at the very beginning – albeit with some room for an “undecided” factor and an ability to change majors later in the course of studies – is a definite minus, taking away a lot of flexibility that we have come to expect in our college search. And then, besides those seemingly cool media-related programs, there are truly no major fields of study that align with Becky’s interests, and we really have to account for the possibility that she will change her mind many times during her first couple of years, which seems less convenient with Drexel’s approach of fitting into a major-focused study from the very start.

The info session was conducted by an incredibly fast-talking admissions official who managed to squeeze more informative points into a 30-minute presentation than most people do in an hour. She answered a dozen of questions from the audience during that time as well, concisely and to the point. Becky thought her too fast, but I actually enjoyed that part of our visit the most. Then, for the campus tour, we got a girl who clearly could not hold still for even a second and gave us little beyond scripted snippets of what purpose each building played and how some of the key elements of being a Drexel student worked. Boilerplate stuff. She took us into the student center (which was all right), then a gym (which was modern and dandy – probably the reason why it was included – but hardly merited a stop on the campus tour), and a “show room” at the freshmen dorm. The latter seemed ok up until the point when our tour guide ventured that while this particular room was a double, the same size room could be a triple. Since we could not imagine how a third of anything – bed, desk, wardrobe – could fit into that space, we came away depressed by the possibility.

I hope Drexel alums in my audience, if there are any, will forgive me for coming to a quick conclusion that we will not be applying. It’s not you, it’s us.

College education

College tour impressions: Cornell

October 10th, 2011

Cornell topped the list of matches for Becky’s various interests, when that research was conducted, which is not at all surprising given its founder’s motto of offering any subject of study to its students. It was our second Ivy League school to pay a visit to.

Its suburban campus sits high in the hills surrounding Lake Cayuga in the Fingerlakes region and there are some fantastic views over the area to be had from several vantage points. While downtown Ithaca is not within walking distance – it is 15 to 20 minutes away by bus – there is a happening area literally a block away from campus called Collegetown, with plenty of eateries and shops to provide off-campus diversions.

No two adjacent buildings on campus look similar in architectural pedigree, and at first I found that visual somewhat disconcerting, but very quickly came around to thinking it all fit together quite well. The campus itself is huge and even though it is rather well-defined in its main boundaries, its major arteries are open to the through traffic, which I find somewhat less than optimal for a non-city setting.

Unlike at other institutions, at Cornell we started with the tour and not the info session. Our tour guide was a hyperactive girl whose delivery at first felt too in-your-face for me to enjoy. But again, I came around to liking her a lot towards the end of the tour. Despite her occasional over-the-top cheerleading tendencies, the girl gave us tons of useful information, constantly cracked us up with undoubtedly scripted but delivered with gusto jokes, and not for a second lost our attention. She also did something that we have not experienced on any other tours. In the middle of it, she took the entire group into a classroom, sat us down and declared it a Q&A session. For the next half an hour or so, she rather expertly dealt with a lot of different questions. Even when she opted for what felt like canned answers to common inquiries, that was one of the most useful experiences we’ve had in our journeys so far.

We only went into one other building – the campus chapel – which was a less than obvious stop on a tour of an unaffiliated school. Since the chapel is used by all different religious organizations on campus, its Catholic design notwithstanding, the purpose of showcasing it was mostly in expressing how all of the different faiths coexisted at the institution.

Because we were not shown much in terms of facilities, we had to take our tour guide’s word that they were top-notch. Not unlike what we had to do at Yale.

Towards the end of the tour, as she was talking about athletic pursuits available at Cornell, she happened to mention an ice-skating student club. That itself almost sealed Cornell’s status as one of our definite targets. Very few colleges in the nation have ice skating as a recognized on-campus activity; at most, it would be an individual off-campus pursuit for Becky.

Then we went to the official info session and it nearly succeeded in negating our heretofore positive impressions. It was led by a cheery woman whose style of presentation made her seem almost fake in her exuberance. Working off a PowerPoint presentation, she kept making unfunny puns that fell flat with the audience, and then entirely lost me when she went into a lengthy monologue that could be summarized as “Why you may consider not to apply to Cornell”. I saw a few people in the audience exchange bewildered glances with other members of their parties, just as Becky and I expressed our own puzzlement to each other, and Becky later said that she felt it was rather intimidating to hear an administrator focus on telling the audience that the college was so selective, the prospective applicants should be doing themselves a favor and looking elsewhere.

With the exception of some details of financial aid available at Cornell (need-blind, just as at all other Ivies, and explained in detail in the brochure that we picked up before the session), the presenter failed to tell us anything that we had not heard already from our excellent tour guide. She did roll out a quartet of current students to go through some topics and field a few questions, and those four kids provided the best moments of the session with their composure, well-spokenness and thoughtfulness.

We finished our visit with lunch at the full-service hotel that sits in the middle of the campus. Not that it would figure in the decision process, but it was definitely a different kind of experience to watch the flow of campus life from the restaurant window.

Despite the mostly horrible info session, Cornell is clearly near the top of our list. As an Ivy League college should be.

College education

College tour impressions: University of Rochester

October 9th, 2011

Not all colleges on our touring itinerary were selected because they matched up exceedingly well with Becky’s interests. Several were selected for reasons that could be summarily expressed as “why not”. U of R was one of such selections. We heard a couple of good things about it from acquaintances, and we were making the trip to a college in Upstate New York anyway (which will be the subject of the next post), so instead of driving four-plus hours each way for just one college, we figured we could add a couple of hours to the overall journey to visit a place that was not originally on our list.

Neither Becky nor I can say that we came away especially impressed, but similar to our earlier trip to BC, we did not find anything especially off-putting either.

The campus is of the suburban self-contained variety, not unlike that of BC. Downtown Rochester is said to be 15-20 minutes away by bus, but there is not much in the way of obvious off-campus points of interest in the immediate vicinity. The architecture of the main campus is very homogeneous, of “colonial” red-brick variety, reasonably charming and uniform. Not an eye-sore, but certainly not eye-catching either.

The info session was fairly forgettable, led by a nice lady who tended to give a long-winded answers to the simplest of questions, insisting on providing specific examples of “this student did that, that student did this” that after a while started to look entirely made up. We were asked to pick our tour guide from among a half-dozen students who showed up at the end of the info session, and we chose the kid who appeared the liveliest of all during the brief introductions. He turned out to be personable and talkative – as all tour guides undoubtedly are – but he volunteered not much information along the way, concentrating almost exclusively on telling us which building served which purpose. He did take us into a student center, a couple of libraries, the athletic center and also down to the tunnels that connect academic and administrative buildings, so we got a pretty good feel of the college.

There were a couple of things that we learned that fall into the “definite plus” category in our differentiation formula, such as non-existent everyone-has-to-take-these core requirements beyond a writing seminar, or the ability to take the fifth year of studies free of charge for additional electives if you satisfied your degree within four years, or interest-centric dormitories. The only item in the “definite minus” category was the 5-hour-plus drive to get there, thus far the farthest distance on our itinerary.

One thing that we did at Rochester is we signed Becky up for an interview with an admissions officer. Not all colleges recommend or even offer such opportunity. We could have had a similar interview at Yale, but not on a Saturday when our visit occurred, and by the time we decided that making a separate additional trip to New Haven mid-week was a worthwhile exercise, their entire Fall schedule had been filled up. (A huge blunder on our part in this whole process, I think.) But Rochester was offering such interviews on Saturdays as well, and if we are already there, why not take advantage of it.

Becky came out of that interview (she was one-on-one with the counselor, I was waiting in a lounge) a big believer in having them. She really enjoyed the opportunity to personally emphasize her strengths to someone who will play a role in the admission decisions. Cynical person that I am, I have little faith in the fairness of the admission process overall, and I am not sure how much the notes scribbled down by the counselor after roughly 25 minutes of talking with a given kid would make a difference in the decision made to accept or refuse that particular applicant, but I don’t see how having the opportunity to showcase yourself even to a single admission officer can be a negative thing. Unless you come across as an idiot or as a bore. Which Becky can’t even if she tried. She felt that she she convinced the counselor that she was a stand-out candidate.

As the result, we came away with an impression that Becky had an excellent chance of being accepted to U of R. So, even though it is probably sharing the bottom place with BC of all the colleges we’ve seen so far, we will likely make it one of our “safety” choices.

College education

College tour impressions: Boston University

October 4th, 2011

The sequence of different-type-of-campus visits continued on our call to Boston U.

Unlike our previous stops, BU’s campus sits smack in the middle of a major city, strung along a public transportation-served artery for over a mile and a half, with the riverside as its northern boundary. “Beautiful” does not enter the conversation to describe the campus at all, even though there are some impressive buildings and the promenade along the river bank is quite pretty. But most of the structures belonging to the institution fall into two basic categories: Rows of well-maintained brownstones or outwardly-unremarkable, except for pretenses of grandiosity, industrial-age edifices.

But the unmistakable “student town” vibe pervading the area more than compensates for the perceived lack of pleasing vistas. There are plenty of places to go to, be it for a cup coffee or some form of entertainment or a simple walk. The city center is but a few minutes away by tram. And still, predominance of people of college age everywhere you look tells you that it is all occupied by a university, even if you are so inattentive as to miss seven hundred signs that announce the name of the school on every nook and corner.

Becky finds this type of setting extremely appealing.

BU is the biggest school we’ve seen so far in terms of enrollment and in terms of available programs and majors. Not surprisingly, it covers all of the areas of interest for Becky and even offers dual-degree programs that could combine those areas of interest. It is also the first one on our circuit that does not make promises of covering the gap between total tuition and fees and the incoming student’s family ability to pay. They offer a variety of merit-based and selective scholarships, but beyond that it’s all about attempting to qualify for government grants and ending up getting student loans or second mortgages.

The information session was lively, led by a BU alumnus who now worked as an admission officer at the university. She covered all of the major topics at a brisk pace, with plenty of cheerleading for the school, and managed to answer the many questions in such manner that for the first time in my short history of attendances of such events the audience seemed to run out of questions with time to spare. One current student was present to help her out with some of the more student life-specific topics, and he did all right, although he mentioned his not very common major so many times during his remarks that it felt a bit OCD.

What I especially liked is the way a number of students – “admission ambassadors” – made themselves available to chat about college life with visitors who were waiting for the info session to start. The kids were all personable and animated and definitely helped both the high-schoolers and their parents to warm up to the upcoming presentation. I would not put too much emphasis on anything we could gain from that chat, but I can definitely see how a one-on-one personal touch makes you feel more welcome at a large institution.

Becky did not particularly like our tour guide on account of her deadpan delivery of corny jokes. As is my habit, I tried to defend the girl, reasoning that she was playing down to the lowest common denominator in a large group of people and quite succeeding at that. Becky’s standards for humor were much higher than that, though.

The tour took us inside a student center and a library, the latter showcasing the alumni, including a glass case with a bunch of Oscars and Emmys in it. We were also shown, unlike anywhere else, a dorm room, which entirely failed to impress me. I appreciate the honest approach of not baiting me with some luxury accommodations that will not be available to my kid possibly ever, but a small room that can barely fit two high single beds with built-in desks hardly inspires any appreciation from my side. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Near the end of our tour, as we were walking past residential brownstones, some smart-ass from an upper floor shouted at our group, “You’re all making a mistake!” We got a good chuckle out of it.

On balance, Becky really liked what the school offers in terms of programs as well as its urban feel. BU moved towards the top of her list, likely with an earlier than elsewhere application in order to gain consideration for those scholarships.

College education

College tour impressions: Boston College

October 3rd, 2011
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Why would a secular Jew consider a Jesuit Catholic education for his child?

By luck or accident, the first few college visits all brought us to different kinds of campus. We started with one well integrated into a moderate-size town. We then went to a largely self-contained campus of mostly rural characteristics, bordering a small but reasonably lively village strip. Then, Boston College offered us a largely self-contained campus in a large-city residential suburban area.

The campus is good-looking enough, with impressive Neo-Gothic main buildings surrounded by mostly serviceable modern architectural pieces. Our tour took us inside half a dozen buildings – the only such tour so far – and the interior spaces all looked renovated and well-equipped.

But there is practically nothing except residential streets directly outside of the campus perimeter. There is a huge pond with running paths around it on one side and a sizable cemetery on the other side, but we spied only one tiny stores-and-restaurants strip, six or seven establishments in total, in the near vicinity. Boston city center is about 5 miles away, which means 40-50 minutes on public transport one-way. Although people speaking to us uniformly emphasized “all that Boston can offer you”, I know from our own experience of living on the outskirts of London that those lengthy trips to and from the city center get rather annoying real fast and eventually become a decisive factor in not going anywhere. I would not be surprised if the majority of students rarely venture outside of campus.

The info session on campus distinguished itself with something I quite enjoyed. There was a standard admission officer pontificating on important topics as everywhere else, but instead of having just one current student on hand to have an occasional question lobbed to, BC rolled out a whole panel of five students, who spent about half an hour answering questions center-stage about their college experiences. It was rather entertaining, as the kids clearly nailed the prepared parts of their scripts, but fumbled around a bit when required to think on their feet. One parent asked a brilliant loaded question, “I assume all of you sat through a similar session when you were high-schoolers yourselves and then-students told you about BC; what was your biggest surprise when you actually got to campus as freshmen?” – and not one of the five kids was able to come up with a coherent answer, not even with glossy-ad-ready “You know, I think it all turned out exactly as I had imagined”.

I don’t think it was extraordinarily illuminating or can be used as the basis of any conclusions, but that performance did bring a bit of additional human feel into the session.

Our tour guide was a perky sophomore who did really well to showcase the shiny bits of the school. Becky was not impressed with her lack of knowledge of when the Jewish New Year was, and while I attempted to point out that a Catholic Midwesterner may not possess that bit of knowledge, she would not accept that as an excuse.

Which brings me back to the question I posed at the beginning of this post.

I identify myself as belonging to the world Jewry, but I am nowhere near religious or even observant. I do not particularly care to force any set of beliefs onto my children, and I will not look kindly on anyone else trying to force their sets of beliefs onto my kids. But from what I know, Jesuit education is not at all about converting students into canonical faith. Rather, it is firstly about giving those students a universally well-rounded education. I can get behind that credo.

There are plenty of non-Catholics attending BC every year (although I accept that they are in minority), there are purportedly many non-Catholic religious and cultural organizations on campus (including Hillel, which is very close to Becky’s heart), the academic requirements do not include attending a daily Mass (although there is a Theology requirement, which I understand can be satisfied any number of ways that focus on philosophy and history rather than on intimate knowledge of sacred texts). BC offers somewhat fewer programs and majors than the colleges we visited before, but still all of the major areas of interest for our undecided/undeclared applicant are represented, which is why it scored pretty high on the matching exercise that Natasha and Becky did some time ago. As much as religious affiliation is a cringe-inducing factor for me, I can’t see myself disqualifying a good institution for that single reason.

Alas, Becky concluded that she did not see anything fantastic on balance, the school showed her “nothing bad”, that’s all. I guess that means that we’ll make a game-time decision whether to apply or not depending on how many we want to limit ourselves to in the end.

College education

College tour impressions: Vassar

September 27th, 2011

The second destination on our college tour was one of just the couple of liberal arts colleges on Becky’s list.

I have a feeling that calling your school a “liberal arts college” these days has to do more with pretense than with a true distinction from a “university”. Yes, engineering is normally not an option to major in, but I know of at least one such college that does offer that “unique” opportunity nowadays (coincidentally, we intend to visit that school as well, even though we could not care less about an engineering degree, no offense to any of my readers holding one). Yes, a graduate school is normally not a division of a liberal arts college, but it obviously makes little difference to a prospective undergrad, even when it is span as “more research opportunities for undergraduates”. Yes, liberal arts colleges are usually smaller and more intimate, but when you talk about a few thousand students, I don’t know if three thousand would feel considerably more intimate than, say, five thousand at an institution calling itself a “university”.

Anyway, with only Ivy League universities as points of reference up to this moment, Vassar did leave a different impression.

The campus is awfully pretty, park-like, enclosing a couple of lakes and streams, with buildings sitting a fair distance away from each other. There is a bit of a jumble of architectural styles, including some later-day designs that I could do without, but overall it is very pleasing.

Some college areas are located in different parts of the surrounding town, but the main campus is an enclosure abutting, rather than integrated with, a picturesque town strip. Poughkeepsie, NY, is a small town, and the feel of the area is fairly rural, although definitely not “in the middle of nowhere”. That impression was helped by the town fair being held on the day of our visit, with a nearby main street closed for vehicular traffic and throngs of people mulling about. The first café that we randomly went in for breakfast did little to dispel that positive impression, too; busy but efficient, good ambiance, good food, a mix of locals and visitors, one of those kinds of eateries that instantly make you feel good about the place you’re in. (And on a completely inconsequential note, the road along the campus leading into the “town centre” has no less than three roundabouts, which for all my erstwhile lamentations about driving in England elicit strangely nostalgic emotions in us nowadays.)

While visual stimulants were overwhelmingly positive, the other components of our visit did ok.

The college offers all of the areas of study that Becky is after, and there is enough of flexibility in program composition to make studies fun (including nearly total absence of required/core studies beyond three freshman requirements, one of which Becky can already easily satisfy without taking any courses – foreign language proficiency). I wish I had such flexibility when I was in college. A smaller school is a smaller school, however, – the number of available classes and majors may sound impressive in the absolute sense, but it loses in comparison with bigger institutions. (It is a bit illogical to say that a 1,000 courses on offer is “lacking” when the degree requires you to select just 35 of them; and yet, given all that flexibility in designing your degree program, somehow the fact that some bigger college offers 2,000 courses makes the lower number seem inadequate…)

Facilities, from what we’ve seen, are satisfactory but hardly outstanding. Given that neither the tour nor the info session, both seriously slanted towards advertisement, focused much on facilities, I conclude that those are not a bragging point for the institution.

Which makes its price tag additionally galling. Vassar costs more than Yale. I have already come to accept the fact that there is no true cost differentiation when it comes to private schools – a couple-of-grand difference above $50K/yr can hardly be considered a significant factor – and I understand the economics well enough to recognize why the education sticker prices are what they are nowadays, but it just feels wrong that the 14th-ranked “national liberal arts college” costs more than the 3rd-ranked “national university”, where the latter clearly offers superior experience and superior opportunities.

Of course, as many other upper-tier schools, Vassar is need-blind or need-neutral or whatever the correct term is. They promise to accept you without any consideration for your ability to pay and then work with you to cover the difference between what you are able to pay and the yearly cost by means of a customized financial aid package. The pitch to low-income families is that if you are accepted, you may not have to pay anything out of pocket, based on the formula for the family contribution that the school uses. The pitch to middle-class prospective students… does not exist really, who knows what their formula is going to say we should pay out of pocket?…

But I digress. Financial considerations will be roughly the same at any school, as merit-based scholarships are giving way to completely need-based financial aid at many institutions around the country.

The girl who led our tour group awed us with her ability to talk while constantly walking backwards, but while she was personable and well-spoken, she very clearly talked from an advertising script and answered every question with an enthusiastic example of how good she was having it at the school that stretched credibility. For instance, she appeared on the very previous night as having gone to a soccer game, a comedy show, a dance with an hour-long wait to get in, and a play. I realize that her goal was to illustrate the variety of stuff to do on campus beyond studying, but she only succeeded in making me alternately admire her ability to be in so many places at once or question whether any, you know, studying was part of her daily schedule at all.

The admission officer who held the info session had a few thoughtful insights interspersed with light comedy, but then quickly deteriorated in my eyes as he started answering questions. Many of those were along the lines of “Can you please talk about such and such program?” and his answer to every single one of them started with “Oh, yes, it is one of our most popular programs. It’s great! Students love it!” I counted close to a dozen “most popular” programs, of which only one or two were on the list of most popular majors that he himself gave the audience at the beginning.

Oh well, if those were the only negative impressions I had from our visit, I must conclude that the place looks rather attractive on balance. Becky liked it, with a qualifier that she liked Yale better. The programs, though, look pretty good, and she could see herself living and studying on a pretty campus such as Vassar’s. I guess we’re applying.

The price tag will be a separate conversation. If she is accepted, of course.

College education

College tour impressions: Yale

September 20th, 2011
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We started our college-touring itinerary aiming pretty high – with the better of the two Ivy League schools on our list. It is arguable whether you want to be comparing up or comparing down later on when you go through such exercise, but I will not strongly defend our choice to designate the best school on the list as the very first visit. Our itinerary just happened to work out the way that, of all the Saturday day-trips in our plans, Yale ended up as the opening act.

Given Becky’s erstwhile lukewarm reaction to Princeton, I was somewhat fearing that she would find another top-notch institution as stuffy and snotty and devoid of vibrancy that she is looking for. My fears proved unfounded. In fact, both her and my standard answer to the question of “Did you like it?” in the couple of days since we visited has been a question in reply – “What’s not to like?”

Beautiful semi-urban setting – the campus feels both well-defined in itself and also well-integrated into a city of reasonably small size. Architecturally pleasing: Important edifices do stand out with only a hint of being pretentious, while general-use buildings cannot be called “nondescript” to any degree.

That Yale academics are beyond comparison with most of schools in the nation is fairly obvious without saying. That academics are supplemented not only by excellent research facilities but also by superb residential accommodations is an attractive point in itself. Each residential college has all essential facilities contained within its own walls – on a rainy Sunday those so inclined could never venture outside and still avail themselves to the full range of study, play, dining and entertainment. Plus, there are plenty of uncommon facilities – say, a recording studio – that are available to all students on campus.

The people we heard on campus served their cause well. The kid who led our tour, for instance, was talkative and engaging and interesting all by himself, and not for a second he gave us an impression that he was working from a script (which he undoubtedly was). Somehow, my mental picture of a young person with a bright future fit that kid perfectly and made it very easy to identify the university with that type of a student. Which is obviously a selling point for a parent who wants his child to have a bright future of her own.

There were a number of things we heard that were real selling points for Becky – the “shopping period” at the start of each semester, during which students can go to any number of classes without having to register for them until they are happy with their choices; the structure of the degree requirements; the availability of studying abroad for a semester or two; the breadth of quality programs in the disciplines Becky is most interested in; the well-established Hillel organization – which we technically either already knew or could have learned through online resources, but hearing them directly from people on campus somehow made them more significant.

All in all, we could not find any single point to put into a “con” column, while the list in “pro” column grew to over a dozen bullets. The university is super-selective, accepting only a small fraction of applicants, but we will not know if we do not apply. Yale seems a no-brainer to apply to, no matter what the chances are.

And come next Saturday, we are off to another institution.

College education

Introduction to touring colleges

September 19th, 2011

When I was a college-bound kid – where I grew up is of significant importance, of course – both the task of applying and the ensuing admission process were comparatively simple exercises. Not easy, just simple.

You’d pick your future profession, for all senses and purposes, and then you’d apply to the only higher education institution in your geographic vicinity that offered a degree in that area (or you could substitute the choice of college that was easier to get in for the choice of future profession). The application consisted of nothing more than a simple “request for admission” supplemented by your High School diploma; no essays, recommendations, standardized test results; no fees either. Applying to more than one prospective institution was technically possible, I suppose, it just wasn’t a common thing to do. Especially, considering that every institution required you to take its own entrance exams in June-July, which would be logistically rather impossible to manage with more than one college in a given summer. You took your entrance exams, and then you’d either make the cut or it’s “better luck next year”…

Yes, there were slight variations to the above: People from other parts of the country did apply to institutions in Moscow or Leningrad, especially since some elite fields of study were not available elsewhere; some disciplines were available at multiple colleges within reach, each with a negligible specific slant; I’m sure there were limited opportunities to attempt to gain admission to a “backup” school if you failed at your first-choice one. But overall, the line was straight: Pick a school, take exams, and make it or fail it.

Years later, on a different continent in a different country, my eldest is applying for college. The arguably objective – if easily corruptible, in the case of oral examinations, – criterion of excelling on entrance exams is replaced here with an opaque and incomprehensible admission decision made by a faceless official who attempts to differentiate my child from scores of others on the basis of essays, recommendations, GPA, SAT, ACT, shmay-see-tee, and whatever personal problems or triumphs that particular official is experiencing on that particular day.

On the considerable upside, there is no need to lock yourself into a specific field of study at the tender age of seventeen. And applying to as many colleges as you want is only limited by how much you can spend on application fees. Which could be a double-edged sword if you don’t know where to stop.

Becky is a smart kid, a very good student with excellent grades and far-above-average test results, but she is nowhere near knowing what she wants to do with her life. She does have favorite disciplines, though, none of which are technical or scientific or even career-specific. So Natasha and her spend a bit of time playing with online college-matching tools and identify a list of a dozen schools that appear a good fit for our high-school senior.

It is not a complicated algorithm. The school needs to be within reasonable driving distance from home – not necessarily within day-trip distance, but no farther than weekend-trip distance. The school needs to have well-established programs in Languages, Arts and History.

And the school campus needs to feel like a good place to call home for the next four years. Whatever that means. It’s an impression thing. Becky tagged along with our good friends last spring on tours to Columbia and Princeton and was not impressed by either. Yes, really.

I am not the one to impose any criteria of my own on my child. I tend to think that an Ivy League education does open additional doors to a graduate, but anything outside of Ivy League is more or less interchangeable. I was accepted to both Ivy League schools that I applied to (as a transfer student, mind you), but chose instead to go to a university ranked towards the bottom of the second hundred on the national scale – and I humbly submit that I did all right for me and my family. So did most of my friends whom I met at school.

With that in mind, I will only insist on a specific school if it is an Ivy League member that Becky gets accepted to. There are two on her list. The rest are top-to-middle-tier Liberal Arts colleges and national universities. I am not going to argue with her that getting a first-hand feel for each place, over and above what we can learn about them online or from respective alumni, is not an important differentiating factor, should she be accepted to multiple places.

Or even not a factor in deciding whether to apply at all. Even with the “common application” that is currently accepted at most colleges nationwide, each school still require a lot of individual attention in completing their application process. With a dozen schools in the mix, it is a lot of somewhat repetitive work. If the school does not feel right when explored first-hand, then cutting it from the list there and then may be a prudent thing to do.

Long introduction nearing conclusion, over the next several weeks, Becky and I are touring a dozen different colleges in Northeast and down to Virginia. I am amped to be able to do some regional travel and have experiences that passed me by when I was a kid. Becky is decidedly more reserved about spending that much time on the road with her old man.

You should be amped as well. I intend to write up my brief impressions of every one of our stops, and surely you’ve been clamoring for my writing lately…

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