Tuesday, April 30, 2013

College Rankings and Value: how to begin a college list

Today is the deadline when most high school seniors who applied to college send in their acceptances.  Of the 20 or so students I worked with this year, helping them with their college lists and essays, all seem to be excited about their final choice.  Their schools of choice range from public universities to liberal arts schools, a women’s college and Ivy League universities.  I believe these students could have been happy with several different possibilities—yet I hope they have all made the best match possible.

How does one decide which school or schools provides not only a good education but also good value?  How important is prestige or rank?  These are questions many high school juniors and their families may be considering as they visit campuses and college fairs and the student begins to narrow his or her list.

Recently, I’ve read a number of articles that address the conundrum of the “best” colleges to apply to or the schools that provide the most “value.”  As Joseph Priesto points out in a column titled, “What does ‘value’ mean to you?” the terms “value” and “best” are subjective and rely on criteria that might be misleading.  For instance looking at the 4-year graduation rate of institutions doesn’t take into account co-op programs or internships that may lengthen the time to graduate but also better prepare students for careers afterwards. 

Also publications that rank colleges and universities such as U.S. News and World Report  serve to feed “status anxiety” as much as create any meaningful comparisons among colleges according to  New York Times columnist Joe Nocera.

For more about evaluating a college or university’s reputation versus its educational benefits check out a recent article in the business section of the Times:

Instead of relying on subjective rankings of “value” or rank, you might start researching your college list by doing a search on Naviance (the college and career platform used by many public high schools).  I also recommend two other reliable, unbiased college search tools:

This is a US government institute that has added important indicators such as financial aid statistics, default rates on student loans and estimated total annual expenses for each school you search.  It’s also a good tool for devising a college list.

This site also contains helpful articles and checklists including  “Financial Aid 101,” and “Applying 101.”

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Spring and Summer College Fairs

If you don’t have time or opportunity to visit college campuses in the next few months—or if you simply can’t visit all those that spark an interest—attending college fairs is an efficient way to learn more about particular schools as well as to meet admissions staff in person.
To benefit from all that fairs have to offer, be sure to do your homework first:
--Find out which colleges and universities are exhibiting at the fair and make a list of those you plan to visit.
--Prioritize your college list when you arrive at the fair to visit the school exhibits in order of greatest to least interest—or you might decide to visit the schools where you are least likely to make a campus visit first.
--Bring specific questions to ask admission representatives.  For tips about asking questions and making the best use of your time at a college fair consult WACAC’s “Faring Well at College Fairs”:
--Take notes while you are there.  If student and parents attend the fair together, you might want to split up and visit different schools.
--Attend any relevant information sessions on financial aid, college athletics, etc.
High schools sponsor their own college fairs, which students should attend if they can, and two organizations NACAC (National Association for College Admissions Counseling) and WACAC (Western Association for College Admissions Counseling, a branch of NACAC) offers seasonal college fairs as well. 

Here are three I highly recommend attending in the San Francisco Bay Area:
1) Thursday, April 18, 2013 WACAC is sponsoring a fair at Mission College in Santa Clara:
2) Saturday, April 20, 2013  from 1:30 – 4:30 pm, NACAC is sponsoring a fair at Concourse Exhibit Center in San Francisco:
3) Looking ahead, Colleges that Change Lives, a consortium of liberal arts colleges from across the U.S., sponsors an information session, followed by a college fair, on Monday, July 29, 2013 in Santa Clara:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Do’s and Don’ts for College Visits

After spending eight days on the road in New England with two teenage daughters, I’ve become smarter about how to do and not do campus tours, and while I’m certainly not an expert, I’d like to pass along some of what the three of us learned from our experience:

--Schedule more than two (preferably only one) college tours/information sessions per day.  You'll soon begin to confuse the different opportunities and programs at all the different schools anyway.  Spacing visits with time in between will help keep your impressions more distinct.
--If you are parent, refrain from asking questions during campus tours or information sessions.  See Do’s below.

--Forget to have fun along the way.  Take a break from colleges to go out and do something else—watch a movie, visit a museum, or just take a walk outside a college campus.

--Research the websites of the colleges you plan to visit before you go.  You’ll find helpful, detailed information about academic programs and extra-curricular opportunities as well as admission requirements and statistics.

--Map out your route and place to park ahead of your visit.  Arrive a half an hour early to allow for getting lost or difficulties parking.  School holidays (spring break) are very busy times on campuses and you need to be prepared for the crowds of other families also visiting colleges.

--If you are a student, come prepared to information sessions or tours with a few specific questions that you can’t answer through perusing college literature.  Ask about programs or majors you are interested in, extra-curricular activities, study abroad, something specific, but not so specific it wouldn’t be relevant to anyone else.

--Observe as much as you can about typical campus life.  Eat in a campus dining hall if possible or attend a class.  Watch students interacting with one another, notice what they wear, how happy or energetic they appear to be; walk into the college library and see who is studying and how.

--Contact a current student for a private tour or conversation.  You may have relatives or colleagues who know students at different schools or the college counselor at your son or daughter’s school may know high school alumni who attend a particular college.

--Record your impressions of each college while they are still fresh in your mind.  Taking notes on a tour isn’t “nerdy”—it will help you decide which schools you really want to put on your short list.

--Keep the whole college search process in perspective.  There are many great colleges out there where you can get a fantastic education and enjoy a rich social life at the same time.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Back to Boston: Tufts and Harvard—Final Stops on College Tour

Full disclosure: my husband Peter is a Tufts alum and a member of the a cappella group the Beezlebubs, so our impressions of Tufts are already biased. . .

We visited Tufts on Good Friday when many Boston area schools were on holiday, so there were a record number of visitors attending the admissions session (over 1500 in one day!) The admissions officer gave a non-traditional presentation, asking the audience to solve engineering problems and emphasizing the many kinds of diversity at the University that help create a lively and inter-disciplinary learning environment.  The underlying message that came across was that Tufts is a place where it’s “cool to be smart”: in other words, intellectual curiosity thrives but students also like to have fun.
Abby, Lily, Sami and Rebecca visiting Tufts
Our tour guide took us around campus highlighting both Tufts’ academic and social advantages such as: a nicely renovated library, great IR major with access to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a suburban campus with easy access to Boston, an “experimental” college where visiting professors and even students teach unusual courses on topics like the physics of race car driving, and a whole host of campus traditions like painting the cannon to announce events.
Tufts' painted cannon
Harvard, only two stops away on the red line of the T, and the most prestigious and selective of all the Ivies, has a very different feel.  Because it’s in the middle of Cambridge, the campus overall is more bustling and busy.  It also feels intense.  We took a “private” tour with my nephew Jonathan who is a sophomore science major.  He explained to us some of Harvard’s quirky history and traditions: Eleanor Elkins, the donor who established Widener library for instance, decreed that ice cream must be served at every campus dining hall for which the library will pay.  Consequently, Jonathan told us, you can even eat ice cream for breakfast at Harvard.  He showed us around the impressive facilities, including the Hogwarts-style freshman dining hall and the freshman dorms in the Yard, the giant science complex, and a new arts building. 
Harvard's freshman dining hall
Jonathan told us about the upper level research he’s doing already as a sophomore and how he enrolled in a course that has nine pre-requisites.  Harvard is clearly not for the faint hearted.  Still, like all the colleges and universities we visited this past week, it’s a place where students can combine a life of rich academic exploration with a rewarding and enjoyable social life.
Jonathan in his dorm room, part of a 5 person suite

Overall, we visited ten campuses in a week’s time, a rather whirwind tour of New England.  I think Lily got a good picture of different types of schools and programs, from large universities to small liberal arts colleges, from urban to rural to suburban.  She will now sort through her impressions and work on creating a short list of schools she will actually apply to.  This will also include schools from California, of course, as well as perhaps some schools she won’t have a chance to visit before applying to—in the northwest and Midwest.

*Answer to the Seven Sisters question:  The Seven Sisters are Barnard, Bryn Mawyr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. All were founded between 1837 and 1889.