Universitas Blog

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

johnsy@universitasph.com
+63 (917) 833-3825


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

johnsy@universitasph.com

+63 (917) 833-3825

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