Monday, January 21, 2013

Trees vs. Bears--Comparing college campus visits. . .

to Stanford and Berkeley. . . .

In the past two weeks Lily and I have taken campus tours at Stanford University and at the University of California at Berkeley (or Cal).  Perhaps it’s unfair or unhelpful to compare a private and a public university, but as Lily is still in the stage of gathering impressions, I thought I’d note a few observations we made about the two schools before our memories are cluttered with several more campus visits we plan to make in the Boston area in late March.  

Stanford and Berkeley actually have a lot in common (besides the Axe that they pass back and forth between Big Games).  Both are located in sunny, mild northern California; they share library resources and attract a diverse and fairly liberal student body.  Both have very selective admissions based on high GPAs and test scores, impressive extra curricular activities, and well written application essays.  Both offer a large selection of majors, undergraduate research opportunities, study abroad programs, Division One and club sports programs, financial aid. . .the list goes on.

But they also differ in important ways.  Lily’s cousin Ruth, a Stanford senior, stresses the flexibility in Stanford’s academic program, which has allowed her to double major in Human Biology and French as well as study overseas in both Paris and Oxford. In contrast, Alice, our tour guide at Berkeley and a senior Medieval History major, stressed how Cal wants all students to graduate in four years, implying more limited options to explore other courses or programs.  Also, Stanford is on a quarter system, which allows students even more choice through more courses but also results in a pretty intense and pressured schedule.  Cal is on semesters like most other public universities and many liberal arts schools.

Another difference is atmosphere. Ruth remarked that Stanford doesn’t really have access to a college town as Palo Alto isn’t very student oriented.  Berkeley, unlike Palo Alto, is a quintessential college town with plenty of student hangouts, shops, tie-dye, and other more questionable paraphernalia.
The main difference overall I believe is SIZE.  UC Berkeley has over 25,000 undergraduate students while Stanford’s undergraduate population is more like 6,000.  The sheer number of students affects everything else: academics and extra-curricular opportunities.  Alice showed us the largest lecture hall at Berkeley—it holds 750 students!  She was quick to assure us that few courses are this large but many of her freshman and sophomore introductory classes enrolled at least a few hundred students with breakout weekly discussion sections led by graduate students.  Stanford has large introductory lecture courses as well, but all freshmen have at least two seminar sized classes and the possibility of taking several more “intro sems” as they’re called, special topic seminars reserved primarily for freshmen and sophomores.

Stanford’s undergraduate research opportunities are also more plentiful and better funded than those at Cal, but Cal does offer research in every one of its many departments, Alice assured us.  Berkeley’s large size also means even more diversity in both student body and in majors and programs offered.
Overall comparing trees and bears seems a lot like comparing apples and oranges—two different kinds of fruit—it depends on one’s preferences which tastes better.  I’m a Stanford alum, so naturally, I must be biased toward my alma mater; nonetheless, I admit being impressed by both schools.  I think undergraduates can receive an excellent education at either.  So which do you prefer—trees or bears?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A few books to help with starting the college search process. . . .

I'll share websites later but I’m still an old-fashioned book lover and I’ve been perusing many different college guides the past several months.  The books below all help with developing an initial “college list.”

College Admission: from Application to Acceptance, Step by Step by Robin Mamlet and Christine Vandevelde. Vandevelde is a well-respected journalist and Mamlet has been Dean of Admissions at Stanford, Swarthmore and Sarah Lawrence.  They have a wealth of information and experience to share.  Throughout the book they also quote college counselors from different high schools, often relying on advice from  Alice Kleeman, the Director of College and Career Counseling at Menlo Atherton.  I recommend starting with Chapter Eight: “Creating an Initial List of Colleges.”

Fiske Guide to Getting Into the Right College by Edward Riske and Bruce Hammond.
This is a classic and it’s both popular and practical in its approach.  Good idea to read through Part I and take Fiske’s “Sizing-Yourself-Up Survey” (the student, not the parent J). 

Campus Visits and College Interviews by Zola Dincin and Norman Schneider
Before you go on campus visits, it’s a good idea to research the college/university first.  Check out Chapter 8, “Surfing and Decoding a College Website.”  It gives good tips on evaluating whether or not a college’s programs and overall emphasis are worth considering. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A few different criteria for making a college list

Rather than rankings here are some other considerations to make when researching colleges. . .

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist recently wrote a column titled “How to Choose a College,” in which he urges students to look beyond well known or “branded” schools and try to reach beyond their “safety zone” to find a place where they can gain new experiences and perspectives.
He recommends a series of additional questions to ask aside from the usual ones:

  • 1.     How many of the college’s students are international?
  • 2.     What percentage of students study abroad?
  • 3.     Why not consider a college in a different geographic location?
  • 4.     If you’re from a suburb, consider an urban or rural setting; if you’re urban why not go rural?
  • 5.     If you don’t know your major field of interest why not consider a college with a core curriculum?

Check out Bruni’s column at:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

College Search and Blog Launch January 2013!

Hello Peninsula Young Writers friends and families,

As the director of Peninsula Young Writers for the past eight years, I've had the privilege of working with so many creative and enthusiastic young writers.  This past year through expanding my writing workshop offerings to include college essay writing I've met more terrific writers.

My own daughter Lily, a camp assistant for several years, and now a high school junior, is now ready to began her own college search.  I plan to use this blog to document her progress and what she and I both learn during the college search as well as an opportunity to share information and tips I come across in my reading and research.  I hope those of you with high school aged children will find this blog informative (and perhaps amusing at times).

Happy Reading!

P.S. Check out the new updated Peninsula Young Writers Website: