Universitas Blog

What's A Good School For X?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

As a US college admission counselor, I get that question a lot.  What's a good US school for X where X is usually some academic program like business, engineering (usually), mathematics or music (not so usually).  It's a perfectly good question to ask, especially for students coming from the Philippines where the quality of higher education is very uneven.  But when I think of US schools, it's hard for me to point out particular schools that may be especially strong in particular areas.  Of course, one has the usual suspects:  in business, one thinks of the big names like Penn or NYU; in engineering, Caltech or MIT.  But I usually find myself hesitating to make specific recommendations.

In general, I find that US colleges and universities are fairly academically even across a wide variety of disciplines.  What I mean is that the psychology taught at Coe College in Iowa is on par with the psychology taught at Harvard.  Psychology is psychology, right??  The calculus I learned as an undergraduate at Santa Clara is just as good as had I learned it at MIT.  That said, I am not saying all universities are the same.  I wouldn't send an aspiring actor to Caltech, for example. I find that, by and large, the most important differences in US universities is not academic.  Hence, when one looks at US schools, one is well served by paying close attention on factors outside--while not totally ignoring--academics.

Here is a question I ask a lot of my clients:  why do you want to college in the US?  The reply is usually something like:  I want to get a good job in the States when I graduate preferably on Wall Street or Silicon Valley.  Okay, that's fine.  But notice that the answer is focused on what happens after college as though the four years were somehow a blank, something to go through or endure until you pop out the other end, diploma and job offer (hopefully) in hand.  The question they don't ask themselves is: what do you want to happen during your four years in college?

Most Filipino students I know who are going to college in America don't think much beyond college academics.  After all, that's what they're there for: to study.  Yes, but are you going to study all the time, I ask them.   Your life is going to center around your college for the next four years and that involves much more than just studying.  You're going to be making friends, eating American dorm food (at least for a while), and taking advantage of educational opportunities outside the classroom.  You should pay attention to these too.

One thing a lot of Filipino students don't appreciate is how very different US colleges are from one another.  There are schools that are located in the middle of large cities like NYU, Columbia, UCLA, and Seattle University.  Some are rural like Linfield College in Oregon or the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The academic atmosphere can be wildly different from school to school.  Reed College in Portland is rigorous, steeped in a traditional liberal arts experience and a core curriculum with many seminar style classes while Hampshire College in Massachusetts demands that students create their own academic program in consultation with faculty members.  Others, like Brown University, have few rigid requirements for graduation.  What about the weather?  Philippine universities all have the same two seasons of the year:  hot and hotter.  US schools not so.  They can be located in deserts (University of Arizona) or in areas where it can snow as early as November and you can see all four seasons (Syracuse University).  There are mega universities that enroll upwards of 80,000 students on a single campus (Arizona State University) and a college that enrolls only 26 (Deep Springs College in California)  In short, in choosing a college to attend, what do you like?  Big or small?  Urban?  Rural?  Fraternities and sororities?  Big time college sports?  Any special academic programs on campus which seem attractive to you? Is campus religious life important to you? Something that's always neglected is what the students are like in the school.  Are they cut throat competitive where the only thing that matters to them is their grade and learning is optional?  Or are they more collaborative?  To what extent is true learning a passion among the students? Are these even important to you?  In college parlance, we call all this "fit".  What is your college "fit"?  It should be decided by factors that should include....but not be limited to....academics.

So getting back to the original question:  what is a good school for X?  A lot of people think that to get a good education in X, one must attend a top 10 or otherwise highly ranked program in X.  I would disagree.  For one thing, the student is an undergraduate so how good need the program be?  Unless he's truly gifted in say, mathematics, I'm not sure what incremental advantage an average math student can gain by attending a top 10 program (By the way, who even decides what a top 10 program is?)  And what if our student tires of mathematics after a year or two and wants to switch majors as many college students do?  If our student likes the college he is attending (because he paid to attention to the non-academic factors in looking for his college fit) then he won't have to transfer.

In the movie The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda scoffed at Luke's earnestness to become a Jedi saying that "all his (Luke's) life, he has looked away....to the future...never his mind on where he was, what he was doing."  Don't be so focused on what you want your future to be that you forget to mind the path, to enjoy the path to that future.   Don't sweat looking for that perfect academic program.   You'll make a fine Jedi someday, I promise.

The Company: Should Students Be Giving US College Admission Advice

Sunday, May 10, 2015

     Yesterday, I took a Skype call from a US college consulting firm in Boston. They were looking to link up with me to find SAT training for their Philippine based clients. Now why Philippine based clients were looking so far away for US college consulting advice is probably my fault, I don't market Universitas well enough. But that's another story. The firm itself is rather interesting and makes for a good story by itself.

     The Company (which shall I not name other than just capitalizing the word “company” when I refer to it henceforth) is about three or four years old and was founded by recent Ivy League alumni. The Company claims to have guided about 400 students over the three or so years of its existence and claims a 96% success rate in placing students in their top 3 college choices. What's especially interesting is that the Company supposedly has 100 employees, all students at Ivy League or equivalent universities. They don't hire professional, certified college counselors at all. When I asked about this, the co-founder of the Company (who I took the call from) said that they felt that students had better rapport when working with other students. I further asked about why their employees were all Ivy League students. He replied that these were good students, knowledgeable about college admissions and that they were rigorously trained in the college admission process. Besides, he continued, our results (96% success rate) speak for themselves.

     With the way the Company markets itself, this is what I would call a magic pixie dust company. Its website makes a big deal about its Ivy League pedigree and implies that hey, we're Ivy League students and we've been through this process before and we KNOW what it takes, from our own experience, how to get into these schools. Let us help you (for a very nice fee, of course) and we'll sprinkle fairy dust on your application and we'll get you into Penn too.

     Now I'm sure if the Company founders read this blog post, they would be up in arms saying, “No, we never claim to place students in Ivy League schools. We don't put pixie dust on anything, we're a legitimate college consulting firm.” Okay, let's give them the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure that the fact that all their student counselors are all students at Ivy League or equivalent schools is a complete coincidence.

     My problem with the Company is twofold: one, they are looking to attract students and parents who have tunnel vision when it comes to the Ivy League. It's Ivy or bust for these parents and students. They will pay any sum (and that's the kicker) to ensure that they (or their son or daughter) will get into the Ivy League. Somehow, the parents expect that these companies have some kind of secret knowledge, that they know the secret code or handshake that will open the hallowed halls of Harvard unto themselves. I hate to break it to you but there is no “secret code” to getting in. These people can't give you any advice that is any different from what a reputable college counselor or consultant will give you regarding admission to highly competitive schools. Oh, they'll charge you like they know a secret but they don't. Not really.

     But our results speak for themselves, they declare. Okay, assuming that their claim of a 96% success rate and a 400 student clientele is true (I can't really think of a way to verify these claims by the way), is that what college counseling is about? Getting you or your kids into those few highly selective colleges so that you can come home during the summer sporting a T shirt that loudly proclaims STANFORD, YALE, or UCLA? I don't know about you but that is definitely not the reason why I went into this line of business. As I tell all our clients, I don't get you into colleges—that's actually the student's job. What I bring to the table is knowledge of different kinds of colleges in general, and knowledge and experience with specific colleges to offer you a wide array of options so that YOU may choose what school is best for you. I don't bring alternatives to the Ivy League but choices of excellent institutions where you can decide where you will be happy, where you will thrive, and where you will get the first rate education you deserve for your money. I think companies (and high schools!) that trumpet their success rate in getting kids into particular colleges (especially the highly selectives ones) are doing a disservice. Successful college counseling doesn't mean getting the kid into Harvard or even his or her top 3 choice colleges. It means opening up the students to options and possibilities so that no matter what college the student goes to, the kid can't help but thrive and succeed.

     My second major problem is that the Company is staffed by students. All the advice and guidance is given by students. Think of CAMP (College Admission Mentors in the Philippines) but on steroids. Unlike CAMP, the Company charges money for its services. Now I do agree that current students and recent alumni bring valuable perspective when learning about specific colleges. They know their college (and presumably, those similar to it) and can expound on how wonderful life is there, how much they've learned, how awesome their city is and the endless array of possible internships. But that's exactly the problem. Students know their college really well. But what about other colleges? What about colleges and universities that are outside the experience of that student? CAMP students, just like the Company's student employees, generally attend well known, very selective (and in the case of the Company students, very very selective) colleges. They've heard of Penn, Yale, Amherst, and Swarthmore but what about Evergreen State, Hendrix, St. John's and Berea? I've had CAMP counsellees come to me complaining that “all they (CAMP) talk about is going to Penn” or “they have no idea how to get financial aid since most of them are paying their own way.” Through no fault of their own, students are limited to their own experience, they don't attend conferences, visit colleges, and do professional development activities to broaden and update their knowledge. Students are (and should be) primarily worried about the exam next week and the paper they have due tomorrow.

     While we're on the subject, I spend a lot of my time talking to – and calming down – parents. They get pretty hysterical because they hear from so and so who has a son at Stanford that their kids need to be hitting a 2300 on the SAT to even be considered. Or that they should make sure their child does the “right” extra curricular activities so he'll stand out from his peers when he applies to Berkeley. Or they'll hear how they have to start preparing for the SAT even before the kid starts high school. Stop listening to what your kumadres or the parent of that kid from Stanford is saying. They know less about college admissions than the students, believe me.

     Get your advice from people who are trained, experienced and certified in giving US college admission advice. I've mentioned it before but no one seems to listen. If you have questions or concerns about the process or even to clarify whether something you heard from another parent or student is true, ask us. Make an appointment. It's free!

Thou Shalt Love Thy Safeties: The Story of Jan and Marsha

Monday, February 16, 2015

I haven't written in a long time simply because I ran out of things to write about!  For anyone who's actually following my blog, I apologize.  I'll try to write more often but I just haven't had any ideas.  This will actually be my first post for the year 2015 and we're deep into its tenth week already!

I was suddenly inspired to write by great news from an excited friend.  His daughter was just given a full tuition ride to a fine undergraduate business school.  He was so proud...and he should be!  Congratulations and praises rang down left and right on his Facebook post.  But then he said something I thought was odd.  Not completely unexpected but a bit odd.  He said that they were still waiting on 10 or 11 other universities and was "praying really hard that she gets into one that she really likes."  For convenience, let's call this student "Marsha".  Not her real name, of course.

Flash back in time to about three or four months ago.  I had someone come into my office and she was an academic superstar.  Terrific grades, predicted perfect score of 45 on her IB, absolutely great student.  Her college list was of superstar quality too and was studded with names like Harvard, Northwestern and an early application (or more accurately, a restricted early application) to Princeton (she was later deferred, much to her great consternation).  She came in because she wanted to know if she should apply to safety schools and if I could recommend any to her.  Let's call this student "Jan".

(Jan and Marsha, get it?  Works on both Philippine (John & Marsha) audiences and US (The Brady Bunch) audiences)

I think for both Jan and Marsha (more evident in Jan rather than Marsha actually) they both approached the generation of their college list like so:  they listed the schools they really wanted to go to then as a safety shoved in maybe two or three more names of schools they can easily be admitted to.  This was certainly the case with Jan.  I felt that she wasn't interested in the safeties....she wanted them there just to have them there, because she had to have safeties. With Marsha, the situation is a bit different.  She has three safeties and though she claimed to love them, you could really feel that there was definitely a hierarchy in her list and she would really prefer not to attend any of her safeties (full tuition scholarships notwithstanding).   Though I'm not privy to her full college list (much less her thoughts), I know there are applications to big names like Georgetown and Northwestern in there.  Maybe an Ivy or two for those obligatory reaches.   While it's natural to prefer some schools on your list over others, I can't help but feel that the list is more prestige driven (which is fine) and that she would rather attend a more prestigious institution than a lesser known school.  Again, I don't have access to her thoughts but her safeties just felt a bit tacked on to me.

So why am I bringing up Jan and Marsha?  Well, certainly not because I wanted to criticize their choices or college lists.  They have to do what's right for them and I certainly respect their choices on where to apply.  I think both have come up with good college lists and I feel sure that they will be admitted somewhere...and in Jan's case, she already has one in the bag.  I brought them up because I wanted to bring up how a college list should ideally be put together.

Again, like most kids, Jan and Marsha put together a college want list and (at least in Jan's case) included safeties in the end almost like an afterthought.  I think that's not what is supposed to happen.  Ideally, one's final college list should consist ONLY of schools that one is genuinely ecstatic about and one should genuinely be happy to attend ANY one of them. Of course, it's natural to prefer some schools over others but you should be thrilled to death even if you were accepted to only one (safety) school and all the rest turned you down.  I honestly don't think that's the case for either Jan or Marsha.

Okay, from the list of the schools you really like, you can sort them to see which are reaches, probables, and safeties and everything in between.  Yes, you can have schools which are kind of in between.  Then scrutinize the list.  Ideally, no more than a third or less of your list should be reaches.  What if you have too many reaches (very likely to happen if one is too prestige driven)?   That's a sign that you should continue digging and looking for schools that you REALLY like, are a great fit for, and is more in line with your academic profile.  In the end, you should have a list of about six to eight schools (maximum is ten) all in a spectrum of admission possibilities from reaches to sure things.  Think about it:  if you do your search this way, there is NO WAY you can lose!  You WILL be admitted to a school that you love and who loves you back.  And you can keep the number of colleges you are applying to to a sane figure of six or eight.  

But if you put safeties in as an afterthought, you run this very real risk:  what if you're only admitted to one of your safeties and all the others turn you down?  Then what?  You'll really be down, that's what.  But if you really and truly love your safeties, then who cares where you were admitted to, even if you were only admitted to one?  You love it, right?  Right???

I don't know how the stories of Jan and Marsha will ultimately end.  But I know that they will be happy endings because both girls will surely be admitted somewhere.   I wish they had done their searches a bit differently but I'm sure all will end well.  Congratulations to both of them.

As an epilogue, let me tell you about the college list of someone I know.  His list was generated from a genuine interest in the schools after having visited all but one of them in the summer.  He had six schools.  One was a definite reach (denied), one was a moderate reach (admitted), two were targets or probables (one admit, one deny), one was between a safety and a probable (admitted) and one was a definite safety (admitted).  You can see from this list of six schools that he had a wide variety of admission possibilities and he was admitted to four of his six candidates.  Eventually, he attended the one that was between a safety and a probable...and that one was actually his first choice, not the reach one.  As far as I know, he is really happy where he is.

I was Deferred....Now What?

Monday, December 29, 2014

With US colleges and universities having released their early application admission results, a lot of applicants have either been admitted (happy Christmas), rejected (sad Christmas), or deferred (??? Christmas).  I consulted with a student with a stellar academic record who did an early application to Princeton.  She received a deferral and is now in limbo.  She is pretty down about it.  She's somehow convinced herself that she won't be getting in.  Her question was: Now what?  

What is a deferral anyway?  When you apply early (Early Action, Early Decision, etc.) to a US college, you can either be admitted, rejected or deferred.  When you are deferred, all it means is that the admissions office at the college you applied to cannot, at this early point, make a definitive yes or no regarding your application.  Your application will be reconsidered with the rest of the applicants in the Regular Decision round.  Your admission result will be released in late March along with everyone else's.

What should I do if I am deferred?  My best advice is for you to update your application.  Send in your first semester grades from senior year.  Ideally, they will show a steady upward trend.  Send in new SAT scores if they have improved markedly.  Don't forget extracurricular activities...new projects undertaken, new awards received, etc.  Continue to show genuine interest in the college you were deferred from. You might also want to look more deeply into the other schools in your list.  Prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.  

What you should NOT do is to deluge the admissions office with more letters of recommendation (unless the school specifically asks for them) or a restatement of things you already mentioned in your early decision application.  Yes, we know you are the president of the student council at your school....but what have you done lately?  Also, do NOT assume that a deferral is essentially a rejection.  It isn't.  I know a student who was deferred in 2013 from Harvard when he applied early but was admitted in the Regular Decision round.

Why do schools defer?  Can't they just make a decision right there?  If I'm ultimately rejected in the Regular Decision round, I'd rather know about it now.  I agree.  It is always better to know sooner rather than later.  That said, schools do defer early applicants to the regular decision round.  We just have to live with it.

Schools defer for a lot of reasons.  Some schools defer very few students.  They would very much just rather give a yes or no right away.  Some schools prefer to defer and put off the potential bad news.  A large well regarded state university deferred a lot of its early candidates this year because they oversubscribed their freshman class last year by hundreds of students and they want to make sure it doesn't happen again.

But for most schools, they outright reject early applicants who are clearly not competitive in the application pool.  For schools like Penn or Cornell, these tend to be the students with a B+ to A-average, an IB predicted score in the mid to high 30s and an SAT score hundreds of points below the mean of typically admitted students,.  They will also accept those who are clearly admissible and those with big admission "hooks", i.e. athletes, children of famous, wealthy (generous and potentially generous)  alumni.  It the ones in the middle that are typically deferred.

In any case, I think being deferred has a lot going for it.  It makes the student sit back and wonder if they *really* want to to go the school that deferred them.  Perhaps, the student should take the time and sit back and think about the other schools on their list or to crystallize why exactly they want to attend the school that deferred them to begin with.  If the deferrals make students think more clearly about their college choices, then the deferral might be the best thing that never happened to them.

Ano Kors Mo / What's Your Major

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

My dear friend and colleague, Brian Marana, told this story to an audience.

A bunch of students were filling out application forms for local Philippine colleges in class. Brian noticed something curious:  when they got to the part about choosing what degree program to apply to, some students had no idea.  A lot of them turned to their friends, asked them what program they were applying for and just followed suit!  I realize that some high school students copy off their neighbor's test paper during exams but this is ridiculous. Copying someone else's major?  I had to laugh.

But seriously, choosing a major can be serious business.  But I think a lot of students (and parents) put way too much pressure on themselves to choose just the right major.  A lot of people think that this choice is going to spell life and death for their future job prospects.  I have to disagree.  As my friend Dylan Kirk once said, "A job is a job and an education is an education."

Think back to your college days...or if you are a student, consider an older person who is a college graduate.  Think about what that person is doing for a living now.  Now think about their college major.  Do the two necessarily have anything to do with one another?  The answer here is usually no.  Life being the way it is, people usually finish college then drift off to do their own thing.  Eventually what they end up doing ten or twenty years after graduation has little to do with what they studied in college.

Given that, I normally tell people not to focus primarily on job futures when selecting a major. If you study history, you will not necessarily become a history teacher, a museum curator, or a lawyer (history is popular for prelaw).  You can do almost anything.  You might have to work harder or do some extra training for some (especially technical) jobs but your history degree will not explicitly exclude you from pursuing most career paths.  

All a major really does is frame your college education.  For example, I have a degree in physics.  What this did was it made my college education very technical.  It taught me how to do math well and it developed my scientific thinking ability.  But perhaps more importantly, it taught me not to fear studying anything that may be difficult or technical.  In the mid 90s I found myself having to make a career switch into information technology (IT).  Because of my technical background, it never crossed my mind to think that IT could be difficult.  I was confident in my ability to absorb technical material.

Does this mean that choosing a major is no big deal?  No, I didn't say that.  Because it provides an overall focus and direction in your college education, choosing a college major is a pretty big deal.  Just don't overly worry about this or that major tying you down into this or that career or way of life.  It won't.

So how does one go about choosing a major?  For a very few, it's extremely easy.  These few will have an intense interest in a particular field.  A good example is my son, Tyler.  Since he was in tenth grade, math has been his abiding passion.  When time came for college, it was an easy choice:  it was math or bust.  For me, I became interested in physics as a senior in high school.  Even though I was not the best math student around (and physics requires a LOT of math) I decided I was going to spend four years (and later another two years) studying physics and to do my best to learn the math I needed.    But for most people, there is no abiding passion or sudden interest in this field or not.  Most are unsure or have interests in more than one area.

For these people, I say keep an open mind.  Go into college without a declared major (an option that is not available in the Philippines, unfortunately) and see what's available.  If you attend a large university, be a student in its college of arts and sciences to keep your choices as wide as possible (and yes, even if you think you may be interested in business).  Take the general education classes that your university requires and look around.  Again, keep an open mind.  If you find you really like political science or philosophy then explore a major in that.  Again, don't worry explicitly about your job prospects.

But what if you *are* worried about your job prospects?  Well, that's another thing entirely but something I would advise all students regardless of major (or lack thereof) is to be a fixture in your university's career guidance or placement office.  Make sure to supplement your formal education with practical internships and work experience (paid and unpaid).  More than your actual major, what you learn from working at an internship will determine how successful you are in landing your first job.

So relax.  Don't let the stress of finding "just the right major so I can land that six figure job at Google" ruin a great four years in college.  Choose a major that you are genuinely interested in and attracted to and you will have taken a big step towards securing your college...and future...happiness.

Good luck!


What Do You Tell the Kid Who Has Everything?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I had the pleasure of talking to a very bright young lady recently.  She has an extremely impressive academic record.  She is an IB student with trimester averages right at or just above 40, 2200+ SAT, 800 on the Math II Subject Test and 760 on Chemistry,  and predicted a perfect 45 for IB final grade (teachers wrote a pretty big check for her to cash!)  Good list of extracurricular involvement , capped by the captaincy of her basketball team.  She and her mother came to see me about her college list.  After my recent post about bad college lists, she was worried that hers fell into the same category and was wondering if she needed more safeties and if she did, did I have any to suggest to her.  Her list was thus:  Claremont McKenna, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, NYU, Princeton (applied REA), Penn, USC, Stanford, Northwestern, and Cal Berkeley.  

At first, it seemed top heavy but given her powerful academic credentials, perhaps not.  I turned the whole thing over in my mind.  

Does she need to apply to more safeties?  I replied that it was wrong to think of safeties as just that....safeties.  One applies to a college not just for the purposes of having a safety, but because one is genuinely interested in that college.  When you do your college research, look for schools you LIKE and you would be happy to attend regardless of its perceived prestige or reputation.  Only after you've cut down your list to a manageable number should you consider factors such as reach, target, and safety.  If you have too many reaches and targets, then you need to look further afield but always motivated by this thought:  am I genuinely interested in this school?  Why?  One should never apply to a school simply because it's a safety or because it's really prestigious and I just MIGHT get in.  Apply to a school because you are genuinely interested in it.  And have enough schools that you like so they cover a spectrum of admission possibilities.  

The more I talked to her though, the more I sensed that she had no driving reason to apply to any of the colleges on her list.  When I asked her what was so special about Harvard or Northwestern such that they were on her list, she couldn't really answer.  As I suspected (and as is true with many students), she was applying without being cognizant of anything particularly appealing to those schools except perhaps the name and the reputation of the schools.  I said that she should spend time, sit down and ask herself why she was applying to the schools on her list.  I advised her to do the research and ask herself what she wants out of her four years in college.  In short, do the stuff that she should have done a year ago when she began her college search.

Yes, this kid had everything...the great grades, solid extra curricular activities, and the finances to make it all happen.  But there was little or no purpose to what she was doing.  That's the lesson I want to drive home today.  Regardless of where you are thinking of going to college, in the US, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK or just staying local, the most important thing is be purposeful.  Make sure that all your college applications are purposeful, that they're all there for a reason that's personal and powerful for you.  If you have this, it will be reflected in your application and this can only be beneficial to you.

Go Big or Go Home

Friday, November 07, 2014

I heard something very sad today.

I saw a student's US college list.  He's a 94/100 student with very high SAT scores (2200).  His college list was dotted with names like Stanford (where he is applying early), USC, Yale, Yale NUS, Boston University, Boston College, Duke, Penn, Brown, etc.  As typical of college lists from Filipino students, it was populated by too many "long shot" and "not a prayer" schools.  I can see possible admissions from Boston College and Boston University but I just don't see it from any of the others.

The mother came up and said, "If my son is going to college in the States and I'm going to pay a lot of money, he might as well go to the very best schools.  If not, he might as well as go to college in the Philippines and save the money."

While I'm certainly not in a position to tell the mother how to spend her money and where to send her son to college, what she said made me a bit angry...but mostly sad.  I felt sad for the son.  There's nothing intrinsically wrong with going to college in the Philippines but given the interest in going to school abroad and the fact that the family can finance such an endeavor, it seemed tragic for the child to miss out on such a great experience such as going to college in the US.  Her attitude of "go big or go home" seems to show that ego and prestige are taking over a process which should really be about finding a great educational opportunity for the boy.

So what's wrong with Go Big or Go Home?

1.  The misplaced notion of what BIG is.  For a lot of parents and students, BIG usually means just one thing:  BIG NAME.  If you've been following this blog, you already know what I think of this notion.  But if you haven't, let me spell it out.  BIG NAME does not mean best university.  As a matter of fact, I always say there is no such thing as a best university, only the best university for you.  BIG NAME universities are not necessarily the best places to get a good undergraduate education.  The best places for an undergraduate education are the smaller liberal arts colleges where the focus is on mentoring and teaching undergraduate students.  The BIG NAME universities got BIG because of the prestige of their graduate and professional programs.  For instance, Harvard's Law School, Medical School, and Graduate Business School is world renowned.  But the undergraduate Harvard College (did you even know that the undergraduate division of Harvard University is called Harvard College?) is rarely in the news.  The last time it was in the news was for a cheating scandal a few years ago.  I'm NOT saying that Harvard College is a bad place to go to college.  What I AM saying is that given its extreme selectivity, they can be doing a better job.  And you can do yourself a favor by going to a less competitive college that offers a better undergraduate experience.

2.  It's all about ego and prestige, not education.  Parents and students are loathe to admit it but they like the idea of Stanford (for some reason, this university is incredibly popular among the students I see) not for the quality of its education but for the bragging rights.  Most students love the sight of themselves wearing a sweatshirt or T shirt with STANFORD or UC BERKELEY or YALE emblazoned across the front (for some reason, Penn business students never wear a PENN shirt.  Their shirts always loudly proclaim WHARTON.  Never a more insecure bunch of brand conscious kids, if you ask me.)  Parents also would love the chance to drop the H-bomb (Harvard) when the conversation turns to where their kids are going to college. Ditto the other Ivies (ok, maybe not Dartmouth because they've never heard of it) and Stanford.  But ask the student or parent what's so special about Stanford's method of education or why Harvard is a "good school" and I promise you a lot of blank looks and a few words here and there about how famous or prestigious it is.  

3.  The kid misses out on a potentially great, life changing experience.  I went to the States for college.  I would never ever trade that experience with anything, not for all the money in the world.  My time in college were the best years of my life.  It was quite literally, life changing.  It absolutely changed my outlook on the world. I sent my own son abroad for college. Were it not for the prohibitively expensive fees, I would recommend that all students going to college in the States.  The freedom from parents, the independence and yes, the responsibilities (shop and cooking for oneself, cleaning your kitchen and bathroom) are something you could never ever replicate here in the Philippines.  It's tragic that someone who has the interest and funding to go on such a journey would be foiled by the delusions of grandeur held by the parents and foisted on them by unscrupulous counselors.

4.  The potential for being taken for a ride by unscrupulous counselors is much greater.  Unfortunately, many of my college counseling colleagues in the Philippines are in it solely for the money and would love to have you pay them an enormous sum to give you a list of schools that do nothing but stroke your ego.  At the risk of sounding self serving, Universitas College Counseling is based on the principle of putting student welfare above revenue and honesty over flattery.

So what's the bottom line on Go Big or Go Home?  Either change the idea of BIG or end up almost assuredly of going home.

Anatomy of a BAD College List

Monday, October 06, 2014

Consider this student:  He has a strong B+ average in his first two years of high school.  He is a senior now and is in IB and averaging about a 5 or 6 per course he is taking.  This is about consistent, that's a B or B+ equivalent.  His SAT is 2040.  Though he has strong extracurricular interests, he isn't a particular standout in anything.  He wants to study business in the US. He wants to continue playing golf in college and is also interested in Jesuit colleges.  Size wise, he could go medium to large but not too large.  He needs no financial aid.  Given his solid academic background and the fact that he is full pay, I think he is attractive to a lot of moderately competitive universities.  I sat with him and made out this college list:  Santa Clara University, Purdue University, Marquette University, Loyola Marymount University, Arizona State University, University of Washington.  In the middle of July, he decided to go without my services and I recently found his new college list.  My eyes went wide.

Stanford, Penn, Georgetown, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Southern California, University of Texas, and Santa Clara.

His list is absolutely bananas.  He has virtually no chance at any of those schools except maybe for Santa Clara which I positioned for him as a moderate to long shot school.  I posted his list on a public forum frequented by US college admission counselors and US college admission officers and the verdict was unanimous:  it's a poor, very "top heavy" college list.  The words "ridiculous" , "crazy" and "trippin' hard" were used to describe his college list.

What makes this list especially bad is that I know it was driven by ego or by a lust for the big names.  As I've said over and over on this blog and to anyone who will listen, a big name does not equal a great education.  When making a college list,  you need to include colleges from a spectrum of admission possibilities.  You have to include colleges that you will almost definitely be admitted to, colleges you have a moderate chance of being admitted to, and if you want, colleges that are long shots for you.  Most of your colleges (about 70%) should be in the first two categories.  For the student in question, none of his schools were really in the first two categories.

When people consider their admission chances at a university, they normally look at just the SAT scores and the average grades of the incoming freshmen.  This is a start but it's not nearly enough.  These numbers can be deceptive.  Consider the admission rate too.  Admission rate is what percentage of the applicant pool does the college normally admit.  Stanford and Penn admit less than 10% of their applicants.  Georgetown isn't much better at 12%, Northwestern is at 13%,  The other California schools on his list, UCLA, Berkeley, USC is at about 20%.  The general rule of thumb should always be:  25% or less admission rate should be considered long shot for ALL students regardless of academic background.  Why?  If I'm a strong student, shouldn't my chances be stronger?  Not always true.  The competition for places in these schools is unbelievable.  Berkeley's student GPA average is 3.9/4.0 unweighted (which means no special consideration given for honors, advanced, or IB courses).  In these colleges, it's not unusual for as much as 80 to 85% of the applicants to have precisely these kinds of qualifications but yet only 20% are admitted.  This is why these kinds of schools are long shots...even for well qualified student.  And consider that the student in question isn't even that strong, he's about a 3.3 in this scale.  

Texas is what I would call "sneaky competitive".  The admit rate might not very low and its GPA and SAT profile might be more humble but it's still very competitive for students outside of Texas. By law, the University of Texas must admit students graduating in the top 10% (the number varies year to year) of Texas high schools.  The competition therefore becomes keener for out of state and international students.  University of Michigan is another example of a "sneaky competitive" school.  Santa Clara is less competitive than the others but is still asking for a slightly higher GPA (3.6) than what our hero has (3.3).  It's still a possible but certainly far from a shoo-in.

So how do you find the right school for you?  Seek advice from qualified professionals.  Here in the Philippines there are too many "counselors" who, for a large sum of money, will give you a college list just like the one above to simply massage your ego.  They'll say to the parents (whose egos are the ones they have to massage since they sign the checks) your child can get into these top name schools.  It's also not enough just to look at the numbers and see if you fit.   You want a college that fits you and your personality best and where you will thrive, grow and become the best person you can be.  This might not be at a big name school but who cares?  Talk to a counselor who will tell you the way it is and who is genuinely familiar with a wide range and variety of US colleges and universities. 

Talk to us and get professional, certified, and ethical college counseling.

Student Culture Part II

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In the last blog post, I wrote about something I called student culture and why it was important to include that in your college research.  Quite simply, I defined student culture as what the social, cultural, intellectual environment of a college is.  These factors are normally driven by the students.  Are the students intellectually driven?  More relaxed?  Motivated by grades?  Money and future success?  Is the learning competitive or collaborative?  These issues can make or break your college experience, much more so than the average SAT scores of the incoming freshman class.  While I think this is the most important aspect to consider in looking at prospective colleges, it is also easily the most neglected.  It is neglected because it's probably the most difficult to find reliable information on.

So how do you find information on what the student culture is like at a particular college or university?

1.  Visit the college.  This is probably the single best thing you can do to find your best college fit.  While there, you can get the school's vibe and whether or not it is right for you.  A friend of mine recommends you take the "bench test".  After you have taken the usual tours and information sessions, take the time to simply sit on a bench and look around.  Do you see yourself spending the next four years here? You can sometimes pick up a positive or negative vibe just by looking.  My son and I visited fifteen college campuses in the US and Canada back in 2012.  He decided against Princeton because he felt it was pretentious and trying to be "Cambridge University when it wasn't".  I don't know what made him draw this conclusion but that's what I mean by a vibe.  Columbia seemed fine....good city, good school...until he actually met some undergraduate students.  Immediate thumbs down.

When visiting, do more than just take the tour and look around.  Go and actually talk to some of the students walking by if classes are in session when you are visiting.  Ask them what they like and what they would change about their school.  Pick up a copy of the school newspaper if available and check out what's making headlines at the school.

2.  Email the college.  If distance precludes a visit, the next best thing is to email the college admissions office and see if it can refer you to students who would be happy to help you learn more about the college.  As a matter of fact, if they go so far as to reply to your email and refer you to students, that should tell you something (positive!) about the school.  If you do decide to correspond to students, I would recommend you know a little bit about the college already and ask the student to elaborate on that if he/she can.  Asking a broad question like, "So what's it like going  to this college?" is going to get you a blank stare. Be a bit more specific:  if the idea of playing intramural sports interests you then ask about that.  My son actually wrote to a student at Reed College, a school he was seriously considering.   I'm not sure what the student told him and I'm not sure that if what the student told him had anything to do with his deciding against going there but I'm happy he had some perspective on the colleges he was considering.

3.  YouTube.  For me, YouTube is the most overlooked college research resource out there.  A college often posts videos about itself on line and frequently its students will post "unofficial" videos that may be more frank and honest than anything the admissions office can give you.

So don't simply rely on college guidebooks like Fiske or Princeton Review to tell you everything about a college.  The college reviews on those books all sound the same anyway.  Take your time to find out about what the students are like at your favorite universities.  Remember they will be the ones you'll be living and working with for the next four years...you might as well like them!

Student Culture Part I

Monday, September 08, 2014

 When students do research into a university, they will look primarily at the academic opportunities there.  They look into where it is ranked in US News and World Report and compare that university's rank to other universities the student is considering.  The student will also look at pictures of the dorm, the grassy quads, the ivy buildings and the faces of the happy undergraduates and from that data alone, decide whether or not the university is for him or her.  For the vast majority of students, this is the furthest extent of the research they do.

Unfortunately, this very shallow level of research fails to answer a very fundamental question:  what is it like to go there?  If you think about it, that question is the most important question there is, more important than whether that university offers a top ranked program in your discipline of choice.  Why?  Because you actually have to go, live and study at the university for four years.  You will need to live among the students there.  If the students there are happy-go-lucky party animal types, would you be happy there if you were a more serious student?  Wouldn't you prefer a place where the students are more studious?  

I recently talked to a good friend who is currently a sophomore at a large East Coast university.  I asked him if he was making friends (he has social issues).  I asked him specifically if he was making friends among his American classmates.  He said that the Americans in his school were "all snobs" and therefore his friends were almost all Asians.  Speaking for myself, I find Americans extremely friendly and not snobby at all.  But I'm not familiar with the students at the school he goes to.  So he could be right, although I sincerely doubt that the American students there are *all* snobby.  Ideally, this is something he should have found out before he decided to attend that university.  Granted, it's difficult to determine whether or not the students are snobby from the school website but it does point at something that's important in the college search process: student culture.

Student culture is more than just whether or not the students are friendly or snobby.  It also encompasses other things.  For instance, are the students there motivated primarily by grades or by genuine learning?  Do they stop talking about class as soon as they step away from the classroom or does the conversation continue into the dorms and cafeterias?  These things may turn you on or they may turn you off but it's important that you are at least aware of this prior to signing on the dotted line.  

Student culture also manifests itself in things like a university honor code.  Some colleges and universities have an honor code or honor principle which binds students not to cheat, steal or take undue advantage of other students.  One college that has this principle is the California Institute of Technology or Caltech.  Because of the honor principle, students can self schedule and self proctor their exams.  You take the exam home and it just has to be turned in by a particular day and a particular time.  When you take the exam is completely up to you:  if you do your best work at night, you may choose to take the exam at 10 pm in the comfort of your dorm room in your flannel pajamas.  But the honor code demands that if the professor stipulates that the test is a two hour, closed book exam then the student is honor bound to keep books and notes closed and to start and stop the exam in two hours.  You might say that it's impossible for students not to cheat in that situation.  But not only is it possible, it's the norm at Caltech not to cheat, not to violate the honor code.  Why?  Because it's the students themselves who want to be governed by an honor code.  They don't want to cheat, steal or take undue advantage of other students.  They want to be treated as adults.   At Harvey Mudd College, a top flight undergraduate science and engineering school in California at par with Caltech and MIT,  an honor code is in place.  Students are given keys to ALL buildings on campus, residential and academic.  This allows them to enter academic buildings in the middle of the night to study or to work in the labs in isolation.  They also leave their dorm rooms unlocked and their bicycles and skateboards in the open.  This is also part of the student culture.

At other universities, the opposite is true.  Students are competitive and grade conscious and would stoop to anything to bag an A.  They will intentionally sabotage other students' work in order to get ahead.  In a lot of highly selective universities, this is the prevailing student culture.  The students were all top achievers in high school and now they're all in the same ultra competitive university.  By definition, half of these wonder kids will be below average in their class.  This, for them, is utterly unacceptable!  I can do nothing but the best, they say, and their egos can't handle it when the professors dare imply that they have something to learn.  This, as well, is part of student culture.

There is no right or wrong answer here.  You might prefer the cutthroat competitive atmosphere. For myself, I like an intellectual atmosphere where learning is done for its own sake and grades are de-emphasized as the primary means of student evaluation.  I like it when students and faculty collaborate in learning and are not competitive.  I like it when I can talk to my professors as people in their offices and seek their counsel and guidance about matters both inside and outside academics.

But that's me.  It might not be you.  But regardless, it's imperative to find out.  How to find out?  Stay tuned....

John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines

+63 (917) 833-3825

John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines


+63 (917) 833-3825

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