College Application Essays Need Stories

If there is something important you wish to get across on your college essay, then it’s best to say it in the form of a story, a narrative essay.

This assertion confuses many for the simple reason narrative essay writing rarely is found in high school curricula: not in honor’s English classes, not in AP English Language, nor in AP English Literature. This is somewhat confounding since the Common Core State Standards, developed in 2010, cites the three essential types of essay writing, in order of importance, as argumentative, expository, and narrative.

Student Loan Solutions from the Department of Education

With $1.3 trillion in student debt and rising, the Department of Education over the last eight years has created a set of Income Driven Repayment programs to help borrowers reduce monthly payments, and even, depending on circumstances, have the loan forgiven in 10, 20, or 25 years. 

The Department of Education (DOE) has changed its lending model for student financial aid. Instead of using the commercial banks as middle men for granting federal student loans, the loans are now originated from the DOE itself. As a direct lender the government saved millions of dollars, which it now uses to subsidize Pell Grants for low income students. This has also made the DOE’s Federal Student Aid Building, a 9-story unimpressive edifice behind the DC train station, one of the biggest banks in North America, all unnoticed by its customer base of student borrowers.      

What, unfortunately, has gone equally unnoticed by many student financial aid borrowers are the new government loan programs. Primary is the Income Driven Repayment (IDR) plans composed of 4 different programs: the Income Based Repayment Plan (IBR), Income Contingent Repayment (ICR), Pay as You Earn (PAYE), and the Revised Pay as you Earn (REPAYE).

To give a sense of how the REPAYE, PAYE or IBR for a new borrower differ from the current 10-year Standard Repayment program, take a single borrower with adjusted gross income (AGI) of $40,000, who has $45,000 in federal student loan debt. Under the Standard Repayment (@6%) the monthly payment is $500. Under the REPAYE, PAYE, or IBR program, the payment is capped at 10% of discretionary income, or $186.21 monthly. For the REPAYE and IBR plan there is loan forgiveness after 20 years for undergraduate and 25 years for graduate borrowers.  

Should you, however, have a hankering for public service, then it’s essential to consider the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). This program includes a broad range of student loan programs (including REPAYE). Should the student borrower make 120 monthly qualifying payments while working full time (30 hours + per week) in a government or not-for-profit organization, the loan is forgiven after 10 years. Better still the amount of the forgiven loan is non-taxable. This is an important consideration since in some programs the amount of the forgiven debt is treated as ordinary income—that could produce a hefty tax bill.  

Heather Jarvis, a Student Loan Expert, clearly delineates and explains the IDR programs on her website, as does the Department of Education’s IDR Q&A site.  Loan options based upon loan amount and income can be found at the Department of Education’s Repayment Estimator.

Outside the advantages of the IDR to student borrowers, some voice concern over the expense of such an entitlement program. The Brookings Institute estimates the program could set back taxpayers $250 billion over the next decade. Worse, the program does not address rising tuition prices: going forward universities realizing there is a student loan program with guaranteed loan forgiveness, can now, without restraint, yank cost of attendance (COA) to ever high levels, assured that the costs will all be borne by the government. That is a discomforting reality. 

Nonetheless, to date the number of borrowers enrolled in IDRs represents only 19% of students with loans. In fact another statistic notes that the number of students defaulting on loans still outnumbers IDR enrollees 3 to 1.  Undoubtedly, one of the key reasons for this shortfall in enrollment rates is confusion with the range of different options, each with its own eligibility requirements, annual submission of income tax statements, interest benefits, and paperwork.

If, however, you are among the 45% of 25 year olds with student debt, pursue getting an IDR that fits your needs. It will reduce your stress by making your loan payments reasonable and the forgiveness of your loan inevitable. 

Considering Working in the Trades

An NPR story from a year ago featured a student, Allison Hughes, who elected to forgo a standard 4-year college education and instead attend Bunker Hill Community College while apprenticing with NStar, a Massachusetts utility company.

While gaining her associates degree she was taking the required general education courses English, math, computer science, as well as the occupational specific courses in AC and DC theory, physics and engineering.  Her total annual expenses amount to $1,200. Once she finishes her coursework she will, in all likelihood, ply her skills with NStar. Yet, what makes others pause before following Allison’s path is the type of work she will be doing. In one of her apprenticeship sessions she was taught how to protect herself from an arc flash beneath a manhole cover in an underground electrical substation.

Trade labor can be dangerous—as noted above--dirty, disagreeable, and—perceived by some—as demeaning: it puts one on the vocational track—and that in itself is repugnant to many American families who want a future for themselves and their children that is filled with promise, challenge and rewards.

Yet, don’t discount the trades when it comes to promise, challenge and rewards. In the bestselling book, The Millionaire Next Door, the typical millionaire drives a pickup truck and has his own business in the trades. Further, In terms of opportunity, the demand for skilled electricians, as an example, is growing. More than half of the electricians in the US will be retiring over the next 10 years opening up over 300,000 positions. Despite apparent opportunity, many students wonder if they will find any intrinsic value in trade work.    

Matthew B. Crawford, a PhD from the University of Chicago, who once toiled in a think tank, and now tinkers in his customized motorcycle accessary shop in Richmond, VA addresses this very question in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft. Laboring as, say, a mechanic, “brings pride in meeting the aesthetic demands of an engine rebuild.” You do a job and your work exhibits your proficiency for all to judge. Quite frankly, if you’re incompetent it becomes obvious immediately. Work isn’t a function of ‘celebrating potential rather than achievement;’ it’s all about what you have produced.   

Others discount the ‘cognitive demands’ of manual work. Mike Rose of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education in his groundbreaking book, The Mind of Work, carefully documents how certain types of work, such as carpentry requires planning, thinking through the job, anticipating problems, attending to details and working methodically. All are attributes found in many white collar job descriptions.  

Some become fixated on whether they are working in a white collar or blue collar job. Mr. Crawford notes that such labels really don’t matter all that much any longer. While call center workers are considered white collar, mechanics, blue collar workers, are generally considered more indispensable. After all, it’s very difficult to fix cars over the web.

The true visceral pleasure gained from working in the trades, say as a welder, is a sense of self-directed labor while approaching a job with ingenuity and time tested expertise. Welding with its mathematical calculations, symbols for types of welds, standards and codes all become embedded in the weld itself. An expert welder develops his or her own style and approach, much like a jazz trumpeter develops a voice: distinctively unique.

Obviously, no article is going to convince someone to forsake the well-worn college preparation path for a career in the trades. It just might be useful to know that there are alternative paths in finding pride, independence, and a strong sense of self-reliance through work. One can join the likes of Ray and the late Tom Magliozzi, both MIT graduates who worked as mechanics in their Good News Garage and were featured on NPR’s Car Talk. It might mean cutting your connection to a computer in a cubicle and picking up a wrench--a novel direction that might prove immeasurably rewarding.

 

The University of Utah’s Bargain Honors Program

High-quality education in the form of Honors Colleges in Public Universities is becoming ever more common. Within the University of California system most have, including UCLA, UCI, and five of the six colleges of UCSD, special honors programs. The reason behind the growth of these honors programs is public universities want to keep their best students at home, in state, and challenged by a curriculum many believe can only be obtained from the most selective universities.

One of the eminent Honors programs was described in a previous column, the Barrett Honors program at Arizona State University. The column mentioned that the Public University Honors (PUH) organization has evaluated the top public honors programs in its book A Review of 50 Public University Honors Programs.

Like most rankings there is a bit of subjectivity, although the PUH rates programs by

  1. The number of honors classes necessary to fulfill graduation requirements (the more the better)
  2. The number of prestigious scholarships garnered by enrolled students (Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater, Fulbright, Truman, etc.)
  3. Special honors housing and facilities
  4. Select honors study abroad programs
  5. Priority registration

Yet the best means of understanding what an honors program is all about is to look closely at one. A university with a top 50 Honor’s Program that might prove accessible and affordable to interested Californians who are willing to look beyond the state’s borders for opportunities is the Honor’s College Program at the University of Utah.

To take advantage of tuition savings, Californians should apply through the Western University Exchange (WUE). Their tuition will then be 150% of the residential tuition rate, which is approximately $11,000, well below UC’s $14,000. 

The University of Utah typically admits around 80% of its applicants. Most of the students admitted have unweighted GPAs of 3.6 to 3.9 with mean SAT scores of 1345/1600 or an ACT of 30. The Honor’s Program, in other words, is one of the most selective colleges in the country contained in large land-grant university.

Several of Utah’s departments are among the top 50 in the country including math (34), chemistry (35), computer science (40), earth sciences (42), and business (47). So if an Honor’s student were to major in any of these departments, she would be arguably getting a superior liberal arts education coupled with one of the best department curriculum in the country.   

Looking at the PUH honor’s criteria, to receive an Honors Bachelor’s Degree, a fifth of a student’s classes need to be honors classes.  This could breakdown to 4 honors core courses, 3 honors elective and one thesis preparation class. The Honors Program features an ‘Intellectual Tradition’ series of seminars showing how key ideas have shaped humanity. The program also offers Praxis Labs, project based solutions to key social problems. Finally there is the thesis as a capstone to the Honors Program.

Utah Honors graduates have won 31 Goldwater (STEM fields), 22 Rhodes, and 23 Truman Scholarships over the years; the program ranks 5th among all public universities in wining Truman Scholarships.

The Marriott Honors Residential Community (MHRC) houses 309 students with over 4/5s in suite-style rooms. Students can choose living in 8 learning themes, such as business or engineering. Each apartment suite has its own kitchen, and the community has an honors library, high speed internet, and a ski wax room. There is also the Hinkley Institute for gaining honors credit through HInkley internships; the UROP to obtain funding for research; the Marriott Library to get thesis and research advice from Honors librarians; and, 105 study abroad programs with intensive language programs in Kiel, Germany or Saratov, Russia.

The Honors Program at the University of Utah is not perfect, however: it doesn’t offer its students priority registration.

If you are an exceptional student in search of a place to help you excel on a budget, the Honor’s Program at the University of Utah is worth considering, and, to add icing on the honors, within 45 minutes of the campus is some of the best skiing in the country: all for a tuition price 20% lower than the UCs.  

The Why Us Essay

An essay prompt found often on applications is ‘Why us?’  Why do you want to come here and what will you do once you arrive? A taste of this year’s crop include,

USC: Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at USC.

Northwestern: What are the unique qualities of Northwestern - and of the specific undergraduate school(s) to which you are applying - that make you want to attend the University?

Johns Hopkins: Given the opportunities at Hopkins, please discuss your current interests (academic, extracurricular, personal passions, summer experiences, etc.) and how you will build upon them here. 

One of the best ways to attack this question is to learn as much about the college as you can. Set aside an hour to really gain a sense of the place. If you can’t do this don’t waste the college admissions office time, and more importantly your own, by writing generalities about the school’s size, location or reputation, “Northwestern is very well respected…,” and put the $70-90 application fee into something more profitable.

 

One thing to keep in mind when writing college essays: they are all about you.  No matter what the question, you need to explain what it is you’re looking for and why. What type of person are you? Do you have the poise to approach a professor and discuss ways to research a problem? Do you have intellectual needs that must be fulfilled? All these questions should factor into your answer.

Assuming you acknowledge the need for research, start broad and then narrow your focus. Broad starts by using the guides (Princeton Review’s Best 376 Colleges, Yale Daily’s Insider’s Guide to Colleges, and Fiske’s Guide, which has an online resource for $20), to help you understand the curriculum, special majors, top professors, and the most popular departments. Narrow your search by going to the college’s website and read about key departments of interest. For example if you were curious about the advantages of NYU’s Sterne School of Business, on the website you’ll find ‘Why Stern’, which details flexible curriculum/small classes, exceptional faculty, truly global university, leadership opportunities…It would  be a shame to miss this because of lack of due diligence.

Better still, get beyond the screen or the printed page and actually talk to someone in the admissions office, or, better still, the regional admissions representative who is oftentimes your first reader—the more he or she knows about you the better; the more questions you ask him or her about the campus, better still.

What the ‘Why us?’ essay encourages is how you and your interests perfectly combine with what the school offers. Make this clear in a convincing, straightforward manner and you can rest assure that your essay will benefit your candidacy.  Use specifics in creating matches between your interests and what the college offers. This might include internships, undergraduate research opportunities, case study contests, honors programs, dual degree programs, professors, classes and clubs.

So that is how you might piece together an imposing essay to validate your candidacy, but is this the only approach to respond to the ‘Why Essay’?

If you take a look at the Johns Hopkins’s prompt above, it sounds like ‘Why Hopkins’ to me.  Yet, go to the ‘Essays that Worked’ section on the Hopkin’s website and you’ll find a number of essays including ‘Breaking into Cars’ by Stephen that discuss none of the features of JHU. Admissions, however, determined his essay one of the best received that year: ‘Through his anecdotes from growing up, we got a sense of how he might approach his studies here at Hopkins,’ which tells us if an essay clearly explains who you are-- if impressed-- the admissions committee is liable to infer anything.

Consequently be you, be natural, be specific, be knowledgeable, be engaging and let the chips fall where they may.   

The Economist’s College Ranking

Several years ago the Department of Education proposed its own college rankings. Many institutions serving the postsecondary market in the United States demurred.   

Consequently, the Obama Administration decided not to go forward with the ranking. It did, however, make its treasure trove of data available on the Education Department’s College Scorecard website, which went live September 12th.

What makes the information in the College Scorecard website so unique is it addresses how much better off is a student who attends one university instead of another. The US Educational Department, through its National Center for Educational Statistics, which runs FAFSA and the College Navigator site, garnered student loan documents and any student income tax returns over the past 10 years.

Yet, like any ranking system devised by humanity, even these hard financial data contain inherent imperfections:  they include only students who filed for financial aid, leaving out students from wealthier families who are likely to secure high paying positions upon graduation; they track earnings for only 6 years after graduation—students entering medical or other professional schools would show up as low, to no, earners; lastly, the chief purpose of college is usually not to maximize earnings of those who attend. Some seek to go into public service and that is not, by any means, a negligible or unworthy path.  

Acknowledging these flaws, The Economist determined it’s still worthwhile to let the numbers speak for themselves.

The Economist harvested a basket of factors to determine the expected median earnings of an average student attending a given university.  These include a campus’s  average SAT scores, sex ratio, race breakdown, size, and  whether it is public or private, religious affiliated, has an undergraduate business program, has a liberal arts program, attracts students who were politically left or cannabis inclined (the “Marx and Marley” index), and its geographical location.  These variables, according to the statisticians at the Economist, reflected 85% of the variation in graduate salaries: they appear statistically significant. Comparing real graduate median earnings with expected median earnings indicates whether a college is under or over performing.  

Once the numbers for the various colleges are reviewed, the returns are quite different from what one would expect. The scorecard contains data on 1,275 4-year non-vocational colleges. The website can be found here, and is a place where you may conduct your own ranking research.

Among the top 20 performers are (#6) Otis College of Art & Design, (#10) CSU Bakersfield, (#12) University of Pacific, (#19) California Lutheran, and (#20) CSU Stanislaus. If you decide to go to the website you’ll find for each college the expected median earnings, which is calculated based on the criteria mentioned above, then the actual median earnings distilled from the College Scorecard.

Otis with its communication arts, digital media, product design and toy design departments apparently does a good job of feeding its graduates into Hollywood, Mattel, and other industrial design companies through its job boards and internship programs.  The expected earnings of a graduate are $28,900, while the actual median salary is $42,000, an over-performance of $13,100.

The bottom performers in The Economist ranking are equally surprising. At the very bottom is Cooper Union, which underperforms by $16,000, Rice, by $9,800, Yale, by $9,800, Wheaton (IL), by $9,100, and Swarthmore, by $9,000. As mentioned, there are mitigating factors for these performances. One might, though, believe that where there is smoke there is fire.  In any case, it’s always best to be aware of how students fare at any given college. 

The Economist ranking, based on data from the College Scorecard, is a tool, controversial or not, to gain a sense of which colleges outperform expectations in terms of dollars and cents.

 

Udacity and the Evolution of Nanodegrees

The problems facing higher education today are legion: escalating tuition costs; spiraling student debt; political correctness; underachieving students; professorial emphasis on research to the detriment of undergraduate teaching; adjunct professors earning starvation wages, and we’ve barely scratched the surface.

One company, however, within the MOOC (massive open online courses) ranks, Udacity, appears to have latched onto a solution that addresses many of the abovementioned ills: its nanodegree programs.

The founder of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun, is a German polymath, who as a graduate student at the University of Bonn created an armless cleaning robot, RHINO, which could digitally map out a room, locate messes and bark out commands to start cleaning. Though RHINO might raise a few eyebrows, it brought Thrun to the leadership of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), and then onto Google [X], where he became the creative force behind such iconoclastic developments as the driverless cars, Google glass and airborne wind turbines.

At Udacity Thrun’s first major project was launching Algebra and Statistics courses with San Jose State. Unfortunately, half the enrolled students failed their final.

By November 2013, Thrun, ever the realist, announced in an article in Fast Company, that Udacity had a ‘lousy product’ and that the company was going to focus on “vocational courses for professionals.” Shortly thereafter, in 2014, Udacity joined up with Georgia Tech and AT&T to create its nanodegree program.     

Udacity develops nanodegree programs by partnering with such companies as AT&T or Autodesk to devise courses incorporating prized skills such as programming and web development. However, earning a nanodegree goes beyond merely mastering skills. Nanodegrees also employ individual coaching, mentorship, career counseling, and job-interviewing: soft skills necessary in navigating the business world.

Udacity also offers personalized instruction through online outsourcing. Grading is done by a network of capable, knowledgeable staff that can quickly assess projects and supply detailed feedback to the students. Instruction for, say, the Android course, is staffed by the actual developers of Google’s mobile operating system.

Udacity also incorporates Mr. Thrun’s AI (artificial intelligence) to analyze individual learning techniques and make the material more palatable and engaging, thereby increasing student retention and course completion.  According to Thrun, “We effectively reverse engineer the human learning brain to find out what it means for a person to engage. It’s my dream to make learning as addictive as a video game“.  According to Mr. Thrun,  60% of Udacity’s students finish their courses, versus the 10% average for MOOCs.

To make the process even more appealing, a student can take as long or as short a time as necessary to finish a degree. Udacity has found that the typical student earns a nanodegree in 5 months. Better still, upon completion of a nanodegree, the student is given back half the tuition—meaning the actual cost of a 5-month degree is $500.

Nanodegrees are comparable to Germany’s apprenticeship program, which addresses ‘skills mismatches’ in the German labor force. In Germany it’s reported that over 60% of its students are involved in apprenticeships, also called ‘dual training’. Germans apprentice in such fields as advanced manufacturing, IT, banking, and hospitality for periods of 2-4 years. Company attitude towards apprenticeships is best reflected by a comment by an HR manager within Deutsche Bank, “This has nothing to do with corporate social responsibility. I do this because I need talent.”

As do companies in the United States: Mr. Thrun often references a report by McKinsey Global Institute which estimates by 2020 the world will have 85 million jobs begging for technically capable employees.  Udacity has the audacity to believe it has the scope and model to help fill a lion’s share of those positions. Your own upskilling Udacity journey is but a click away.

 

Researching a College: Grinnell a Case Study

The better you know prospective campuses, the better you can figure out which might fit in with your postsecondary expectations. If you don’t have any or few expectations formed as yet, doing some research will get your thoughts of college into motion.

A good place to begin a search is with guides such as Fiske, Princeton Review, The Ultimate Guide to America’s Best Colleges, and the Yale Daily News Insider’s Guide to Colleges. Many high school counseling offices and public libraries have these on their shelves.  The ubiquitous Fiske Guide to College contains a useful questionnaire for  the size, location and academics & extracurricular you might prefer.  

Supposing you narrowed your interests down to small liberal arts colleges with a solid track record of academic achievement, you might begin looking at such schools not only in California, but in the Midwest, the East, and possibly the South. Chances are one school that will pop up is Grinnell College in Iowa.  Right after Carleton, it’s one of the top liberal arts colleges in the region.  

From the guides you’ll learn it’s small, 1700 undergraduates and mandates a 1st semester writing tutorial modeled after the writing program at Oxford. With the assistance of a faculty advisor you may begin to design a major, or select among the 500 courses within 26 different majors across 11 concentrations.   

A quick analysis of the financial aid offerings can best be found at College Navigator, which is the website of the NCES, and has exact information on the average financial aid packages offered in the recent school year. Of the recent round of admits, 93% received financial aid with the average package of $31,000. Grinnell has an endowment of $1.83 billion, which until 2011 was run by Warren Buffett; on a per student basis, this is one of the wealthiest colleges in the country.   Now we’re off to the races to learn all we can about the alluring corn fields of Grinnell.

One source that I have found useful is Wikipedia. Its Grinnell write up is engaging—especially regarding Grinnell’s history. The College’s namesake, Joshua Grinnell, an abolitionist minister, was told by Horace Greeley in 1846 to “go West young man”. He did and established the college, which later moved to its current home in Grinnell, Iowa.  Most of the alumni and faculty perished in the Civil War, only to face a Cyclone in 1882 that wiped out the campus.  

Looking at Grinnell’s own website you’ll find ‘Grinnell at a Glance’, which is a flood of facts: 9:1 student to faculty ratio, 7th nationally in the percentage of PhDs per graduate, 15th for graduating female PhD earners, 11 Fulbright’s garnered in 2014, and  51% of Grinnellians have an advanced degree 10 years after graduation.

While many consider Division III athletics unexciting, over a third of Grinnell students participate in varsity athletics. Moreover, Wikipedia describes how Grinnell plays its own brand of basketball: continual full court press and a full line change every 35-40 seconds (like hockey). One of the Grinnell stars, Jack Taylor, scored 138 points in a 179-104 victory over Faith Baptist Bible; he is the only NCAA basketball player ever to have two 100-point basketball games to his credit.

The college has the wherewithal to recruit the best faculty (its professor average rating is 3.83 on Rate My Professor.com) The resources of the Burling Library alone, with its 1 million volumes, its bathroom graffiti (officially encouraged), Jungle Gyms and Amoeba Tables, Media room with over 7,000 documentaries and 22,000 audio recordings, exemplifies the weirdness yet abundant resources Grinnell offers it students.    

With a few college guides, a computer or Smartphone to access College Navigator, the Grinnell website, Wikipedia, and Rate My Professor, we’ve discovered a lot about Grinnell. If you’re drawn to a place that nurtures original thought, action and is capable of channeling idiosyncratic behavior, Grinnell warrants consideration.

Post Baccalaureate Medical Options

Should you, after graduating from college, hear the call of medicine, regardless of whether your transcript contains a generous dose of premed classes or not, all is not lost. You still might address your medical aspirations by joining a Post Baccalaureate Premedical Program (PB).

The list of programs, there are several hundred, can be found on the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) site, and span the universe of making a career change, enhancing your academic record (improving your GPA), or being part of a group underrepresented in medicine, or economically or educationally disadvantaged.

Some PB programs are highly structured, such as the Post Baccalaureate Premedical Program at UC San Diego, which targets those who might have already applied to medical school unsuccessfully and are attempting to enhance their academic records. Student applicants must have already completed premedical undergraduate coursework in Biology, Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics, as well as math and English and are looking to enhance their chances by using the program to take upper division science courses, seminars, workshops and MCAT preparation, along with medical school applications.

The program accepts a maximum of 30 students, and is a partnership between the UC San Diego Extension program and the UC San Diego School of Medicine. The application process consists of three letters of recommendation, a complete set of transcripts, and a ‘statement of interest.’ Then, candidates of interest are invited to interview, either in person or by Skype if outside Southern California.    

Once admitted into the program be ready for intensive preparation for the MCAT and such rigorous courses as Biomedical Science I, Mammalian Physiology I, Metabolic Biochemistry, and Pharmacology. While raising your GPA is an expected outcome, the desired goal is to show prospective medical schools that you are capable of performing at the highest level in upper division ‘Biological Science courses at a premier science university.’ According to Joel Tolson, the program representative, 70-90% of the class is accepted into medical school. The annual cost of the program is $30,000.

If, instead of enhancing your grades, you want to change your career, then you might want to consider applying to the PB program at Scripps College. This program is half the size of UCSD’s, enrolls only 17 students, and is geared to students who received a four-year-degree in something other than science, received a minimum of 3.0 GPA, and are highly motivated.   

If Scripps likes your application, essay and scores, it will then invite you to interview (like UCSD).  What’s particularly interesting is the range of candidates that attend this career changer program. Whereas UCSD seeks seasoned premeds, Scripps program for 2013-2014 contained a project manager from a cloud-based application, a musician from Cirque du Soleil, and a Peace Corps volunteer for Uganda.

The program is 13 months, and begins with the basic principles of chemistry (with lab), then unfolds into Introductory Biology, Organic Chemistry, General Physic, Vertebrate Physiology and Biochemistry. 4-6 hours per week are dedicated to volunteering in a medical setting, so that you, upon graduation from the program, are knowledgeable of the field of medicine and capable of managing a heavy workload.

Scripps PB students work alongside undergraduates from all the Claremont colleges, have access to faculty with extensive office hours, receive personalized advising for medical school applications and essays, receive mock interviews, enjoy customized MCAT test prep, will receive personalized letters of recommendation, will receive continued advising even after completion of the program, and can take advantage of extensive linkages to a range of medical schools including Drexel University School of Medicine and George Washington University School of Medicine. Most impressive is that 96% of Scripps College PB students have been accepted into medical school.

The key in the Post Baccalaureate world is to select a program that addresses your needs, career changer or grade enhancer, and is linked to medical schools. Once an appealing program is discovered, apply, work diligently, and you’ll find 13 months can make a big difference in your life.

 

Update on the New PSAT

On March 24th the College Board (CB) released a sample of its new PSAT ,along with a detailed answer key, on its website. The new, redesigned PSAT will premiere October 14th and is the first taste of the revamped SAT scheduled to be administered on 5 March 2016. 

The PSAT, which will continue to be used as the National Merit Scholarship Qualification Test (NMSQT) by junior test takers, is a departure from the PSAT of 2014. The previous PSAT had separate writing, reading, and math sections with a scaled score of 20-80 on each, maxing out at 240. The new PSAT has two components, verbal and math, with a rather strange scale of 160-760 on each, maxing out at 1520.  

The PSAT’s new scoring scheme uses numbers to indicate mastery of skills correlated to the national Core Curriculum. The ACT test has been doing this since its inception in November 1959, scaling from 1-36, while its version of the PSAT, PLAN, scaling from 1-32. The scaled scores allow students to track their academic performance. PLAN, by the way, has been molded into ACT’s Aspire, which will test students on the Common Core across math, science, and the social sciences from  the 3rd to 11th grade.

In fact the CB is already designing PSAT 10, with a scale 160-760, PSAT 9, scale 120-720, and PSAT 8, also scaled 120-720. The CB’s intent is to have assessments for the Common Core for each grade, much like ACT’s Aspire. The assumption is that this product will be renamed something other than the PSAT and will compete with ACT’s Aspire and the other existing Common Core assessment products from PARCC and Smarter Balanced (which is currently used by the State of California for Common Core assessment).       

Not only is the new PSAT (and the new SAT) scored like the ACT, but portions of the test look a lot like the ACT, especially the Verbal section, which is composed of the Writing and Language Test (44 questions in 35 minutes) and Reading Test (47 questions in 1 hour). If you’ve already downloaded the PSAT from the College Board website using the link above, you’ll immediately see the similarities, assuming you’re acquainted with the ACT. 

In the reading component, each passage is followed by a series of 8-10 questions, no sentence completion questions, with passages spanning social science, natural science, prose fiction, and humanities. Moreover, unlike the old PSAT, only 17 of the 47 questions have line references, which means test takers will need to use key words in the answers or question to locate where to look in the passage for the right answer.

The Writing and Language Test contains questions about underlined portions in a series of passages, with 4 answers to select among. Again, the format look and feel is distinctly that of the ACT.

The Math component is composed of math with and without a calculator. The math covers basic math, logic, algebra, geometry and algebra 2, but is reducing the number of geometry problems from 40% of the questions to only 10%, with one or two trigonometry problems.  

Science topics, charts, and experiments will be sprinkled throughout the verbal and math sections. Additionally there is no guessing penalty in the PSAT, as has always been the case with the ACT.

One of the biggest differences between the new and old PSAT is length: the new is 25% longer, 2 hours and 45 minutes, which is only 15 minutes shy of the predicted length of the New SAT (without the essay section). This allots 71 seconds per question instead of the 61 seconds on previous tests. While this might slow the pace down, chances are, within the core curriculum style of learning, students will need the full allotted 71 seconds to find all the material necessary to answer the question.

If you like the ACT, you should like the new PSAT—they have a lot in common. 

Getting to Know Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, (SLO) nestled on the California coast, lives and breathes its motto, ‘Learning by Doing,’ in engineering, business, architecture, viticulture, and all its newer majors such as statistics.

Consequently, employers admire and seek SLO graduates. However, joining the ranks of Musty the Mustang is becoming ever more competitive. For fall 2014 less than 31% of applicants were admitted. Getting into many of SLO’s showcase majors, such as engineering, business, science or architecture is tough.  The engineering programs, for example, accepted less than 23% of applicants.

SLO has modest origins. Established in 1901as a vocational high school, it awarded its first BA in 1942 and its first master’s in 1967. While SLO’s academic prowess grew, so too did the campus’s acreage. The campus today is 6,000 acres (though Cal Poly owns 9,600 acres—it is the largest land-owning public university in California, with UC Davis securely in second with 7,300 acres. Interestingly, the Stanford land trust is 8,180 acres—well shy of SLO’s holdings).

Yet it’s what’s on all these acres that matters. To begin, there are more than 80 state-of-the-art laboratories, and if you’re into Marine Sciences, the 3000-foot Cal Poly Pier, donated by Unocal in 2001, contains a classroom, dry lab facility and a conference room with a 360 degree panorama of San Luis Bay.  The recently constructed Baker Center for Science and Math is centrally located on campus, and is completely designed around the concept of ‘learning by doing,’ with 189,000 square feet of labs, classrooms and collaborative study areas. The intent of the university is that every student who attends will have a class in Baker—it will be the center of each one’s educational experience.

Should the demands of Linear Algebra require a respite, Pismo, Morro and Avilla beaches are within 10-15 minutes of campus (Surfline.com ranked Cal Poly SLO #3 surfing college in the country, but bring a wetsuit, the water is cold). Then there is the Rec Center with 7 basketball courts, multiple swimming pools, a 3-lane indoor track, hundreds of cardio vascular machines, 4 gyms, 3 studios, and racquetball courts. Or if you prefer simply a place to just read and relax, there is Dexter Lawn, right next to the Robert F. Kennedy Library.

Because students must declare majors when applying, and switching majors once enrolled is not encouraged, SLO has what is termed by some as an ‘upside down curriculum.’ From day one students take a combination of major courses along with general education courses. While unusual, it does better position students to apply to internships, or join undergraduate research projects, well before the end of their sophomore year.   

SLO is by no means a small school; its total undergraduate population is 19,000 (and will be expanding over the next 5 years according to expansion plans well underway). Yet, it somehow manages to maintain a small, close-knit ambience. Though this might be attributed to the town atmosphere that pervades San Luis Obispo, SLO keeps its class sizes manageable: over 70% of classes contain 20-49 students. Moreover, most classes are taught by actual professors (not teacher assistants) who are there primarily to teach and are known to be intelligent, accessible, helpful, and personable.

While all this sounds like a utopia, SLO does have its shortcomings. Registration is known to be challenging. One student remarked that the system changes every couple of years making the process even more frustrating. Additionally, after freshman year, many students live off campus and commute to campus by auto: parking is expensive and scarce.

If you can contend with some of the downsides, the upsides are enormous.  One other upside is that every student must finish his or her major with a student project, an ample capstone that applies all elements of the major. From this caldron of creativity has come ‘Jamba Juice.’  SLO just keeps learning by doing. You might want to join in.

Social Media, its Tools, and the College Selection Process

For the millennial generation, social media is virtually a birthright; over two thirds use social media to gain a sense of which colleges to apply to, and around a third, once accepted, use social media to narrow down their list to a solid match.  

Many use social media to ‘demonstrate interest,’ one of the top seven factors affecting admissions according to NACAC’s Admission Decision Survey. Using social media they might like a campus on Facebook, or follow it on Twitter. As time passes and more information is garnered about favorite campuses students can build an ever more detailed and complete profile of the features and benefits favored institutions provide.   

Facebook is one of the dominant sites where students begin their college searches to discover a college’s history, background, and to even sample its atmosphere. Cara Rousseau, the social media manager at Duke, notes Facebook is where many conversations about a college take place, where the most recent photos and videos get posted, and where many followers gain an intimate look into campus life.

One tool that will eventually integrate into Facebook and which gives a full sense of a campus’s atmosphere is the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset funded on Kickstarter in 2012 and purchased by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. You Visit, a leader in virtual campus visits, calls the Rift, “reverse teleportation—bringing the location to the person.” It provides a true campus ambience, something that can’t be captured by photo montages in Facebook, Tumblr, or Instagram. You Visit currently offers a growing library of over 1,000 Rift virtual campuses from around the world, including Vanderbilt, West Point, and North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

The social media sites have begun to stake out their portions of the college search turf:

  • Facebook, as mentioned,  is where many schools post their most recent photos and videos
  • Pinterest has ‘boards’ where many schools post links to their information on campus resources, school information, or admissions tips. Babson (MA), for example, uses its board to connect prospects, current students and alumni: an invaluable means of recruiting and creating a robust institutional community.
  • Tumblr serves as a blogging site for many admissions offices including University of Chicago, Purdue, and Yale. Discussions and answers can often be found at Tumblr about applications, admissions decision, and deadlines. It’s a good social media site to gain an inside look at the workings of admissions.
  • Instagram is used by admissions officers to share photos of daily life on campus or premiere admission information letters.
Twitter, the 140-character micro-blogger site, is used by many prospects to interact with colleges, or even departments within colleges, many of which have their own Twitter accounts.  Consequently, rather than read about a department on a college website, a prospect twitters the department to dialogue about special majors or internships. Additionally, those interested can follow certain hashtags such as #UVA marchingband, to monitor new announcements or departmental needs.  Twitter is probably a social media tour de force tool for making final admission decisions.

Last spring, Klaudia Jazwinska, a high school senior accepted at Lafayette (PA) and Lehigh (PA) Universities, reached out to both schools to ask their opinions as to which might be best for her to attend.  The marching band at Lehigh responded to her inquiries by inviting her to ‘candidate’s day’.  Lehigh’s admissions office mentioned undergraduate research opportunities, faculty mentors, a gorgeous campus, and interdisciplinary majors. Jack Lule, the chair of Lehigh’s journalism department, discussed with her the finer points of studying journalism at Lehigh.

Lehigh sold Klaudia by answering many of her questions about how she will fit into campus life. The power of social media removed a lot of guesswork from her final college selection. 

Finding the Best Professors

When boiling down the college experience to its essence, students usually best remember getting to know one or two professors who were pivotal in sparking their curiosity and jumpstarting their motivation.

Richard Light of Harvard School of Education in his Making the Most of College, Students Speak Their Minds, describes the factors that define faculty who ‘make a difference.’ Professor Light interviewed over 1400 students to isolate his list of important factors

 

  1. Teaching precision in the use of language
  2. Sharing intellectual responsibility: expectations are that both teacher and student will learn through their encounters
  3. Connecting academic ideas with student’s lives
  4. Engaging students in large classes
  5. Teaching students to think like professionals
  6. Encouraging students to disagree with the professor
  7. Teaching the use of evidence: how to use evidence to make decisions and resolve issues
  8. Not being predictable: in class anything is fair game
  9. Integrating ideas from other disciplines

 

Undoubtedly, such a detailed list can help ferret out top professors. Princeton Review, though, in its Best 378 Colleges, boils faculty appraisal down to two key qualities: is the teacher interesting (a broad and subjective quality) and accessible. The review surveyed over 30,000 students across campuses and Lynn O’Shaughnessy, in her blog ‘The College Solution’ summarized the results noting professors in liberal arts colleges received higher scores than those in many private research universities (including the Ivy League), professors at private universities scored higher than those at state universities, and professors at ‘flagship’ state universities (e.g. UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, and University of Michigan) ranked the lowest of all.

Obviously these findings throw into question the importance of brand name, or rankings, when selecting where the best educational value might be had.

Another Princeton Review (PR) publication, The Best 300 Professors, seeks to uncover who these paragons of professorial talent are. To create the book PR teamed up with Rate My Professor.com and between the two identified more than 42,000 professors, of whom they then culled down to the final 300. The top five schools with the most top professors are not what one might expect. In ()’s is the number of top 300 teachers on the school’s faculty. Leading the list is Mount Holyoke, MA (14), James Madison, VA (11), Colgate, NY (10), William & Mary, VA (9), and Kenyon College (9).

One of the 300 is Joe Biel, CSU Fullerton, associate Professor of Studio Arts, who has taught at CSUF for over 8 years, and whose work is exhibited internationally. His capabilities can be gleaned from his students’ comments: “Joe is the man. He makes students want to learn, and he is extremely passionate about his work,” “If you don’t take his class it’s your loss. He’s that good,” and, “One of the best professors I’ve ever had.”

Another is Robert Winsor, PhD., a professor of marketing at Loyola Marymount University, who has published over 120 peer reviewed articles, many frequently cited in foundational research. He connects with his students: “He's hilarious, treats you like an adult, and really wants you to learn,” “There is no limit to what will happen in class,” and, “He makes you want to go into the marketing field!”

There are a lot of great teachers in America’s universities, and some very fine ones right here in your own backyard. During your undergraduate years it’s absolutely critical you connect with one or two of them, do some research with one or both, and learn the excitement of mutual discovery and exploration. It will make your undergraduate years unforgettable and your future more brilliant. 

Haunted Campuses

The New York University (NYU) application essay reads: ‘NYU is global, urban, inspired, smart, connected, and bold. What can NYU offer you, and what can you offer NYU?’ Whatever you might offer NYU, NYU offers you a place in the elite of haunted campuses, along with a very good scare above and beyond its annual tuition rate of $45,000.

Founded in 1831, NYU has over 20,000 souls buried beneath its main campus. The land comprising Washington Square Park, NYU’s Greenwich Village location, was a ‘potter’s field,’ a graveyard for the indigent.  It also served as a mass grave for the thousands who died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of the 1820s. The Old University building, one of the first buildings built on the campus, was haunted by a young artist who committed suicide in one of its turrets.

The former Asch Building, now known on the NYU campus as the Brown Building, was where on 25 March 1911the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took place killing 146 garment workers, mostly young girls. The deaths occurred on the 9th floor. Today the 9th floor of the Brown Building contains the Center for Developmental Genetics; some have heard rustling noises, shrieks of desperation, and, on occasion, smelled smoke.      

NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse on McDougall Street is where Eugene O’Neill got his start on the road to becoming a Nobel Prize winning dramatist. O’Neill’s road ended with his passing on the 4th floor of the Sheldon Hotel, which is now Boston University’s Sheldon Hall.  Current residents claim the elevator stops on the 4th floor often for ‘no reason,’ ‘lights are dimmer there than any other floor,’ and students often hear knocks on their doors only to open to nothing.

At Cornell, Hiram Corson, a popular professor of English (1870-1903), claimed little difficulty communing with deceased authors and poets including Walt Whitman, Alfred Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Robert Browning. He added a whole new dimension to the Dead Poet’s Society. Cornell is rife with ghosts: there is a malicious spirit haunting the shelves of Olin Library; Jennie McGraw-on occasion-visits the clock tower; tuxedoed ghosts have been encountered by the staff of Willard Straight Hall; the ghost of Alice Statler whose name is on the Hotel School Auditorium is said to have ‘physically grabbed’ a Statler employee; and a group of students and their dog-killed in a 1967 fire in the Ecology House- often make their presence known by footsteps, strange lights, and an occasional phantom bark.   

The University of Virginia currently reports that two ghosts haunt the Alderman library. One, Dr. Bennett Wood Green a Confederate surgeon, willed his book collection to the library and now haunts it. Students report footsteps and a strange presence if in the collection after midnight. The second ghost, a physician who made house calls on the Garnett family in Fredericksburg, VA haunts the Garnett collection. One can only imagine the ire raised by an overdue book.

Closer to home, CSU Channel Islands was built on the site of the former Camarillo State Hospital (1936-1997) in which over a 1,000 patients died. Investigators of the paranormal have found the grounds of CSU CI active with visitations from the supernatural. Doors lock themselves, lights flicker and strange cries emanate from nowhere.

Cal State Fullerton also has its share of ghosts. In the Phi Kappa Tau Fraternity house, located on the corner of State College and Yorba Lind Blvd, the ghost of Wendy Osborn, who was allegedly killed in the ravine abutting the fraternity, turns water taps on and off, flickers the lights, opens cabinets, and jumps on beds. Moreover, in 1976, in the basement of the Pollak Library South, a janitor went on a five-minute shooting spree killing seven. Today, doors slam in the basement restroom, and paper towels magically dispense flittering into the trash.

Though University of Pennsylvania lacks the ghostly visits of NYU, BU, Cornell, UVA, CSCI, or CSUF, it does contain the Penn Ghost Project. Here the study of ghosts, parapsychology, is a serious enterprise. Jeff McDaniel, a professor of religious studies and a member on the project asserts: “Even if ghosts are not a physical reality, they’re a sociological reality.” Perhaps Eugene O’Neill would agree.

 

Changes to the New ACT and SAT Essays

Both the ACT and SAT essays will be changing within the next 14 months. The ACT will implement its new essay format with the September 12th, 2015 test date, and the SAT will likely premier its new optional essay on its January 24th, 2016 test.

One of the key reasons behind the overhauls is that in their current states, both essays can be written to formula.

The ACT prompt, for instance, usually deals with some act or fiat imposed on schools: random locker checks, video cameras in the playground, school uniforms…and the essay writer needs to either agree or disagree with the proposal and then offer up two supporting examples. One girl who received a 12 ( on both the SAT and ACT a perfect score) on her ACT essay mentioned she always disagrees with whatever is being imposed upon the schools, states the opposing argument, destroys it, offers up two solid examples that support her thesis, and then concludes, ending with a ‘zinger,’ disengaging with a profound statement.   

The new ACT essay will focus on controversial issues such as global warming, GMOs, or the role of art in society. The response needs to include a logical argument with cogent examples, but now there will be three short quotes expressing a spectrum of views. The test taker will need to evaluate the quality of the responses and build those evaluations into the essay.  The ACT still has not announced whether it will add more time to the current 30-minute limit.

Possibly, the announced ACT essay changes are an effort to preempt the proposed 2016 changes to the SAT essay. The SAT essay (as is the entire test) is undergoing profound changes. 

Currently the SAT essay prompts deal with concepts: “Should freedom be sacrificed for safety?” or such profound questions as, “Is there a good war or a bad peace?” Smart, well-trained students will respond with an essay that shows  mastery over style, syntax, structure, and logic, is legible, has four paragraphs with two cogent examples spread over two pages (since many studies indicate that SAT essay scorers favor length). The problem has been that students may use examples that are completely fabricated. As David Coleman, the president of the College Board guilelessly remarked, the writing section ‘does not grade you on the correctness of what you write.”

To avoid such travesties writing rampant on the New SAT, its essay requires ‘cogent and clear written analysis’ using evidence from a ‘challenging source text.’ The essay prompt will not vary much from test to test; rather, it will be the passage that determines the essay’s challenge. One of the sample essays I reviewed was adapted from Paul Bogard’s Let There be Dark and the prompt asked, ‘…explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved.’ Careful reading and analysis are integral to the new essay writing process.

Instead of 25 minutes, the new SAT essay will allot 50. The passages will consistently be 650-750 words; the scoring system is still under review, through one provisional scheme would divide the 12 points among critical reading, analysis, and writing.  

Regardless of how you might dress up the new SAT essay contention abounds. One such critic, James Murphy, a tutor for the Princeton Review, contends (“Don’t Overhaul the SAT Essay, Dump It”, 18 October 2014 Wall Street Journal) that the new SAT essay is too long, making the essay writing more an endurance test; that he already has a plan to address the 50-minute essay with 6 paragraphs, chunking analysis into increasingly smaller components; and, that the new SAT essay ‘does not contribute to the overall predictive nature of the exam. He adds that in a recent survey of admissions officers, 67% said that the writing section had little to do with the final admissions decision.

Regardless of how efficacious either essay is in determining an applicant’s capabilities, the ACT and SAT essay changes are attempting to better incorporate reading, analysis and writing. How EB White or HL Menken might have done on either of these new incarnations is open to speculation.   

The Case of Case Western

Name a college with a cutting edge computer science department which was the first university with a fiber-optic network in 1989, has a 1GB network today, is home to 16 Nobel Prize laureates, has one of the top biomedical engineering programs in the country, and counts among its alumni Craig Newmark, the founder of Craig’s List, and former U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich. Johns Hopkins? Carnegie Mellon? No, Case Western Reserve.

Case Western Reserve is the product of a merger between Case Institute of Technology with Western Reserve University in 1967, resulting in what is now the largest private college in Ohio—with 4228 undergraduates—and the highest nationally ranked university in Ohio, at #38 according to US News and World Report. Case is composed of four undergraduate schools: the College of Arts and Sciences, the Case School of Engineering, the Bolton School of Nursing, and the Weatherhead School of Management, which is contained a Frank Gehry designed Lewis Building featuring undulating walls

The 155-acre campus is located 5 miles east of downtown Cleveland, adjacent to the Wade Park historic district in a neighborhood appropriately named University Circle. The circle contains 550 acres of cultural institutions including Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, Botanical Garden, Museum of Art, and an assortment of major hospitals. Most of these cultural landmarks have joint programs with Case.  Moreover, if this isn’t enough to satisfy one’s cultural needs, Case is only 4 miles from the I.M. Pei designed Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (bring your ID and you get a free admissions ticket).  

While Case is primarily known for its science and engineering majors, in particular the Biomedical engineering is stellar and the polymer science major is one of the few such programs in the country, its ‘western reserve’ portion fosters the arts and sciences.  Indeed, there is excellent teaching and solid research in American Studies, Art History, and Psychology. Case also introduced SAGES (Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship), to replace the core curriculum with 5-6 small interdisciplinary seminars taken throughout the four years emphasizing reading, discussion, and intensive writing.

The atmosphere of the school is academically challenging, but extremely collaborative in spirit. Study groups are encouraged, and it’s relatively easy to find others working on problem sets to join in with.

Case also offers specialty majors and programs. In particular is its Pre-Professional Scholars Program (PPSP). Through PPSP freshmen are offered conditional places in Case’s highly regarded dental, law, social work, and, highly coveted, medicine schools.  

Like Northwestern and Boston University, Case is a proponent of learning through experience (clinical, hands-on, or experiential learning).  75% of the undergraduates participate in research, numerous theatrical productions, clinical nursing, and coop programs with local engineering firms during their undergraduate career. Community service learning tie-ins also abound with tutoring services in Cleveland high schools through such programs as Project Step Up.

What most of the 4,300 undergraduates at Case value are the low 9:1 students to faculty ratio, that 95% of classes are taught by faculty, and that many of the professors are widely accessible. Some departments such as Political Science and Physics have small class sizes allowing for almost individual attention.

While the tuition ticket price is an eye-popping $41,800, over 80% of the students have some form of financial aid with an average financial aid package, according to College Navigator, of $30,700.

If you’re considering Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, Washington University (St. Louis) or Northwestern, do not overlook the Tartans of Case Western Reserve, a demanding campus with all that Cleveland has to offer.    

The Critical Role of Recommendations

To gain admission to a four-year institution outside the University of California, or California State University systems, will require recommendations. Generally, one of these recommendations will come from your high school guidance counselor, and usually, two, or possibly three teachers. There are, of course, variations on what type of recommendations schools might want; Dartmouth and Davidson College, for instance, request a recommendation from one of your peers. Duke and Smith College even request a parental recommendation. Regardless of the number or kinds of recommendations you’ll need, don’t discount their importance.

The Dying Art of Cursive Writing

I remember learning cursive in 2nd grade comparing the cursive ‘r’ to the print ‘r’ and thinking I’ll never figure this out. Then the teachers would write in cursive on the blackboard as cleanly and beautifully as was in the workbook and I wondered when will I ever gain such command over cursive? These days, students needn’t worry about such things. With the arrival of the Common Core curriculum, cursive will no longer be taught within the national curriculum. Nor will spelling.