College Profile: Stanford

Stanford logoWhen former California Governor Leland Stanford purchased 650 acres of Rancho San Francisquito real estate, hardly anyone would have guessed that land would eventually grow to 8,000 acres in size and house one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. Since its foundation in Palo Alto, California (1891), Leland Stanford Junior University, or as it is more commonly known Stanford University, has established itself among the giants of higher education, and is arguably the best college on the west coast.

Such prestige is usually accompanied with an equally prestigious atmosphere. Stanford is no exception to this as its campus was designed by famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of New York’s Central Park), who made Stanford one of the most beautiful campuses in the world. As mentioned above, since its founding Stanford’s campus has grown exponentially in size, but they have done so while adhering to Olmsted’s original architecture. A prime example of this would be the ten undergraduate resident halls (dormitories) on campus: Banner, Crothers, Florence Moore, Governor’s Corner, Lagunita Court, Manzanita Park, Roble, Stern, Toyon, and Wilbur. Stanford also offers the option of apartment residency if students wish to deviate from the dorm lifestyle, and has over 31 Greek letter organizations on campus.

Stanford Loves You!
Stanford Loves You!

The campus life at Stanford can only be described as unique, with several activities and events that make Stanford a very desirable place for prospective students. If students decide to live in the dorms, they partake in what is known as “Screw Your Roommate,” an event where students set their roommates up on a blind date with a random person. Now, although this may sound pretty scary, students usually try their best NOT to make the person they live with go through a terrible experience, so they usually pick some pretty cool people. Then there’s “Full Moon on the Quad,” which originally consisted of the seniors at Stanford finding a freshman to give a Rose and a kiss on the cheek to at midnight on a given night. Nowadays, it’s a full-out party, with live music, fun people, and lots of Listerine. Not enough for you? No problem! Have you ever heard of “Fountain Hopping”? If you haven’t, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Students gallivant around campus to dip and dive (maybe not dive; the water’s quite shallow) into their favorite fountains during post finals week. But maybe you want to do something a little more relaxed or intellectual. Look no further than the “Faculty Dinner,” an event where your dorm or dining hall sponsors one esteemed faculty member to eat and converse with you and your peers. Then there are the football games, where Stanford’s esteemed marching band, or as they refer to themselves “The World’s Largest Rock & Roll Band,” takes the field at half time, and quite often risks being banned from the schools they visit (learn more about their shenanigans here). But that’s not to say these kids don’t study, and the “Primal Scream” is proof of that. Every midnight during Dead Week, Stanford students open their windows, and fill the night air with the vocal frustration that only accompanies the aspiring undergraduate.

Stanford’s academic structure is based off of three separate schools: The School of Humanities and Sciences (27 departments), The School of Engineering (9 departments), and The School of Earth Sciences (4 departments). Among top disciplines, Stanford’s Political Science program includes such noteworthy faculty as Condolezza Rice (Former U.S. Secretary of State) and Michael McFaul (Former U.S. Russian Ambassador), resulting in a #2 ranking among undergraduate political science majors. Their Mathematics program is currently ranked 6th in the world, and their undergraduate psychology program was recently ranked #1 by Stanford’s Engineering School consistently ranks in the top five, and currently sits in the #2 spot of undergraduate engineering programs behind MIT.

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Out of the students admitted into Stanford, the average SAT score ranged from 2010 to 2300. This means that, in order to be accepted, a student would most likely need to land a 660-760 on Critical Reading, 680-780 on Math, and 670-760 on Writing. In addition, 87% of Stanford’s incoming freshman class grade point averages anywhere from a 3.75 to 4.00 GPA (on the 4.0 scale) in high school. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder that Stanford listed a 6.6% acceptance rate in 2012.

Furthermore, with such prestige comes a high price as well. In 2013, Stanford was listed as one of the most expensive schools in the country, with a tuition bill of $43,245 per student (and that doesn’t even include the $13,166 room and board bill!). But, with an endowment of over $18 billion, 51.1% of full-time students receiving some kind of financial aid, and 49.7% receiving Scholarship or Grant aid, it goes without saying that paying for a Stanford education is quite feasible.

For more info about the Stanford University, feel free to visit their website online. For more college profiles, keep visiting College Compass by Test Masters!

Stanford Fun Fact:

The school logo, which contains a tree with the cardinal “S,” is a tribute to the Redwood-rich land surrounding the small California town of Palo Alto. In fact, the name Palo Alto actually translates into, “Tall Tree,” taken after a giant California Redwood on the bank of San Francisquito Creek.

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College Visits 101 – Talking to Professors

Nothing like a nice stroll through Harvard yard, right?
Nothing like a nice stroll through Harvard yard, right?

So, you’ve scoured a college’s website, gone to the info session, and taken the guided campus tour. And yet, you still have unanswered questions. Which departments are the best? Who can answer technical questions about a specific major? How are you going to find out the truth about this university? Well, you might try talking to some professors.

There are a number of reasons you might want to try to meet with professors when visiting a college. Unlike admissions officials, they are actually experts in a particular field, and they can tell you about the particulars of a specific major or program, as well as about special opportunities available to undergraduate students. Also, while it is unlikely that they would say bad things about their institution, they do tend to be less sales-y than admissions officers, and they generally try to give honest answers to your questions. Also, they could be your future teachers, so you might want to see if they’re crazy or not. And that’s one of the interesting things about meeting with professors – they are interviewing you, of course, but you’re also interviewing them.

Of course, there's the good kind of crazy as well as the bad kind of crazy.
Of course, there’s the good kind of crazy as well as the bad kind of crazy.

You should decide which professors to contact primarily based on what majors you are interested in pursuing. It’s okay if you’re not sure what you want to study yet, just make sure that you’ll be able to show some genuine interest and enthusiasm when you meet with professors. Also, you should know something about the subject. You don’t have to be an expert, obviously, but it should be something that you did well in at school and/or read about for fun on your own.

Once you figure out which departments you want to try to meet with, go to the department website. There, you should be able to find emails for all of the faculty members in the department. Pick a few of the most senior ones (or ones whose specialties interest you) and send them a friendly email requesting a meeting. It might go something like this:

Dear Professor [insert name],

I am a prospective student interested in studying at [insert university]. I am very interested in [insert subject], and if possible I would very much like to meet with you or one of your colleagues in order to learn more about your undergraduate program. I am planning to visit [insert university] on [insert dates when you will visit]. Would it be possible to arrange a meeting during this time? If not, could you recommend me to one of your colleagues who is available? Thank you for your time and consideration.


[your name here]

With any luck, at least one of them will respond. Do NOT send emails to everyone in the department. Limit these inquiries to two or three max. If you don’t hear back from anyone, don’t worry. It’s generally okay to just drop by the department when you’re visiting the campus and see if anyone is free to meet with you that day. Chances are they will at least have an adviser or someone who can talk to you.

On the day of your visit, make sure you dress nicely (a button-down shirt and slacks are generally appropriate) and are on time if you have set up a meeting in advance (in fact, try to be 10 minutes early). Make sure you have a map of the campus and know where to go. Also, be prepared to answer a few questions:

  1. Why do you want to go to this college?
  2. How did you become interested in this subject?
  3. What sorts of career paths are you considering?
  4. What academic courses/extracurricular activities/independent study have you done related to this field?

Professors probably aren’t going to grill you with a bunch of questions – it’s not their job – but these sorts of things are likely to come up in conversation, and you should have well-thought-out things to say on each of these topics. You want to come across as thoughtful, confident, mature, and well-spoken. If you can do that, you will probably impress the professor.

There will be plenty of time for stress later.
There will be plenty of time for stress later.

This should not be an especially stressful experience. Professors generally don’t make admissions decisions, so you aren’t under a lot of pressure. If you’re feeling nervous, it’s perfectly okay to have a parent go with you when you meet with a professor. Chances are your parents will be touring the campus with you anyway, and they might have questions of their own for a professor. Having a parent with you at the meeting will not reflect badly on you in any way; in fact, it might help break the ice, especially if your parent studied the same field that the professor teaches.

Do make sure to always be polite and do try to make a good impression, though – if the professor thinks you’re great, he or she just might say something to the admissions department (and if you are rude, that could also have consequences). Hopefully, the two of you will just have a friendly chat and be able to geek out a bit about whatever subject it is that you’re interested in.

Of course, you aren’t just there to chat. You’ve got questions that need answering! Some good questions to ask professors might include:

  1. What makes this department special/better/different than other [insert major] departments?
  2. Do students have opportunities to do research/publish?
  3. What does a typical course of study look like? What are the major/minor requirements?
  4. Does this department have any special relationships/collaboration with other near by institutions?
  5. Are there any special or unusual opportunities for students in this department? How often are students actually able to take advantage of these opportunities?
  6. What different tracks can students follow within the department?
  7. Where do undergraduates in this department end up after graduation? What graduate schools do they get into? What companies do they work for?
  8. Is it possible to go here for graduate school as well as for college? Are there any programs that allow you to earn your bachelor’s and master’s in five years? How many students per year participate in these programs?
  9. What career paths could this major lead to? What industries have a demand for students of this field?
  10. Is it possible to double major if I want to major in this department?
  11. Is it possible to study abroad if I major in this department?
  12. How can one earn departmental honors from this department?
  13. What undergraduate classes do you teach?
  14. What is the typical class size? What role do Teaching Assistants play in undergraduate education?
  15. How large is the department? How many undergraduate students typically major in this department each year? How many graduate students are currently in this department?
  16. What is the focus of your own research (make sure you look very interested when they tell you)? What topics do your colleagues research? Does the department as a whole have strengths in a particular area of this field or subscribe to a particular point of view within the field?
  17. Could I visit or could you show me around the building/labs/departmental library/campus museum/etc.?

Asking good questions like these will be sure to impress them. Also, do as much research as you can before you show up. Read over the information on the department’s website, and peruse the current course listings to see what kinds of classes they offer (course listings are usually available on the department’s website). Doing your homework might help you come up with other, more specific questions about the department.

Always note that whenever someone tells you about an amazing program or opportunity, always ask how many students per year actually take advantage of it. It may sound great on paper, but in reality there may be only one in a hundred students who gets to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities. Not to say that you couldn’t be that one in a hundred, but it’s important to take realities like this into consideration when making your decision about where to go.

Do any of the professors bear a resemblance to Harrison Ford?
Do any of the professors bear a resemblance to Harrison Ford?

Be aware that your conversation is only one way to learn about the department: you are there just as much to observe as to talk. Is the department’s building run-down and shabby or nice and well-kept? Are the laboratories and research facilities new and shiny or do they look like relics from the Cold War? Do the students and faculty in the halls look miserable or happy? Are the people with whom you interact friendly or snobby? Are the professors with whom you speak clear and precise or vague and hard to understand? Do they seem pedantic and ideological or nuanced and open-minded? If you aren’t careful, you could end up working in a genetics lab where you spend hours watching videos of mutated fruit flies attempting and failing to copulate (true story).

Some departments may be friendlier than others. When I was visiting colleges, the Geology professors were always the nicest; on the other hand, there were a few Music departments that didn’t seem to have time for me (obviously, I should have majored in Geology). However, be aware of the timing of your visit. If you show up during finals, don’t be surprised if the professors seem harried and the students look like zombies. Also, always be aware that one bad experience (or one good experience) doesn’t necessarily reflect on the department or university as a whole.

That said, meeting with professors can be extremely helpful and informative when deciding where to go for college and what to major in as well. Most students won’t think to do this, but always remember: just because most people don’t do something doesn’t mean you can’t, and it never hurts to try. If you meet with professors, you will be ahead of the curve when it comes to selecting a college and a major.

Of course, there are still other questions you probably have…questions only a real, live college student could answer. Check back soon for part three of College Visits 101: Talking to College Students.

University of Houston – Accelerated MD Program

University of Houston
The University of Houston

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston has partnered with The University of Texas Medical branch at Galveston and the University of Houston to admit select UH undergraduate students to an accelerated BS/MD program designed to help students earn their Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) in seven years rather than eight. This represents an impressive and significant step forward for the University of Houston, who in addition to debuting this accelerated MD program was also recently named a Tier One research university by the Carnegie Foundation.

Starting Fall 2013, 10 talented undergraduate students were handpicked to enter this intensive premed program. These students will spend three years as undergraduates at the University of Houston while working towards their Bachelor of Science degree. The curriculum for this accelerated program will include a heavy emphasis on math and science, with most classes existing under the umbrella of the University of Houston Honors Program; this course will also feature “a two-semester capstone honors course called The Human Situation, which will provide an open conversation about the most important issues for human beings.” The inclusion of The Human Situation honors course into this accelerated BS/MD program reflects the growing importance medical schools have placed on applicants being capable of understanding the ethical and moral dilemmas that modern doctors must deal with in the workplace.

The University of Houston has made two other rather impressive strides over the past two years. UH has finally achieved recognition as a Tier One research university, becoming one of only three public universities in Texas (along with the University of Texas and Texas A&M University) to be recognized by the Carnegie Foundation, “a nationally recognized policy and research center that systematically evaluates and classifies colleges and universities based on empirical data,” for having a staff engaged in a high level of research activity. Perhaps even more significantly, along with this very special accommodation, the University of Houston raised more than $100 million through private donations in 2011-2012.

If you or someone you know might be interested in this accelerated MD program, we encourage you to contact the UH Honors College.

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What Universities Have the Best Teachers?

Do you want a professor like this?

What makes a university “the best” university in the country? Oftentimes students trying to decide where to go for college go straight to U. S. News and World Report’s list of best universities without questioning the methods USNWR uses to rank universities. Interestingly, USNWR releases not just one list, but many: Best Liberal Arts Colleges, Best Public Universities, Best Universities by Region, Best Engineering Schools, Best Business Schools, and even… Best Undergraduate Teaching?

Surely your future professors’ teaching abilities should be an important factor in determining where you go to college. Surely this list is mostly the same as the list of top universities. Well, actually yes and no. Compare USNWR’s top ten schools with USNWR’s top ten best schools for undergraduate teaching:

Rank Best National Universities Best Undergraduate Teaching
1 Princeton Dartmouth
2 Harvard Princeton
3 Yale College of William and Mary
4 Columbia Miami University – Oxford
5 Stanford, University of Chicago Yale
6 University of Maryland, Baltimore County
7 Duke, MIT, University of Pennsylvania Duke
8 University of California, Berkley
9 Brown
10 California Institute of Technology, Dartmouth Stanford

Five of them are the same, but five of them are not. Notably, Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago, MIT, UPenn, and Caltech are absent from the best undergrad teaching list. Interestingly, in the best national universities list, Brown comes in 14th, Berkley 20th, William and Mary 32nd, Miami 75th, and University of Maryland all the way at 158th. How can a university go from being 158th best to being 6th best?

Or like this?

It all comes down to how they calculate the rankings. The list of best national universities is created using a complicated formula that gives weight to things like the high school class ranks of admitted students, SAT scores of admitted students, reputation among academics, financial resources, acceptance rate, graduation rate, etc. If you want the details, USNWR offers a six page explanation here. Interestingly, the quality of undergraduate teaching is not factored into the creation of this list. Apparently it’s not that important.

But now that we’re on the subject, how did they measure the quality of undergraduate teaching? Did they sit in on some classes to see if the professors were crazy or not? No, of course not! The best teaching list was calculated based on surveys given to university administrators. Apparently, the administrators were asked to nominate and rank schools they felt had an unusual “commitment to undergraduate teaching.” You can find a full explanation here.

Compare USNWR’s list to the list compiled by

Rank USNWR: Best National Universities USNWR: Best Undergraduate Teaching Rate My Professors: Best Universities
1 Princeton Dartmouth Duke
2 Harvard Princeton Vanderbilt
3 Yale College of William and Mary Pennsylvania State University
4 Columbia Miami University – Oxford Stanford
5 Stanford, University of Chicago Yale University of Wisconsin – Madison
6 University of Maryland, Baltimore County University of Georgia
7 Duke, MIT, University of Pennsylvania Duke Washington University in St. Louis
8 University of California, Berkley Rollins College
9 Brown Texas A&M – College Station
10 California Institute of Technology, Dartmouth Stanford University of Michigan

There are only two universities that made it onto all three lists: Duke and Stanford. Perhaps that means something; then again, given the inconsistency, perhaps it doesn’t. How did Rate My Professors create their list? By combining students’ ratings of professors with students’ ratings of their happiness at their universities. This might sound more reasonable, except that it obviously favors easier classes and grade inflation, since students are more likely to rate a professor highly if they make an A easily than if they have to struggle just to pass. After all, is the best university the one that makes you feel the best or the one that teaches you the most? For a more detailed explanation of how Rate My Professors created their list, see here.

This was not what I wanted to hear.
This was not what I wanted to hear.

So, what’s a beleaguered college bound student to do? These lists can be helpful as a starting place in terms of getting ideas, but the best way to find out if a college has good teachers is to visit. When you actually visit a college, you can talk with students who are majoring in fields that interest you and ask them about their experiences. Oftentimes, you can even meet with the professors themselves or even sit in on a class or two. The moral of the story is that there’s no substitute for first hand experience, and that you should take lists of college rankings with a grain of salt. Always remember to think for yourself, and best of luck!

College Profile : New York University (NYU)

New York UniversityHow would you like to be among the company of Ross Geller, Blair Waldorf, and Theo Huxtable? How about Aziz Ansari, Martin Scorsese, and Angelina Jolie? Impressed yet? All these people went to New York University.

In 1830, a gathering of over 100 delegates from the landed classes was convened in New York City Hall by Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin. The product was a charter for the University of the City of New York, issued in 1831, later to be renamed New York University in 1896. The University was to be an institution dedicated to educating all students, regardless of religion and class. It was modeled after the University of London and designed to provide students with a practical education in the sciences and industry beyond the study of the Classics of Rome and Greece.

Last year almost 41,000 students applied for admission at New York University, but only 13,208 were accepted, giving this school an acceptance rate of only 32%. Competition is stiff, with median SAT scores of 1900-2190 and median ACT scores of 29-32. Students on the lower end of these median scores shouldn’t worry too much though, NYU’s admission process includes a holistic review of each student’s application. This means that the university evaluates every part of a student’s application; those with lower scores or grades still have a chance of attending NYU if the admissions committee decides that student would positively contribute to the mix of talent at the university.

New York University enjoys a storied history; this school has turned out 5 MacArthur Fellows, 16 Pulitzer Prize winners, 30 Academy Award winners, and 36 Nobel laureates. Among the Nobel laureates are figures like Friedrich Hayek, founder of the Austrian School of economics. On the less serious side, the Tisch School of Arts has graduated many famous celebrities like Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Spike Lee, and Adam Sandler.

Ready to go? There’s just one more thing: finances. Tuition at NYU is $44,845, which is lower than many other top-tier universities, but after adding on room and board and book fees, the total cost comes out to be around $64,000. Add on the fact that New York City has one of the highest cost of living in the world, and all of a sudden, going to NYU is not as attractive as it was. However, financial aid is available. The average amount of aid for entering freshmen is $31,876, with the University giving out an average of $223 million each year. That amount of aid means that the University usually contributes around half of the total cost of attendance.

NYU apartments
So long as you don’t think about how much it costs per semester, it might be cool to live in a retro-fitted hotel/NYU dorm.

We all know that there’s more to college than just academics. One of the most important considerations most high school students make when applying to college is location; where will you be spending the next 4 to 5 years of your life? Located in the middle of the city, NYU is surrounded by the City That Never Sleeps, and, therefore, offers more than enough distraction for any student looking for it. There is a gender imbalance though, but probably not what you were thinking: a full 60% of the student body is female. The 21 residence halls, usually converted hotels and apartments, are centered around either Washington Square in Greenwich Village or Union Square a couple blocks down. Times Square is 2 miles away, and Central Park is 3 miles away, so at NYU, you’re never far from entertainment. With New York City’s public transport system and endless supply of taxis, nothing in Manhattan is ever more than an hour away, whether it be groceries from local bodegas or tourist attractions, like the Statue of Liberty or the Unisphere in Queens.

In addition to its main Greenwich Village campus, NYU has also opened campuses in Abu Dhabi with a Shanghai campus to open in 2013. Admission rates to the Abu Dhabi campus may be the lowest in the world: in 2012, 15,489 students applied for around 150 places. That gives NYUAD an acceptance rate of 0.9%. Compare that to Harvard’s 6.3%, Columbia’s 7%, and MIT’s 9.7%. The Shanghai campus will open its doors to its first class in the fall of 2013, with 300 undergraduate students, around half of whom will come from the US and half from China.

New York University offers its students a world class education in the most populous city in the United States. With an unrivaled tourist and entertainment industry, New York (aka “The City that Never Sleeps” aka “The Center of the Universe” aka “The Big Apple” aka “The Capital of the World”) may be the most exciting city on the planet, and attending this university could offer undergraduates an unparalleled opportunity to excel; you know what Ol’ Blue Eyes said, “If you I can make it there / I can make it anywhere.”

By Ridge Liu

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College Profile : Yale University

Yale UniversitySimply put, Yale University is one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the country, perhaps even in the world. Founded in 1701 in the Colony of Connecticut, Yale was originally established to train clergymen for the colony and known as the “Collegiate School for Publick Employment in Both Church & Civil State.” Today, more than three centuries later, Yale has not only produced outstanding clergymen (see Jonathan Edwards), but also 49 Nobel Laureates, 5 U.S. Presidents, and 19 U.S. Supreme Court Justices. Yale provides is known for its excellent liberal arts education and bears upon its crest the motto “Lux et Veritas” (Light and Truth in English).

Prospective undergraduate students can look forward to a variety of extracurricular activities, including societies such as Phi Beta Kappa, 35 varsity athletic teams (although Yale isn’t exactly known for its athletic prowess), and student clubs, which include an a cappella group called the Whiffenpoofs, the oldest such group in the world. The Whiffenpoofs were founded more than a century ago in 1909 and have evolved to be one of Yale’s most celebrated traditions. The original Whiffenpoofs were comprised of a Varsity Quartet and one of the founding members derived the future group’s name from a mythical dragonfish called the Whiffenpoof.

Handsome Dan
The original Handsome Dan, the first live mascot in American athletics.

Aside from numerous extracurricular, this 300 year-old school has gained a few traditions along the way. One of the university’s more famous traditions is its annual football game against the Harvard Crimson football team. Although most fans of college football would probably turn their noses up at this Ivy tradition, Yale and Harvard students proudly and consistently attend “the Game.” The Yale Bulldogs (Yale was the first school in America to have a live mascot) are currently leading the series 65-56.

This historic athletic tradition is paralleled by an impressive academic tradition. Regarding the SAT, the middle 50% scored 700-790 in Critical Reading, 700-800 in Math, and 710-790 in Writing. The middle 50% of ACT Composite scores is 31-35. Looking at class rank, 97% of incoming freshmen were in the top 10% of their graduating class. Although GPA statistics are not available, it is safe to assume that the majority of students accepted to Yale had close to a 4.0. If you feel your test scores and class rank are up to par, apply before November 1st for Single-Choice Early Action and before December 31st for regular decision.

The education of this pool of academically gifted students is backed by a 12 million volume library, the second-largest academic library in the United States. The Yale Campus also includes more than 250 other buildings, many of them built in a beautiful New England or Gothic style (see more about the buildings here).

Yale University, perfectly situated in the comfortable college town of New Haven, Connecticut.

The location of a school is also a very important factor. In Yale’s case, the town of New Haven, Connecticut is a beautiful New England college town. New Haven claims to be the origin of such tasty treats such as the hamburger, the lollipop, and the best pizza in the world. Along with these salubrious attractions, New Haven is also famous for its gorgeous Green. Yale University president Richard C. Levin describes the town as “large enough to be interesting, yet small enough to be friendly.”

Do the renowned professional schools, vibrant student life, and the quaint college town of New Haven seem like an irresistible combination? Aside from the ridiculously low acceptance rate of 7.1%, only one thing could possibly deter a qualified applicant: the hefty financial burden of $42,300 a year. No fear! There are always ways around this. Since Yale holds a $16 billion endowment, the second largest in the world, the school was able to provide financial aid to more than 60% of all applicants accepted. More than 10% of undergraduates at Yale got a free-ride!

Yale has long been ranked as one of the finest centers of higher learning in the world. The numbers don’t lie: Yale is a great place to learn and live for any student of any origin and any field.

By Joey Gu

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What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part X: Epilogue

This is the foliage of destiny.

Over the past year I have read and responded to many questions from bright, eager high school students who want to know if they have what it takes to get in to their dream schools. Usually, their inquiries go something like this: “These are my grades, these are my test scores, these are my extracurricular activities, etc. Do I have what it takes to get in?” or “I’ve been doing really well, but I have this one problem. Can I still get in?” The answer of course is always some variation on “it depends.” I always give the most helpful, specific advice I can, but in the end, even if you do everything right, elite college admissions always involves an element of luck. Thousands of kids apply to these elite colleges every year, and even though 15 to 20% may have what it takes, in the end only 5 to 10% will be admitted. There are simply fewer spots than qualified applicants, so you could do everything right, and still not get in.

This inherent uncertainty seems to be behind the underlying anxiety expressed in many of the comments left on these blog posts, an anxiety that reflects what I believe has become an unhealthy obsession with getting into certain elite American colleges. Admittedly, in writing these articles, I have been exploiting those anxieties and in some ways I may even be contributing to our country’s fixation on the Ivy League. However, after a year of being able to respond to my readers and reflect on my own life experiences, I feel there are some things I should share with you that might help you calm down and relax a bit.

Sometimes applying to Ivy League schools can feel like playing the lottery.

The picture of the perfect Ivy League applicant that I provide here in this blog series is an ideal to strive for, and if you don’t quite fit it, that’s okay. Don’t get me wrong – it is possible. Thousands of kids manage to do everything I recommend every year, and I’m sure that if any of you start preparing early enough and work really hard, you can do just as well. But maybe you didn’t start taking high school seriously until junior year, or maybe you had a bunch of stuff going on in your life one semester and your grades suffered, or maybe your high school doesn’t send kids to Harvard and Yale every year, or maybe you just didn’t realize what it takes to get in until it was too late. What I want you to realize is that even if you’re not going to be able to check off every item in the checklist I gave you, the closer you come to this ideal picture, the more desirable you are to any college, not just Ivy League colleges.

first world problems

So if you have a few grades that aren’t up to snuff, or if you didn’t seriously pursue any extracurricular activities, you may not get into the Ivy League, but if you have everything else, then you will still be an extremely competitive applicant to just about every other school in the country. Furthermore, many of these schools can provide you with just as good an education as an Ivy League school can (and often at a fraction of the cost). Also, remember that not getting into your dream school straight out of high school doesn’t mean you’ll never get there. If you get stellar grades during your undergrad years, you can always go to the Ivy League for grad school – and if you go to grad school, no one is going to care where you went for undergrad anyway.

You might even be able to transfer to your dream school during undergrad. Let me tell you a story: in high school, I had a friend who was very bright, but she didn’t quite have the application she needed in order to get into the Ivy League. Instead, she applied to and got into NYU – an excellent but slightly less competitive school. She worked really hard her freshman year, made straight As, and applied to Columbia (my alma mater) as a transfer student. She was accepted, and when she graduated from Columbia, her diploma was exactly the same as mine.

Another thing you need to realize is that an Ivy League education may not even be necessary for you to achieve your goals. You can still go to med school, law school, business school, etc., even if you don’t go to an Ivy League college (in fact, it may be easier to stand out in terms of class rank if you don’t). If you want to work for a great company and make lots of money, you can also do that without an Ivy League education. A friend of mine from high school went to the honors college at the University of Houston and majored in Accounting. She worked really hard and got an internship at Deloitte (one of the top accounting firms in the country), and at the end of the internship she was offered a full time (and well remunerated) position.

You don’t have to go to Harvard to be a great intellectual. Just ask Diogenes!

If you don’t care about money and just want to live the life of the mind, well, you don’t have to go to an Ivy League school for that, either. As proof, just research where current Ivy League professors went to school for their undergraduate degrees (this information is usually listed on a university’s faculty webpages). Most of them did not start out at the Ivy League, even if now they’re running the show there. If you want to triple major and take five years to graduate, a non-Ivy League school might be a better choice for you as well, since Ivy League schools tend to be pretty strict about making sure all students graduate within four years (the expense might also be prohibitive).

I know what you’re thinking – “But if I go to a non-Ivy League school, my professors won’t be as good and my peers won’t be as smart.” Again, it ain’t necessarily so. There are good and bad professors at every school, even at Ivy League universities. I guarantee you that whatever school you go to, your multivariable calculus teacher will probably be a grad student who speaks broken English and doesn’t really care about undergrads.

As for your peers, let me tell you another story. When I was researching colleges in high school, I visited the University of Texas at Austin because I was interested in their Plan II Honors program. As part of the tour, we got to sit in on an undergraduate “Great Books” class. The professor was supposed to be leading his students in a discussion of the Oresteia, but, as it was a Monday morning, most of the students appeared to be either asleep, hung over, or both. There was one kid who was actually discussing the book with the professor. Needless to say, this wasn’t the collegiate learning environment I had imagined for myself. I thought to myself, “If I go to an Ivy League school, this won’t happen. All of my fellow students will be intellectually curious and engaged and passionate and excited to discuss the Great Thoughts of the past!” Well, at Columbia, guess what my Literature Humanities class looked like on Monday mornings? Pretty much exactly the same as the class at UT, except it was more than twice as expensive.

But Thucydides is so comfy!
Basically, Mondays look the same everywhere.

While it is true that just about all students who go to Ivy League schools get great grades and test scores in high school, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a love of learning. No matter how many essays they make you write, college admissions officers will never be able to tell who actually has these qualities and who doesn’t from what’s written down on paper. Some Ivy League students are simply raised from birth to do all the stuff on my checklist, and oftentimes these students have been so busy living up to their parents’ expectations that they haven’t had a chance to actually form their own opinions or figure out what they care about themselves.

While these kids may have huge advantages when it comes to getting into the Ivy League, it isn’t surprising that they sometimes lack the insatiable curiosity, passion, and independent thinking that many people assume our country’s best and brightest possess. Of course, there are many excellent professors and bright, passionate students at Ivy League schools, but it’s important to keep in mind that they exist elsewhere, too. Remember those kids who did everything right but didn’t get into Harvard? You can find them at schools ranked just below the Ivy League or in the honors programs at top public universities, and I promise they are just as smart as Ivy League students.

So, what is actually different about Ivy League schools? What’s all the hype about? In short, money. Ivy League schools are rolling in tons of money. The enormous wealth of these institutions allows them to buy glamour and prestige, and probably accounts for much of their “elite” status. Consider a few examples: at the end of my orientation week, Columbia rented out Ellis Island so the new freshman could have a party there; the students at Barnard, the all-female sister school of Columbia College, had Meryl Streep speak at their graduation, and the next year they had Barak Obama; my friend at Yale got to study medieval architecture in Paris one summer (and everything was included with tuition and his financial aid package); the list of extravagances goes on.

Celebrated theoretical physicist Brian Greene has been the host of two PBS series based on his popular physics books.

This money also allows Ivy League schools to hire faculties smattered with “rock star” professors and Nobel Prize winners who are some of the most celebrated names in their fields. For my international economics class, we had guest speakers that included Jeffrey Sachs (who, among other things, was an architect of Bolivia’s economic “shock therapy” policy in the 1980s and of Russia’s transition to capitalism in the 1990s) and Glen Hubbard (George W. Bush’s economics advisor).  This class was also taught by Sunil Gulati (besides being an economics professor, he is also the president of the United States Soccer Federation). Another star at Columbia was theoretical physicist Brian Greene, author of “The Elegant Universe” and host of the eponymous PBS series (and whom most undergrads never saw). Columbia also currently lists eight Nobel Prize winners as faculty members. However, these “rock star” professors may or may not be accessible to undergrads, and they may or may not be good teachers.

They might be entertaining to watch, but would you want one as a roommate?

Not only are the institutions themselves rich; these schools also tend to attract the wealthiest students as well. You know, the sorts of people you’ve read about in books and seen in movies, but never actually thought existed in real life (if you’ve seen the show Gossip Girl, yes, there are some kids just like that at Ivy League schools). And these affluent students aren’t just from the United States – they come from all over the world. A smattering of movie stars or their progeny is also usually to be expected. Not all students at Ivy League schools are rich, of course; I also knew lots of kids who paid a fraction of the sticker price or even nothing for their educations because they qualified for financial aid. But all this money sloshing around can make for a college experience that occasionally slips into the surreal.

What advantages do all these things actually give you? While going to a well-funded university definitely has some perks, unless you believe that money and glamour are the most important qualities in an undergraduate education, they probably won’t make much of a difference. While getting to work as a tech in cutting edge research labs can be a definite plus, at the undergraduate level, you are mostly just learning the basics of your field, and you quite frankly don’t need the fanciest new scientific instruments or rock star professors to teach you that stuff (if those professors even teach undergrads at all, which they often don’t). In terms of your future career, while alumni networks can potentially help you find internships and jobs (if you’re looking in the right field) and while having an Ivy League school on your resume is always a plus, what you choose to major in is probably more important: a Bachelors’ in Computer Science from the University of Houston is going to open up more employment opportunities than a B.A. in Music from Columbia (believe me).

Finance continues to be one of the most popular career choices for Ivy League graduates.

The only fields where an Ivy League education can give you a definite advantage would be finance (investment banks and hedge funds recruit like crazy from Ivy League schools – it’s still kind of a good old boys club), or possibly the public sector (if you dream of being a bureaucrat in the federal government, or even a politician, Ivy League credentials seem to carry some weight in Washington D.C.). If you plan to go to graduate school of some kind (and most good jobs these days require some grad school), then where you go for your undergraduate degree is less important than where you go for graduate school. An Ivy League degree can potentially help you get into a better graduate program, but only if you meet minimum GPA requirements, and in many cases you will probably be a more attractive candidate if you graduate at the top of your class from a less competitive school than from the bottom of your class at an Ivy League school.

The point is that while an Ivy League education definitely does have some advantages, they aren’t as big and important as you might think, and getting into one of these elite schools is not going to make the difference between success and failure in your life. With education, you generally get out of it what you put into it, so make sure you always do your very best. Even if your application isn’t perfect, don’t give up! Keep working hard, and push yourself to work harder than you ever have before. Wherever you go to school, know that you are the one who will determine what your future will be, and if you work hard and plan ahead, you can achieve your dreams. Keep up the good work, and best of luck!

This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IV: Extracurriculars

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VI: Recommendations

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VII: Application Strategy

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VIII: Interviews

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IX: Checklist

College Admissions – The University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas Tower is the most famous and recognizable landmark on campus. Since 1937 it has stood as a symbol for academic excellence, athletic victory, and personal growth.

Founded in 1883, the University of Texas is easily one of the most recognizable and well regarded institutions of higher learning in the world. Ranking nationally and internationally in just about every department, admission to the University of Texas – Austin is surprisingly competitive for a state school; their acceptance rate is right around 50%.

One reason admission is so competitive is what is called the “Top 10% Rule;” this refers to Texas House Bill 588, which guarantees any Texas high school graduate in the top 10% of their class automatic admission to the public Texas university of their choice. This law has come under fierce scrutiny over the years, as many universities (especially “flagship” universities, like UT-Austin and Texas A&M University) claim this law undermines their ability to ensure diverse representation across the academic spectrum, particularly when it comes to making sure each school and department is represented equally in the student body. As a result of the staunch opposition this law has met at the university level, legislation is already in place that will change the law over the next several years, specifically in regard to how it affects admission rates at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite these changes, up to 75% of every incoming class at UT is still, and will continue to be, automatically accepted based on their class ranking.

Given the number of spots available after students have been automatically accepted to the University of Texas, it might be a good idea to know what you are up against in terms of standardized testing. The middle 50% SAT range for the freshman class of 2012 was 1675 – 2020; for the ACT, the middle 50% range was 25 – 31. Take a look at some of the other scores associated with the UT freshman class of 2012:

Begin your application to the University of Texas here!

Prospective undergraduate students are required to write essays in response to at least two out of three prompts. Which prompts you respond to depend on what major or department you are applying to. For most students these essays will be about a person who is important to you and an issue that is important to you, with an option of writing a third essay about any special circumstances (socioeconomic, family, employment/internships, awards, etc.) that might influence an admission officer’s decision. You can find out more about how to write a good college admissions essay here.

If you can get in, the University of Texas at Austin has a reputation for providing a top tier education at a reasonable price, at least, for Texas residents. In my time at the University of Texas- Austin, it was not uncommon for out of state students to reside in Texas year round in order to qualify as Texas residents. The flat-rate tuition and fees for the 2012-2013 school year for Texas residents was $9,300 – $10,800; for out of state residents it was $31,800 – $36,400. You can find out more about the basic finances and expected cost of attending UT here.

Anyone who has walked the streets of Austin after a Longhorn victory or heard tens of thousands of fans simultaneously shout “TEXAS! FIGHT!” knows there is no school on Earth quite like the University of Texas at Austin.

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College Admissions – University of Southern California

The University of Southern California’s rich history and proximity to one of the most populous and exciting cities in the world has made it not only one of the best universities in the country, but also one of the most interesting. Did you know, for example, that the USC marching band is the only marching band in the United States to earn a platinum album? And that they actually have two? Did you know that at least one USC alumnae or alumnus has been nominated for an Academy Award since their inception in 1929, or that Marion Morrison aka John freaking Wayne ran track at USC? Have you ever heard that among an excess of notable alumni, including actor/director Ron Howard and Troy Polamalu, starting Safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. From actors, athletes, and astronauts, to albums, awards, and (lest we forget) academics, the University of Southern California is among the most storied and successful schools in the country.

Founded on October 6, 1880, the University of Southern California’s original class size was comprised of only 53 students and 10 teachers. This was before the “City of Angels” could truly be called a city. Just as historic Los Angeles grew from what the university describes as a “rough-and-tumble frontier town,” lacking electricity and paved roads, into one of the most vibrant and alluring metropolises in the world, so too did the university grow with it, eventually becoming one of the most competitive and well-regarded institutions of higher learning in the country.

Of the almost 50,000 undergraduate applicants last year, only 9,187 were admitted, which gives USC a stiff acceptance rate of approximately 20%. Of those roughly 9,000 undergraduates, the average GPA was 3.70 (on an unweighted scale) and the median SAT range was 1950-2190. This means, on the low-end, the average SAT score of a USC undergraduate is almost 500 points higher than the national average.  

USC’s academic reputation is only one reason they receive so many applications each year. The university motto is PALMAM QUI MERUIT FERAT, the translation of which is “let whoever earns the palm bear it.” The palm branch has been a symbol of victory and conquest since before the emergence of Christianity, and USC carries on this rich symbolic tradition by fielding 21 varsity teams at the NCAA Division I level. The success of USC’s athletic programs at the college level and beyond is staggering.

USC’s Olympians have won 587 places on Olympic teams, and have taken home 135 gold medals, 87 silver and 65 bronze.

In addition to having captured 94 NCAA team championships, ranking USC 3rd among all D-1 universities, individual Trojans have won 381 NCAA championships, which puts them in 2nd place in that particular category. What’s more, USC has had an astonishing level of success at the Olympic level. USC students and alumni have won 287 medals at the Olympic Summer Games; if USC were a country, they would rank 16th in the all-time medal count among participating countries in the Summer Games.

Another reason, briefly alluded to earlier, there might be so many applicants to the university is the city in which it abides. Los Angeles Hollywood Signis well established as one of the coolest, chicest, and every other buzz wordiest cities in the nation, and quite possibly the world. From the eateries to the beach babes and surfer dudes, to the Hollywood sign and the famous California climate, Los Angeles is just a cool city to live in. In addition to the opportunities for fun the city presents, USC has worked hard to build a culture of community service. Through the “Power of Partnership” USC works to better its community through programs like the Good Neighbors Campaign and Neighborhood Outreach; USC also involves itself in community issues like Education, Health Care, and Economic Development.

So now that you’re convinced that USC is the school for you, here comes the hard part: figuring out how to pay for it all. Tuition at USC is approximately $43,700. Like any other University or College there are other costs associated with attendance, like room and board, the cost of books, miscellaneous, etc.; the financial aid department at USC recently estimated the cost of attendance for next year at approximately $60,000. Though this may seem steep, the University has an endowment of $3.5 billion, and spends close to $400 million a year on Financial Aid.

Not surprisingly, the university does not automatically pledge to lift the financial burden off the back of their students. Yes, USC can probably offer some students a comprehensive and complete financial aid package, but not all students will be eligible for aid. Check out College Compass’ first article in its “Paying for College” series, Paying for College Part I: Pell Grants, for more information on potential financial aid solutions.

From humble beginnings, the University of Southern California built itself, much like the city with which it is so closely associated, from the ground up. Today, USC is one of the most respected private research universities in the nation and they offer undergraduate and graduate students alike not just a world-class education, but a world-class experience. From its culture of excellence in sports to its commitment to serving its local community, USC is a truly exemplary university.

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College Admissions – University of Chicago

The University of Chicago, also referred to as UChicago, was founded in 1890 by the American Baptist Education Society and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller.  The University was highly esteemed as a model of higher education; innovative and ground-breaking, UChicago successfully combined a traditional English-style undergraduate college with a German-style graduate research institution. Though established by Baptists, the University of Chicago has been strictly non-denominational since its inception and was among the first to encourage and welcome women and minorities into its ranks; the University’s first president, William Harper, actually incorporated a commitment to gender equality into its early charter, which led to an unparalleled dedication to the equitable access of higher education.

Cresat scientia; vita excolatur. – “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

One of the most interesting aspects of UChicago’s admission process is the creative essay options; this year’s prompts include:

  • silence as a form of speech,
  • concepts that cannot be simultaneously known,
  • describing a relationship between yourself and an arch-nemesis (real or imagined),
  • “So where is Waldo, really?”

The importance the University places on admissions essays also affects the admissions process in other ways. This admission criteria attracts a particular kind of applicant, someone who can stretch their creative limits, explore their imagination, and clearly express the results. Additionally, because the admission essays are particularly demanding, UChicago does not consider your scores in the SAT Writing or ACT Writing composite when making an admission decision.

In terms of admission requirements, UChicago has no set or standardized criteria for admittance. They compare their admissions process to the interpretation of a poem, or to the sundry mechanics of a successfully executed athletic move; to the University’s Admissions Office, every candidate is judged based on their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. This is not to say that anyone can get into UChicago (in fact their acceptance rate is 16%); they rely on what they call “historical trends” to help guide their decisions. This means you won’t be automatically disqualified for having a subpar or less than stellar transcript, but given the University’s tradition of excellence and high quality students you would assuredly have to be capable of ‘wowing’ the Admissions Office in some other way. The 25th – 75th percentile of admitted students’ test scores are- SAT Critical Reading: 700-790, SAT Math: 700-780, and ACT Composite: 31-34.

President Obama was briefly a Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

With more than 50 areas of specialized study, this university offers degree programs for practically any academic interest. You can find a list of the majors, minors, and additional information about UChicago’s different academic programs offered here.

The undergraduate student population at the University of Chicago is approximately 5,300, and the university is known for its small, discussion-style classes. The average annual cost of tuition is $43,780; including all fees and expenses, the annual cost of attendance is approximately $60,000. According to their financial aid FAQ, the University of Chicago has a budget of $93.8 million for student aid in the 2012-2013 academic year, and the average University of Chicago aid applicant receives $37,500 in scholarships each year. In a true demonstration of commitment in the face of financial adversity, “UChicago pledges to meet 100% of demonstrated need for every undergraduate on campus.”

View of Downtown Chicago from the John Hancock Center.

Another reason to consider UChicago is the city itself. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States and has a population of almost three million people. There are many attractions a major metropolitan city like Chicago can provide to an undergraduate. In addition to having one of the most vibrant theater scenes in the nation (the Chicago Symphony is considered one of the best in the world), Chicago is also home to several professional sports teams, and a nearly unrivaled pizza. For more information on the sites and sounds of the city, check out Chicago’s Official Tourism Site.

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Miss last week’s College Admissions – University Profile? Check it out here! Need help with the PSAT/SAT or ACT? Go farther with Test Masters!