Universitas Blog

US College Admissions in the News

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A couple of articles about US college admissions made the headlines recently.  I thought I'd bring them up and comment on them.

Best, Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95%

New York Times, April 8. 2014



This article made quite a few waves among the parents of college admission hopefuls here in the Philippines.  One commented on Facebook that he knows some parents who are already prepping their three year old kids' resume.  I can't say that I blame these parents...if they really want to get their kid into one of the ultra selective universities, that may seem to be the right thing to do.  I replied that this was "crazy and ultimately counterproductive".  Admission to these universities don't depend on what the kids do, whether they are three years old or sixteen years old...it is who these kids are.  If they turn out to be resume padding, grade grubbing robots, I can assure you that the admission office will know and they will likely be rejected.  All that money, effort, and time wasted.  My advice for applicants to competitive universities is ... and always will be ... be yourselves.  Find a passion and pursue it.  Love learning for its own sake and let your grades fall from that instead of pushing to get that A no matter what.  I sometimes ask, what happens if you died tomorrow?  What will be said about your life?   Will it be said that you lived your life fully, enjoyed your time in school and pursued your happiness?  Or will your epitaph just say, here lies a young person whose life was aimed at admission to Harvard and died his dream unfulfilled.  I'm not saying, it's bad to want to go to Harvard but it is sort of sad if everything you've done in your short life has been pointed in that direction.

What I hope is that this article will make people think that with these kinds of crazy numbers, it's time to consider alternatives.  For many, it's hard to think that there are alternatives to the big name colleges and universities.  But if you've followed my blog for a while, my message has been that there ARE alternatives.  And not just alternatives but BETTER alternatives to the Ivies and the other names.  How can these no names be better?  Because they may easily fit your personality, learning style, and aspirations better than the big names.  If even one student comes away from this article determined to make a better balanced college list or to make prestige a non (or lesser) factor in his/her decision process then the article would have served its purpose.  Right now, it seems like all it is doing is fanning the "elite" college admission hysteria.  Don't be a part of that.  Don't play that game.

He's all-Ivy — accepted to all 8 Ivy League colleges

USA Today, April 2, 2014.


If the date of the article had been April 1, 2014, it would have been dismissed as an April Fools prank.  But it's no joke.  This kid pulled off the college applicant's dream.  The best I've personally seen is a kid applying from the Philippines who applied to six of the eight Ivies and got into five (plus the other universities he applied to).  My first reaction to the article was Wow!  That's incredible!  But a bit later, while still feeling happy for this kid, I couldn't help but sniff out the odor of something we in the business call "trophy hunting".

Trophy hunting is the practice of some students of applying to some universities simply to see if they can get in.  They collect acceptance letters as trophies.  I have to wonder how carefully Kwasi did his research.  All eight Ivies were a good fit for him?  Somehow, I doubt it.  I think he just sprayed his applications to all the Ivies to see what would happen.  I'm not really sure he thought about it.  Look, I don't know Kwasi, so I'm not in a position to question his motives but I think there's a real lesson for us here.

When I described trophy hunting earlier, did I hit a nerve?  Did I just describe you or perhaps someone you know who is doing the college application process?  Trophy hunting is particularly prevalent in the Philippines.  We like to be sikat.  We apply just so we can brag to our friends we got in, whether it's with US or Philippine universities.  Trophy hunting is something I highly discourage among my clients.  One reason is that it warps the college search process so that instead of looking for best fit, they look for best bragging rights...what's the hardest college to get into so that I can feel really good if I do get in.  Another is that it's a waste of money and time. You apply to Harvard or Cornell just because....just to give it a try to see if you can get in.  You probably don't have a snowball's chance in hell but what will you lose?  Maybe about fifty or seventy dollars, your recommenders' time in writing your letters of recommendation as well as the time of the admission committee.  I am NOT saying that you shouldn't apply if you are genuinely interested in those universities.  But if you have no or little intention of attending that school, then do everyone a favor and do something else with your time.

Comments are welcome below.



I do have to hand it to Kwasi Enin though....he does have a sense of humor about his incredible accomplishment.

Update: May 1, 2014: Kwasi Enin has announced he will attend Yale University http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/wunderkind-kwasi-enin-yale-article-1.1774361

What's So Special About Liberal Arts Schools?

Friday, April 11, 2014

This morning, I got an email from a very bright young woman who is a prospective applicant to US colleges.  She wrote, quite simply, "So what's so special about a liberal arts school?"  I was tempted to write her a long reply but then decided...why not write a blog post about it?

If you've been reading my blog, you know that asking this question is like waving a red cape in front of a raging bull.  I am passionate about liberal arts schools.  I think they're wonderful and if I had my way, EVERYONE would attend liberal arts colleges for their undergraduate work.  Of course, if I REALLY had my way, I'd weigh 50 pounds less and look like Tom Cruise but that's for another blog altogether! :)

First of all, what is a liberal arts college?  Wikipedia defines it as "...college with an emphasis on undergraduate study in the liberal arts and sciences,"  Notice the first part:  emphasis on undergraduate study.  The liberal arts and sciences include topics like literature, history, economics, religion, chemistry, physics, and mathematics.  In other words, the stuff you studied in high school...the stuff that may have bored you stiff.    Okay, now that we know what a liberal arts college is, why is it so special?

They are generally small colleges.  Typically, liberal arts colleges enroll anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand students. It is primarily residential (students live on campus for the most part).  Because it is small and the students live on campus, the student community is more intimate than it would be at a large research university like University of California, Berkeley or Ohio State University.  The faculty - student ratio is quite low and the average class size is about 20 students (compare that to a large research university which have classes that enroll 500 students or more).  Depending on the institution, the faculty can be quite friendly, will know their students personally (try doing that in a class of 500), and can be on a first name basis with their students (he's not Dr. Jones or Professor Smith...he's Bob my math prof and Jane my academic advisor).

They emphasize undergraduate education.  Unlike research universities, liberal arts colleges exist for one reason: to teach undergraduates.  Research universities emphasize creating new knowledge and instructing graduate students.  Undergraduates are there "for tax purposes".  On the other hand, undergraduates are the lifeblood of liberal arts colleges.  Excellence in teaching is recognized...and rewarded...at liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts colleges have few (if any) graduate students and profs turn to undergraduates to collaborate with in their research.  I once met a couple of students from Philippine Science High School who were interested in studying science in the US.  They said that they were keen on doing research and therefore they should go to research oriented universities.  I said they were wrong.  If they wanted maximum research opportunities, they should go to a liberal arts college.

Someone once said that you would be an idiot if you went to Harvard for the teaching.  That's not difficult to believe.  Harvard, Stanford and other universities of their ilk made their reputation on their graduate and professional schools ...law school, business school, medical school, etc.  But their undergraduate colleges are prestigious only from the reflected light of these graduate and professional programs.  I'm not saying that the undergraduate education at the Ivies is bad, they're fine and very solid.  But when it comes to undergraduate education, liberal arts schools run rings around them.

They teach the liberal arts!  Earlier, I mentioned that the liberal arts were those subjects that may have bored you in high school.  But the college experience of the liberal arts is very different from what you may be exposed to in high school.  High school may have bored you because you were required to memorize facts and to do well, you had to regurgitate stuff you remembered into the test...then you quickly forgot them.  In college, they will require a deep understanding of the material...not the whats and the wheres but the why and the so what?  For example, they won't be as interested in hearing about the dates of the various battles of World War II, they're more interested in whether you understand how World War II subsequently shaped the Cold War world and whether you understand how its origins has its roots in societal upheaval that followed the close of the First World War.  Expect to do lots of independent thinking and to write lots and lots of papers.

Another thing that makes liberal arts colleges so special is the way they teach.  Because of their small enrollments, these colleges can do away or minimize the mind numbing lectures in huge amphitheaters.  They teach a lot of their classes seminar style which means you gather around a table and the ideas are discussed around the table.  Everyone contributes, nobody just sits there quietly in one corner scribbling notes (or Facebooking!)  You learn to think on your feet and defend your ideas in front of your classmates.  And you can't cut class!  They'll know you aren't there.  I tried this my senior year in a free elective music class I was taking.  Boy, did I get it when I returned to class the next day!


They teach the skills necessary for any career.  One big concern that students (and parents!) have about majoring in the liberal arts is that they are not "practical" and they don't train for a specific job.  I would agree.  They don't train for any particular job, they prepare you for all jobs.  They prepare you for your career and they prepare you for life.  Liberal arts colleges are especially notorious for requiring students to read critically, to write clearly and to think deeply.  The end result is that you have graduates who have the skills to succeed in any given job.  To train for a particular kind of job while in college is a big mistake.  By the time you graduate...and years down the line, who knows if that job will even be relevant anymore?  In this age of rapid technological change, there will be jobs in the near future that don't even exist today! To succeed in these jobs that don't even exist yet, you'll need to be able to adapt, to be able to think, analyze, read and write.

And they also teach engineering, business, education, nursing, etc.  Well, some of them do.  A few liberal arts colleges will have an undergraduate business or engineering school as well.  But in a liberal arts college, students who study engineering or business will still need to take courses in liberal arts.  Some schools call this a Core Curriculum which means that all students must take a prescribed set of liberal arts courses in certain areas of knowledge regardless of major.  For example, when I was in college at Santa Clara, I was required to take a course in the social sciences (among other courses).  But I could choose to fulfill this class by choosing among offerings in political science, psychology, economics, and sociology/anthropology.  I wound up taking a class on American politics, a class I still think about to this day.

To be fair, not everyone will find a liberal arts college to their liking.  Some will find the small size claustrophobic or they find that they don't fare well in seminar type classes because they are naturally shy or quiet.  But it does work for a lot of people and for those who think they might rather fade into the background at the large classes of a mega university, I would say give yourself a chance and consider giving yourself the gift of REAL LEARNING for four years.

So to that young lady who wrote me the email, this is the (very) long answer to your short but very good question.  Good luck!

Mistakes We Make When Applying to US Colleges (Part Two)

Wednesday, April 09, 2014
Last post, I wrote about mistakes that US college applicants make. I realized that while that post was directed at Philippine applicants, these mistakes are often repeated by students regardless of where they are. Anyway, I plow on.... 

Top heavy college lists. By top heavy, I mean that the college application list is populated mostly by the "top" or "elite" schools. These schools (Harvard, Stanford, the Ivies, Duke, etc.) are extremely selective and students are attracted to them in droves. I know that most of these students apply to these schools thinking they are the best schools (whatever that really means) or that they feel pressure from either family or friends to get into these schools. I've written many times in previous posts why I think the selectivity of these universities doesn't necessarily equate to quality so I won't belabor that point here. Because these schools are so very selective, getting into them is a crapshoot even for the best and brightest. It's a lot of stress and expense only to be rejected (usually) in the end. Not too long ago, I talked to a bright high school senior who was applying to colleges both locally and in the States. I asked him where he was applying to. He said Duke and Penn. That's it. Now *that* ladies and gentlemen is a top heavy college list. I didn't say anything but I suspect I'll be seeing him at UP or Ateneo come June (or August, if UP) All applicants should have a balanced college list populated mostly by colleges that one can confidently project being admitted to. The problem with putting together a list like this is that it requires research. It's so much easier (and so much sexier) to just go by the US News and World Report rankings of US colleges or to go by schools we've heard of when putting together a college list. But not only is this strategy dangerous, it also does a disservice to the applicant. By not doing his research, the applicant isn't exposed to schools that may be an excellent fit for him or her. This segues neatly into my next reason.... 

  Dazzled by the big names. I once met a Filipino Chinese student who had just graduated from Penn. We were both giving a talk at Xavier School about attending college in the States. He was asked what his college search strategy was and how he came to apply to Penn. He replied, "We had one rule in the house. We couldn't apply to any school that my lolo (grandfather) had never heard about." I just about slapped my forehead. So suddenly, lolo is the expert on US colleges, now? I can sort of understand this way of thinking. The Filipino Chinese (especially the Chinese) are very brand conscious. The cars must be Mercedes and the watches have to be Rolex (even if a Toyota gets you to work just as easily and a Seiko tells time too). Therefore, the colleges must be Harvard or Stanford or Wharton (not Penn... Wharton!) It's also understandable when you realize that lolo has probably never heard of colleges like Grinnell, Oberlin, and Occidental and can be forgiven for thinking that these schools are no good. So what's your excuse, applicant? It's your job to go out there and look for your college fit and to look beyond the "usual suspects". Use the resources of the Internet (a surprisingly good source is YouTube. A lot of colleges post videos about themselves) to help you find those ten or so colleges that are a fit for you. Don't ask your lolo or your tita unless they happen to be college counselors themselves. And if they're good counselors, they'll tell you what I'm telling you now: do your research.

Underestimating the importance of the application essay. I hear this so often: I'll write the essay over Christmas break, have my older brother/sister look at it and I'll send it with my application. Clearly, these students grossly underestimate the personal essay. For many, they think they just bang out any old essay that they would write for school and that's it. But an essay written like this will almost always be tearfully boring. The personal essay is an important part of the application. It allows the admission officers to learn about who the applicant is as a person. What makes him tick? What are her passions, her interests? Is he going to be an interesting person in the classroom, the cafeteria, the dorm room? Too often, Filipino applicants think it's all about grades and academics to get in. They think the essay is just a "writing test" to see if you can write decently. It is partly that, but it isn't mostly. When you don't give the personal essay the attention and time it deserves then you don't give the admissions officers a chance to see the interesting person that you are...and when you do that, you put yourself in grave peril of receiving that dreaded "thin envelope" in March.

Overestimating the importance of the SAT. On the other side of the coin, applicants tend to overstress the SAT. I think this comes from two things: one, the idea that college admission is only about grades and test scores and two, it's the only thing that applicants can still change in their application. Their grades are already there so the only thing they can do to ensure an admission to Stanford is high SATs. Reality check: about 70% of all applicants who had PERFECT SAT scores were rejected at Stanford University (https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=66225). The message for us here is clear: a perfect score on the SAT doesn't pave the way to selective universities. Remember that the SAT is only part of your application credentials. Nobody has ever gotten in to any university on strength of SAT scores alone. It is always seen in context with your other academic credentials. The SAT is important, yes, but don't spend all summer studying for it. My advice as far as preparing for the SAT is this: yes, by all means, prepare but do so "moderately". No amount of preparation will help you if your foundation is poor, i.e. if you've been neglecting your math all these years, no amount of preparation will make up for your weak foundation. At best, preparation will make you familiar with the kind of questions these kinds of tests ask. Another thing you should prepare for is the length of the exam. The SAT is almost four hours long. You should take practice tests published by the College Board (the people who write the SAT) under real test conditions, i.e. time yourself and make sure you are not disturbed, take breaks only when the test allows you to, etc. It's much like preparing to run a marathon. You have to run it about five or ten times in training before you run the actual race. These are only some of the mistakes we make when applying to US colleges. I could go on but this post is running long. Comment below if you have any questions.

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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