Last September 5, I was in Portland, Oregon and was fortunate to be able to visit Reed College. The subject of a previous post on on this blog, I had never stepped foot on campus until that day. I wondered if what I would see would live up to what I had written.
I arrived at the Admission Office a bit early for my 9:30 am information session. I sat and chatted with the friendly receptionist until we (I was joined by two prospective students from California and their parents) were led to the "third largest classroom at Reed" by Crawford Marr, an admissions representative and Reed College Class of 1990. The so-called third largest Reed classroom was on the second floor of Eliot Hall where the Admission Office was located and was not much larger than a typical college classroom which would seat about thirty students. Third largest? Indeed. The large majority of Reed classrooms were seminar rooms which sit ten to twelve students for discussion (not lecture). Crawford didn't bring a laptop with the usual PowerPoint presentation...all he brought were a couple of books which were required reading for freshmen (Gilgamesh and Homer's Odyssey) as well as a few senior theses which he promised he would let us look through but never did. Sitting in the classroom, Crawford expounded on the academic life of Reed. He spoke enthusiastically about Reed's liberal arts tradition, intermixed with its strong math and science programs. He talked about the senior thesis which all students were required to write in order to graduate. Call me crazy but he spoke in almost reverential tones when it came to the thesis. It's what "students come to Reed for..." and "the thesis is a tradition that binds all Reedies past, present, and future together..." That and Humanities 110 (or Hum 110), a class all freshmen take regardless of major. Hum 110 delves into the foundations of Western thought and civilization. Crawford said they used to start with Homer's Iliad but now they go back even further several thousand years to the Epic of Gilgamesh which dates to the dawn of civilization itself with the Sumerians. Hum 110 is taught in lecture but then broken up into discussion sessions with the teaching faculty. It is said that this class teaches Reedies how to read, think, write, and reason like a Reedie. Throughout this time, Crawford spoke with a soft yet passionate voice and it's obvious that he's proud to be a Reedie. He was relieved to see some changes in the college since his time...there are a lot more support services for students. Back in his time, Reed was more of a sink or swim kind of place.[caption id="attachment_1223" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Typical Reed classroom. I took this picture from a distance but you can see how small the classroom is and the predominant form of instruction here is the discussion, not the lecture. Definitely not for the faint of heart is the Reed experience.[/caption] Eventually we had to leave our classroom (a line of patiently waiting students were going to use the room next) and we were handed off to Wendell for the campus tour. Interesting guy, Wendell. Lanky and African American, Wendell is a tall drink of water with his jaunty hat set at a rakish angle. A native of Kansas, he said he originally came to Reed as a political science major but eventually fell in love with--and is now majoring in--Chinese literature. He is a senior. At the end of the tour, I tried my rudimentary Xavier Chinese on him and he gave me a big smile and replied in kind. Wendell spoke about the Honor Principle. He took us to three places on campus and worked those places into his Honor Principle spiel. He first took us to the library and showed us the famed Thesis Tower. Filed by graduating class, the theses of every Reed graduate is bound, preserved and made available here for general perusal. Again, the talk of the thesis and how it was now his turn to write his opus. He said that in the beginning, he was frightened to death of the prospect of having to write a thesis but now after being at Reed for three years or so (he had spent time in China immersing himself in the language and the culture) he is actually looking forward to it. He took us next to the dorms and explained how the Honor Principle extends there too...how one's behavior is not governed by rules in a book but by adhering to an Honor Principle that respects the rights of others. Finally, he took us to the Gray Campus Center, the main hub on campus where the cafeteria is located and where one of the largest private comic book collections is housed. So if you want, you could have your Nicomadean Ethics with a side of Fantastic Four. Wendell said that for a Reedie to come in with an idea to improve life on campus for his or her fellow Reedies and not act upon that idea is acting dishonorably (at least according to Wendell). So if you feel that the Honor Principle is pervasive on campus, you would be right. As a matter of fact, when I stepped out of the Admission Office and looked down, the words "Long Live the Honor Principle!" were carved into the sidewalk concrete. [caption id="attachment_1206" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The famed Reed Canyon which divides the campus into two parts. Every year, students, staff and friends gather for Canyon Day, the annual cleaning of the Canyon.[/caption] By this time, the noon hour was upon me and with the end of the tour, I moseyed over to the cafeteria to sample the culinary delights of this institution and perhaps catch a few of the natives and engage them in conversation. Typical college fare but with vegetarian, halal and vegan options. I sat down with some students, introduced myself and found that my companions were all first year students. Cole was from New York and the two girls he was with (can't remember their names now) were both from California. Interesting tidbit: only 10 to 15% of Reed students are from the states of Oregon and Washington. State with the largest representation? California! What struck me after talking to these freshmen is that in spite of only being in the third day of class, they were really enthused and were really and truly glad they were there. Reed is indeed a small college, the Gray Campus Center is really tiny and doesn't hold a candle to the leviathan student unions of the larger universities I had visited before like UBC or Waterloo. The range of food choice on campus isn't anything to brag about. But you get the impression that students chose to be there and Reed was few people's second or safety choice. They're not sitting there pining and wishing they were at Stanford. Reed is not terribly selective (admission rate is presently about 50%) but is selected. Students come here because they want to be here. [caption id="attachment_1204" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The Hauser Library[/caption] [caption id="attachment_1203" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The Gray Campus Center Quad[/caption]
3. Avoid discussing your romantic or sexual experiences. Remember the goal here is to impress the admissions counselor, not to make him/her uncomfortable. Yes, I did say make the essay personal but not to the extent that the person reading it gets squeamish. Similar topics to avoid: discussing a volatile religious or political issue like same sex marriage especially if you feel particularly strongly about one side or the other. The reader may not agree with you and subconsciously take it against you. Same with talking about topics that imply an elevated social standing: like taking that trip to Europe or volunteering in Thailand. Admissions counselors take a dim view of what they might see as an application from a rich, spoiled, snooty little brat. Oh and drop that idea about writing how you become a level 80 warrior on a video game.[caption id="attachment_1126" align="aligncenter" width="284"] Don't talk about your love life in your college essay. But even if you do, it's still a better love story than Twilight[/caption]
4. Avoid cliche topics like "What I Learned When I Won (or Lost) the Basketball Championship". What's wrong with that bittersweet story of your youth when you sank/missed the winning free throws to win the league championship? Nothing. Except it's everyone's bittersweet story of their youth. You want to stand out in some way and not blend in the background noise of thousands of applicants clamoring to be heard.5. Keep your audience in mind. You are not writing to the Queen of England so avoid stilted or overly formal language. Think of your guidance counselor or English teacher as your audience, i.e. people who are friendly and willing to listen to your story but they're not your kid brother or sister that you can just write any old thing in any old way you want to. [caption id="attachment_1121" align="aligncenter" width="265"] Sound advice.[/caption] 6. Answer the question! Read the prompts carefully and address them directly. An old essay prompt went something like, "Talk about how a certain person or historical figure influenced your life". A lot of essays went on to talk about the applicant's mother or father, a teacher, or Jesus Christ. That's all very nice but if you read carefully, it says to talk about the influence the person had in your life...not the person itself. The colleges are not looking to admit Mom, Dad, your 3rd grade English teacher, or Jesus Christ, they're looking to admit YOU. 7. Finally, don't procrastinate. I know that I discussed this in the previous post but it bears repeating. A good essay is never written...it is re-written. Rewriting and editing takes time and the more of this you do the better the chances your essay will be quite good. Good luck with your essay. Comments (and prospective college essays) welcome.
You've finally completed your Common Application, written your killer application essay (more about this in a future post), gotten your school to forward your transcripts, your teachers have all sent in their recommendations and the College Board has sent your test scores electronically to the colleges you're applying to. Now what? Well, now you wait. If you applied Early Decision (more about this later), you should get a decision before Christmas, if you applied Regular Decision (as most students do) you have to wait till the end of March. But what happens to your application? Who reads it and what do they consider? Finally, is there a way I can get an edge?
When your application is received, a file is opened under your name and your electronic application is printed out (what?? Environmentally unfriendly! Dislike!) and put in a folder along with your transcripts, recommendations, scores, and other assorted paperwork. Depending on whether the university you applied to has a rolling admission policy (rolling what?), your file is either looked at immediately or it will be made to sit gathering dust until the application deadline has passed. Colleges that have a rolling admission policy -- a lot of big state universities like the University of Michigan do this (notable exceptions: California and Washington) and a few less competitive colleges will review your application as soon as it's complete and give you an admission decision after about a month or two. Application strategy hint no. 1: if the university you're interested in has a rolling admission policy, it is a good idea to get your application in as early as possible. Why? Well. think about it. If your application is one of the first through the door, the committee will be considering a decision when they still have thousands of seats in the freshman class to give out. If you come in late in the cycle, there will be much fewer seats left to give out and they become much choosier on who gets those few remaining seats. (interesting tidbit: my son's chosen university, University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, will not say they roll their admissions but they effectively do. Maybe the Canadians call it something else. But he turned in his application early and found out he was admitted just before Christmas. Some of his friends did not get an admissions decision until March or April since they got their papers in late) If your university doesn't roll their admissions, then they will look at your application--along with everyone else's--during the reading period. What is a reading period? It's when the admissions committee members sit down to read all the (thousands) of applications. If you applied Early Decision, then it will be around October and November. If you applied Regular Decision, then it won't be until January.[caption id="attachment_1106" align="aligncenter" width="280"] Applying early decision may increase your chances of being admitted. But remember, early decision comes with strings.[/caption]
Early Decision? What's that? And how's that different from Regular Decision? Really briefly, applying under Early Decision means you want the university to consider your application early and decide before Christmas. Applying Early Decision is easy to do...just check the appropriate box in the Common Application. Sounds great, why doesn't everyone do it that way then? There's a catch (of course). If you apply Early Decision and you are admitted, you MUST attend that school. You can't back out. The only reason acceptable for backing out is insufficient financial aid and as international students, that's not a real issue for us. So for all intents and purposes, as far as international students are concerned, Early Decision is a binding commitment. Because Early Decision is binding, an applicant is allowed to apply Early Decision to only one college and this college is understood to be the student's clear favorite, their choice above all others. Because applying Early Decision is essentially a declaration of love by the student for the college, the admissions people see that as a positive in considering your application, hence the enhanced chance of admission. We'll discuss all this in more detail in a future post.
Reading season for the admissions committee for the regular decision pile starts in late January and ends in mid or late March. The committee must go through thousands of applications, an individual admissions officer is expected to read anywhere from thirty to forty applications per day. It is not unusual for them to bring application files home to read on their kitchen table. So here is application strategy hint #2: given the volume of reading the commitee members have to do, it's not a good idea to give them more. If they only ask for one recommendation, please do so and send ONLY ONE. Don't give in to the temptation that if one is good, three or four must be better. They don't want to hear from Senator So-and-so or Congressman Such-and-such, they're not impressed that your family hobnobs with Philippine politicos. And giving them more than what they ask for leaves them with the unfavorable impression that you don't follow directions well.
In most colleges, at least two, sometimes even three, people will read your application. The first reader is chosen at random among all the members of the committee. The second reader is usually the person in charge of international admissions. This second reader is the person who travels to the Philippines to meet you at a college fair. So application strategy hint #3: make a good impression on the person at the college fair. He/she will be the one reading your application, Make a good first impression: smile, firm handshake, show genuine interest in his/her school without sounding sycophantic (pwera sipsip please). First reader goes through the file and makes coded notes on a workcard summarizing the highlights of the application: not just grade point average, test scores, essay impression, recommendations, etc. but also gender, state (or in our case, country) of origin. Some schools will have readers assign a number from one to nine, or one to five, on perceived qualities such as academic strength, independent thought, leadership potential, etc. Some will compute an average from these numbers. Finally, they make a tentative admission decision: admit, defer (for Early Decision applicants only, it means to defer a final decision to late March), waitlist, or deny. Some schools give admission officers the ability to give a grade of Admit-minus which means yes, we can admit but we have some reservations or Deny-Plus which means we would normally deny admission to this candidate but there are some circumstances worth considering. The second reader, after reading through the same file, can agree or disagree with his/her colleague. If they agree, then the file is passed to the Dean of Admissions who usually just rubber stamps their decision. If there is disagreement, then the file is passed to the committee to be deliberated at large. This pile of students is in admissions limbo, treading water until a final decision is reached. Stanford calls these applicants "swims" because of the treading water metaphor. But at some point at the end of the reading period, the entire admissions committee meet and deliberate each file in the "swim" pile. These deliberation days are especially long starting early in the morning and ending late at night with each file discussed, its merits and demerits debated. These discussions can be passionate, even heated, as an admissions officer will advocate for a particular candidate he/she might feel should be admitted (or not!) Finally, a vote is taken to admit, deny or waitlist the candidate.
The final decisions made, the Dean signs each of the acceptances personally. The rejections usually have a printed signature. The letters are double checked, ascertaining that acceptances are sent to the right people and ONLY the right people. Don't laugh, a few years ago, Vassar College sent acceptances to people who should have gotten rejections. Vassar had to write an embarrassing letter admitting its mistake. As expected, these people did not take the news well. Very messy!
The acceptances are normally packed with housing information and applications, enrollment forms, a formal reply sheet accepting (or rejecting) the offer of admission and some assorted swag. Reed, for instance, sent my son some confetti to throw in celebration; Santa Clara had a poster that declared "SCU Loves Me!" As you can see, the acceptances usually come in large, fat envelopes. Conversely, rejections come in an envelope alone, bereft of anything but the sympathetic words of the admissions office. Along with the mailed acceptances, email is sent out to all candidates to check their applications online or the email itself will have the admission decision on it. Consider the mailed decision the official decision.
As you go through this 2013-2014 college application cycle, may your future be full of fat envelopes and few (if any) thin ones![caption id="attachment_1105" align="aligncenter" width="225"] Picture taken at the Santa Clara University admissions office along with all the acceptance packets for the Class of 2017 prior to mailing. Big, thick, fat envelopes![/caption]
Here's a short video of the admissions process at Brandeis University. It goes through a lot of what I just wrote.
Chicago and of course, Northwestern. Don't get me wrong, they're great places to visit but I think if you go only to big name colleges, you'll miss an important aspect of your college visits: variety.
If there is one thing that the US does well, it's the variety of their colleges and universities. They have tiny ones (enrollment: 26) to huge ones (enrollment: 60,000), technical institutes, art schools, performance schools, liberal arts colleges, co-op institutions, work colleges, and research universities. If you visit only the big or famous schools, you won't see the small Catholic college or that famous liberal arts institution. If you concentrate only on the Ivies, you'll miss out on the plethora of liberal arts colleges that outperform them when it comes to undergraduate education. Ideally, you want to get a flavor of different kinds of schools even if you have no intention of attending them. Well...ok, I guess if you have absolutely no intention of going into performance, you can skip Juilliard or if science, engineering or math fields aren't your cup of tea, forget Caltech. There are many diamonds in the rough out there and sometimes they get overpowered by their famous neighbors. I won't pretend to give you a list of all the places to go in each city but if in[caption id="attachment_1087" align="aligncenter" width="256"] You would be wrong to begin and end your college tour of the Bay Area at Stanford. Look at Menlo, Santa Clara, St. Mary's, etc.[/caption] SAN FRANCISCO Visit Stanford, UC Berkeley and Santa Clara but also: Menlo, St. Mary's and maybe San Jose and San Francisco State [caption id="attachment_1090" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Obama attended Oxy...so you should at least look at it.[/caption] LOS ANGELES Visit UCLA and USC but also: Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, Scripps, Pomona (The Claremont Colleges), Cal Poly Pomona, Occidental, Loyola Marymount, UC Irvine and if you're going further afield-- UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and maybe Cal Poly San Luis Obispo SEATTLE Visit University of Washington but also: Seattle University, Seattle Pacific University, Gonzaga (in Spokane), Evergreen State (in Olympia), Washington State (in Pullman), Whitman (in Walla Walla) and Reed (in Portland, OR) CHICAGO Visit University of Chicago and Northwestern but also Beloit College (Beloit, WI), Knox College (Galesburg), DePaul, Marquette (Milwaukee, WI) and Hope College (Holland, MI) NEW YORK/NEW JERSEY Visit Columbia, New York University, and Princeton but also Fordham, Cooper Union, Rutgers, Vassar, and Marist. PHILADELPHIA Visit University of Pennsylvania but also Swarthmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr(women's college), and Villanova BOSTON Visit Harvard and MIT but also Boston College, Amherst, Hampshire, Wellesley (women's college), Holy Cross, Marlboro College (in Vermont), Bates, Bowdoin, Colby (all in Maine) [caption id="attachment_1088" align="aligncenter" width="300"] President Kennedy once called Boston College the Jesuit Ivy.[/caption] Wow! That's a lot of schools. I am not saying that you should visit all of them but you should try to mix in a few of them and maybe drop a big name or two. I mean....once you've seen a big UC, how many more do you have to see? Once you've seen one Ivy you've seen them all. So take advantage of your summer break and go visit a variety of colleges and since our Philippine summers run during the American spring semester, you'll be able to catch students and catch a class or two. Comments urgently solicited. (Personal anecdote: Tyler and I did our college trip in the summer of 2012. In the space of seven weeks, we visited 15 campuses in the US and Canada: U of British Columbia, Simon Fraser, U of Waterloo, U of Toronto, (McGill got canceled), NYU, Fordham, Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, Harvey Mudd, Caltech, UC Irvine, Stanford, Santa Clara, and UC Berkeley. If you noticed we didn't take our own advice. :) )
John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
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