Universitas Blog

Visiting Colleges

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

One of the most important steps you can take when deciding what college to go to is do a campus visit.  It's a lot like taking a car for a test drive before you buy it.  You take a car for a test drive to see how you feel while behind the wheel.  Does the car feel right? The college visit is a lot like that, you go on campus, you take the tour, you look around, you talk to the students...all to get a feel for the school.  Does it feel right to you?  Sit on a bench and look around at the students milling around.  Do you see yourself among them?

For some reason, Filipinos are not a test driving people.  It's not unusual for us to buy a car simply on the reputation of the brand or the say so of a trusted friend or relative.  I remember when I was in the market for a car here in Manila, I walked into a dealership, asked about a particular model and asked if I could test drive the vehicle.  I got a lot of funny looks from the salesman and eventually I was able to convince him to give me a test drive.  I had to come in the following day with an appointment for the test drive, which was all of about ten or fifteen minutes and the salesman and his manager were with me watching me like a hawk.  Contrast that with my experience in the US.  I once walked into a Mercedes dealership in the States, expressed interest in a Mercedes C Class and the salesman put me in a car, photocopied my license, gave me the keys and told me to have fun.  I drove around for 20 minutes or so and returned the car without so much as batting an eye.

In many ways, Filipinos are that way about colleges.  We don't bother visiting them, even the local universities like UP or Ateneo.   We go by reputation or what a friend or parent says.  We do that for US colleges too....we know precious little about the colleges we are interested in but can't be bothered to make the trip to see them.  We go by name and reputation (Ivy League, Stanford) or what an uncle or aunt who lives there says about a local or regional school.

So why don't we visit colleges?  Some people cite time...no time to visit US colleges especially if the applicant is already a senior. I can understand this a bit.  All the more reason to start the application process early.  If the student had started the application process in the junior year, then there's the summer between junior and senior year to make college visits.  Others cite costs...it costs at least a couple thousand dollars to make the trip.  This reason makes absolutely no sense to me.  If you're ostensibly willing to plunk down anywhere around $250,000 for four years of college (Php 10 million) why wouldn't you spend a few thousand to see if a school is right for you?  You'd be surprised, a school which you may have fallen in love with on paper (or electronically on the Internet) might not hold up as well when you actually see it.  You might actually hate your #1 choice school in the sobering light of day.

]college visit

If you do decide to visit, what should you do?  First of all, make sure to let the college know you are coming.  On the college website, there is usually a link that says "Visiting Us" or something similar which will take you to instructions on how to arrange a college visit.  Normally all that is required is to fill out the online schedule form and that's it!  You show up and there's normally an information session before the actual tour which normally lasts about half an hour to an hour.  You roam around campus with a student tour guide and you can ask questions about life on campus, classes, professors, etc.  Finally you return to the admissions office where you can ask final questions and sometimes, if you've arranged this beforehand, you can be interviewed (hint: if this option is available, TAKE IT!!!)  I would advise people to go beyond the college tour.  When my son and I did our college visits in 2012, we would invariably take the college tour, then get a bite at the college cafeteria or a local place (sample the food) then go visit the math department (he was a prospective math major).  Invariably this told us more about the university than just the canned tour.  Stanford was an impressive school until we visited the math department and got a taste of the students there (no , thank you! Stanford got the thumbs down)  Same with Columbia, the students were a big turn off.  Harvey Mudd was exciting and Santa Clara was very friendly and accommodating to him (thumbs up!  He applied to both places)  Finally, take the time to talk to actual students and faculty.  If they like it here, they'll tell  you...if they don't, they'd love the opportunity to complain.

If you really want to get into it, you can even arrange for overnight visits when you get to stay in the dorms and sit in on classes.  If you can do this, I would strongly recommend it.  No better way to see the every day comings and goings of a particular school than to live among the natives.  

So don't just go by the literature or the website of a particular college to see if it's right for you.  Take the time to go visit the colleges in your college list.  You'd be surprised at what you will find when you go and take the car out for a test drive.

college tours 


Loren Pope (1910-2008)

Monday, July 14, 2014

loren pope


Who?  For most college applicants (US or international), they've never heard of Loren Pope.  But they should.

Yesterday, July 13, would have been his 104th birthday.

If I had to think about one person who propelled me into doing certified, professional, and ethical US college admissions counseling in the Philippines, it would be this man.  I read his book Colleges That Change Lives in 2012 when my son and I were looking at colleges for him to consider.  His write up on Reed College made my eyes go wide...here was a college that fit my son exactly!  Or so I thought.  I was able to convince him to apply and he was admitted but he ultimately chose to go elsewhere.

Pope spent most of his life writing, researching, and consulting about colleges.  He was at one time the education editor of The New York Times.  In 1965, he founded the College Placement Bureau in Washington, DC, one of the very first independent college admission consultancies. He ran his consultancy for over 40 years and wrote and consulted well into his 90s. Personally, I am very proud to be professionally descended from Loren Pope.

 In his book, Loren Pope asserts that college admissions today is motivated by status and prestige and not necessarily by education.  He said that if you focus on the education and not the status, then the apple that is the college admission race falls right on your lap.  Focus on yourself...not the school.  Look for a school that fits you AS YOU ARE and not for a school that you will have to pretzel yourself into some kind of packaged product that you don't even recognize.  If you look away from simple prestige, you will see a universe of first rate colleges that WANT you as you are, imperfect grades and all.  You don't have to fatten up your resume and suck up to your teachers to get the perfect grades to impress some Ivy League college that won't do as much for you than any of the small colleges profiled in his book.  These colleges typically admit more than half of their applicants.  Compare that to uber selective Stanford which admits only 5% of its applicants.  Simple message:  they want you.  Does Stanford?

He was not a fan of the Ivy League.  He said they were all about status and not much else.  He urged his clients (as I do today) to look at the small liberal arts college and tried to steer them away from impersonal, elitist schools...Hampshire College, not Harvard College, Cornell College in Iowa, not Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  I would humbly add Beloit College, not Berkeley or Brown;  St. John's College in Annapolis, not Stanford.

Colleges That Change Lives

His book, Colleges That Change Lives, is #1 on my recommended books to read for prospective applicants and their parents.  If I could, I would buy hundreds of copies of this book and just give them away to all my clients and to all who attend my free high school talks.  If you just read the first 20 pages or so, it will be enough. You will be troubled, then swayed by the power of his words.  He begins the 2006 edition of his book thus:  You don't have to be one of the jittery millions of wannabes anxiously fattening resumes to impress some high-status school that won't do nearly as much for you as one of the catalytic colleges that really wants you.  He continues later: ...you don't have to be an A student to have a better-than-Ivy-college experience that will make you a smarter, better, and more confident and effective person.  These mostly unselective schools--that really want you--have long been proving that they're unparalleled in changing lives. The forty or so schools profiled in his book have paid no fees to be included.  Over the years, Pope has included...and removed....schools that in his sole judgment and expertise, are model institutions that do change student lives.

These are very strong words, so much so that a group of college professionals in the States have started a non-profit organization to continue the mission of Loren Pope.  On their website www.ctcl.org, they explain their purpose.

CTCL is dedicated to the advancement and support of a student-centered college search process. Namely, we work to educate families that the criteria used by most college bound students and their counselors, such as name and prestige, do not acknowledge the importance of understanding an individual student’s needs and how they “fit” with the mission and identity of an individual college community.

I don't know of another book which has spawned an entire organization dedicated to its premise.  CTCL tours the US and the world along with representatives of many of their many colleges spreading their gospel of a student centered college search and the importance of a broad based liberal arts education.  They came to the Philippines in early 2013 and I'm hoping that they will visit again soon.  We all need to hear what they have to say.



The IB: Why Should I Take It and What Happens if I Don't

Friday, July 11, 2014
ten reasons to take ib 

In the last post, I wrote about the IB and described what it was what it entailed. The questions that now come up are: why should I take it and what happens if I don't?

For many students, they will take the IB simply because they are interested (at least preliminarily) in college abroad. And students who don't take it have the perception that doing so is just a waste of time because they have no intentions of going abroad. I think both schools of thought are dead wrong. 

The IB is rigorous and challenging. I think I demonstrated that in my previous post. Ideally, I think one should undertake the IB simply because it is rigorous and challenging regardless of your college plans. IB trains you to modify your way of approaching learning and school from that of a child to that of an adult, and to that of a passionate learner. I think those are more than enough reasons to undertake the IB and will serve you well regardless of where you go to college.

Does the IB help you in your applications to colleges abroad? Undoubtedly, yes! Colleges (especially the more competitive ones) in the US appreciate and look for rigor in your high school curriculum. They like to see students challenge themselves and take the most rigorous classes possible. The IB is definitely that. US colleges universally agree that IB serves as an excellent preparation for the high standards of university level work.

That said, the IB is NOT a requirement for admission even to the most competitive US colleges and universities. It would be nice to have it and it's a boost but it won't disqualify you if you don't have it. If you have the opportunity to take it and you didn't, it does raise a red flag in the mind of many admissions officers. They'll wonder if you tried to take the easier way out in order to pad your grades and avoid getting weaker grades for taking harder classes. Oh..they hate that...don't ever play that game of taking easier classes to get easy A's. The IB is a requirement though if you intend to apply to Canada or the UK. The Brits and Canadians don't really trust the Philippine high school diploma. If you have (or will have) the IB though, then they will look at your qualifications as exceeding that of the Philippine high school graduate, exceeding that of even the regular Canadian or British high school graduate.

For most though, the question is: I go to a high school that does not offer IB. Am I at a competitive disadvantage to kids who did go to a high school with IB and have (or will have) the IB Diploma? Should I have transferred to ISM for high school? The answer is no....you are not at a disadvantage simply because you did not have IB. Why? Because applications are read in context. What does that mean? Reading in context means you are assessed according to your circumstances. If you didn't go to a high school that offered IB, how is that your fault? If you went ahead and did the best you could at your non-IB high school and are developing into a mature, well balanced adult, that will be taken as a positive by admission committees. In other words, it's not your fault and no, you didn't need to have transferred to ISM. You're fine where you are. Bloom where you are planted. 

Another reason to take IB: if you do go abroad, if you get at least a 5 in your HL classes, you can use them to get around certain classes in college. In some institutions, they will grant you credit for SL classes you do well in too. I have a friend whose daughter goes to Boston University and her IB classes got her a year's worth of credit. She will be graduating after only three years. What a savings! The IB is now being recognized as well in more and more Philippine universities. UP, for instance, automatically admits IB Diploma graduates. It also grants university credit. Ateneo, in its shameful ignorance, recognizes IB only as a valid high school program but will not offer automatic admission or any course credit. La Salle is little better.

The IB: What is it?

Friday, July 11, 2014

If you're applying to US colleges from the Philippines, you may have already heard of something called the IB or the International Baccalaureate. In your college research, you will have probably discovered that US colleges love this and something else called AP (that's pretty rare here in the Philippines and we won't talk about it here) Very few high schools in the Philippines offer the IB as part of their curriculum choices (there are only fifteen at last count) but many candidates are curious and want to know what it is (addressed in this post) and how it will affect their applications going forward (addressed in the next post). 

The International Baccalaureate Organization (www.ibo.org) was founded in 1968 in Geneva as a way for students studying outside their home countries to obtain the necessary qualifications to go to college in their home country. Over the years it has expanded to four different programs: the Primary Years Programme, the Middle Years Programme, the Diploma Programme, and the new Career Related Certificate. For the purposes of this post, we will limit our discussion to the Diploma Programme (by the way, this is their spelling, not mine) which covers the high school and is what universities are interested in.

The Diploma Programme (DP) is a two year commitment begun in the junior year of high school (11th grade or High 3), continues onto the senior year (12th grade or High 4) and culminates in final exams after the second year. These exams are administered worldwide by the IBO office in Geneva in May and November. Students here normally take the May administration and yes, if you are doing this you need to return to school in May after you graduate in March to take the exams. You cannot do the DP for only one year...it's two years or nothing and you MUST take the final exams (external assessments they call them) that will cover TWO years of material.

 If your high school offers the IB, it will normally have you leave the regular curriculum stream of your high school and go into the IB stream. The IB curriculum requires that you take six IB classes in each of six distinct areas: language acquisition (a language outside your native language), language and literature (normally English for us), individuals and society (social science, business, psychology), mathematics, science (normally physics, chemistry, and biology for us), and arts (drama, film, dance, music). Students have the option of forgoing arts and picking up a second course in any of the five other areas (usually students pick a second science). Three of the six courses must be taken at "higher level" (HL) and the other three at "standard level" (SL), the choice of which courses to take HL or SL is left up to the student and will normally correspond to the student's interests (or lack thereof) in the various subjects. Each of the courses is marked 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). In addition to the classwork, a DP candidate is required to take a class called Theory of Knowledge (TOK), submit an extended essay (I call it a term paper), and perform Community, Action, and Service (CAS) hours. To get your diploma, you must get at least 24 points (you get the number of points equal to your grade in each of your 6 IB classes and anywhere from 0 to 3 points for CAS, TOK, and your extended essay). The perfect score is 45 points (get all 7s in your six classes and all three points for your CAS, TOK and extended essay).

For example, I have two students who took the IB and here are their course lists and results

 Student A:

 Math HL: 7  Physics HL: 7 Geography HL: 6 
Chinese SL: 5 English SL: 5 Chemistry SL: 6 
CAS/TOK/Extended Essay: 3/3 

 Total Diploma Points: 39 

Note that this student did not take the Arts class and instead substituted it with a second science

Student B:

 Business Management HL: 6 English HL: 6 Visual Arts HL: 4 
Math SL: 5 Physics SL: 5 Chinese SL: 4 
CAS/TOK/Extended Essay: 2/3 

 Total Diploma Points: 32 

 Note that this student did the Arts class and did it at Higher Level. In both cases, the student was awarded the Diploma. Note that in addition to the minimum 24 points, there are other requirements.

IB spongebob

If after reading all that, you decide that the IB must be very hard, then you've come to a fairly accurate conclusion. I say "fairly accurate" because I would say that the IB is rigorous rather than just plain "very difficult". The IB classes require much much more than rote memorization, taking multiple guess exams, and writing the occasional trite essay. It demands depth of understanding and thinking that most high school students (even the very best ones) are not accustomed to. This is where most of the perceived difficulty of IB lies. That said, the IB was not designed solely for the smart, it really was aimed at average students. Given that, the true challenge of IB is time management. It is really easy to become swamped in the myriad requirements, assessments, and preparation required to succeed in the IB. 

The question you must be asking yourself now is: is it all worth it? How will this affect my chances at the most competitive US colleges if my high school does not offer IB? All this and more in our next episode....

Underestimating the College Application Essay

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

In my last blog post, I wrote about how people tended to overemphasize the importance of the SAT in the US college admission process. In this post, I will write about how people tend to underestimate the essay.

My client who excitedly told me about his good performance in the last SAT also forgot to turn in the latest (third) draft of his application essay which I asked for three weeks ago.  To his credit, he said he will turn in his latest essay draft this week.  It's a real pain, this essay thing.  Having to run after drafts from clients is clearly my least favorite thing to do as an independent college counselor.  But I take encouragement in the fact that this young man is already on the third draft of his essay...and it's only July.  Our aim is to have everything done by October so he can apply Early Action to some universities on his list.  So far so good.


For most prospective US college applicants though, the essay hasn't taken shape yet.  They're too busy....studying for the SATs!  Well, actually, with the new academic year just having kicked off here in Manila, they're probably busy with school.  It's an understandable situation...who has time to write the application essay when it isn't really due until late December (for Regular Decision candidates)?  It's easy to put something like that off...sort of like going to see the dentist.  It's something that must be done but is so incredibly unpleasant.  But it is something that must be done and if it needs to be done, it is best that it be done quickly.

How important is the application essay really?  Well, that really depends.  As a general rule, the larger the university the less emphasis is given to the essay.  In these cases, the large applicant pool makes it difficult to give each and every essay the thorough going over it deserves.  Large state universities tend to emphasize grades, high school academic rigor, and test scores more.  But if you start applying to more selective colleges, the essay becomes more and more important.  Consider Stanford:  they receive almost 40,000 applications and admit only about 2200 students.  For the most part, a large majority of of these 40,000 applications are from students with truly impressive academic credentials and extracurricular involvement.   But that's clearly not enough; Stanford turned away 60% of all applicants who had scored a perfect 2400 on the SATs.  So what's left?  You guessed it....the essay.  The essay becomes the one opportunity most candidates have to stand out among their peers.  A great essay will make a candidate stick out like a hot pink jacket in a roomful of blue, black and gray suits.  You want admissions officers to remember you (in a good way) when they're looking through those 40,000 applications.  Even in less competitive but smaller schools like Santa Clara, the essay helps the admissions committee see what kind of person you are and whether or not you would be a good fit for them.  Although the essay by itself will not determine admission or denial (unless the essay is in incredibly bad taste), the essay carries considerable weight in the final outcome.  Most international students compete for slots in these kinds of universities so writing a solid application essay is very important.

So how does one write an essay that will knock the socks off the admissions committee?  Well, a truly good application essay is personal, well written and is in the student's voice.  A good personal essay requires deep thought and reflection and this comes only with....TIME.  You need time to write a good application essay, a lot of it.  Consider this prompt from the Common Application.

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

A lot of candidates will sit and write about the beach or the mountains or their favorite room in their house.  But look again at the prompt.  It doesn't say talk about the place, it says what do you do or experience there and WHY IS IT MEANINGFUL TO YOU?  For this prompt, you need to determine the place you will talk about then connect it to yourself.  You have to write about this in a way that will grab your reader's attention.  You have to convey yourself in the 650 word limit of the application essay.  Not the sort of thing you can do in the last few days of December with the application deadline looming.  So when should you start?  I don't think that the summer before your senior year is too early to begin the reflection process and start writing a first draft.  If you start the entire application process when you start school in June, it's not too late certainly but you'll be more pressed for time.  In the case of the client I cited above, we started working on his essay in March and through the summer.  Again, he is now writing the third draft of his essay.

The take home message in all this is that you must start early.  You must put in the time and reflection needed to write a really good application essay.  You need the time to write and revise, write and revise, write and revise.  This is probably the most important essay that you will have written thus far in your life so you need to make it a good one.  Find a good college counselor to help you through the writing process.

Maybe you should put the SAT review book down and spend that time thinking, reflecting, and writing.

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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