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Researching and Selecting Colleges: Go West, Young Person

In applying to college, college admission, Researching Colleges, university application information on February 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Update on this post for 2018–A lot has changed, but my basic stance remains the same–you can save a lot of money by looking to public, western universities.  I will write soon about foreign options-and not just in Canada–but if you are out West, take a look below.  And if you are not, look nearby.  UMass Amherst, great school, much easier admit than any Ivy, well-known regionally and more and more well-known internationally. 

As for changes out west in 2018, among other things, the WUE tuition reduction program for students out West has been dialed way back at many schools, but Arizona State is still a big exception in every way and has some really solid programs in tech as well as the usual suspects in business and the humanities.  They are going with scale but in creating separate campuses and building up the Honors college, they have it going on. 

Okay, Jumping back in time now–

Who should read this post:  anybody who wants to reduce tuition costs; high school Juniors and Sophomores anywhere; community college students; anybody who wants to figure out which majors at which college in the West are most in demand (most impacted) and so are the hardest to get into;  students in any western state; cowboys and girls trapped on the East Coast; Beat poets who need an excuse to go on the road.

Researching Colleges:  Some Sources and Activities

I will start with the basics in this post and then quickly get into strategies for finding cheap tuition and good programs in many majors across the West, from Alaska to California and from Hawaii to New Mexico.

Here are three things you should be doing if you are a high school Junior or Sophomore or a Junior/Community College student in the early stages of planning for college admissions:

1. Do some research on majors.  I will address this separately for those of you who have not yet examined yourself and the available fields of study.

2. Start exploring colleges by going to sites like the Princeton Review and getting books like Princeton Review’s The Complete Book of Colleges; Princeton Review’s Best 376 Colleges is also a good place to get going as it is more selective than The Complete Book of Colleges, which can be overwhelming.  The Best 376, like most other college guide books, has a website which is easy to search and gives some information for free;  see the website here at The Best 376 Colleges.  I also like the Fiske products; though they are not as comprehensive, their opinions are useful–even when I don’t agree with what they say, they give me things to think about. (Note that many titles have changed, mostly by adding to the number of schools covered in the last few years.)

You should use a variety of factors to  match yourself to colleges, but start by looking at their GPA and SAT/ACT scores for entering students. Come up with a short list of your most preferred colleges–At this point, you might find dozens of colleges, but by the time you start to fill out applications, I recommend 10-12 total, and about 8 “most preferred;” you should include 2-3 schools which seem to be a reach in terms of entrance requirements.  Be sure to consider affordability when you compile this list and, in addition to the “reach” schools, include three schools which are both affordable and easily in the range of  your GPA and test scores.  You will need to do some guesswork here if you have not taken the SAT and ACT.  I know that is a lot to consider, but right now you are in the early stages, so don’t put on the blinders, and stay relaxed.  This stage can be a lot of fun if you treat it as an opportunity to do some armchair traveling.

You should also keep an eye out for visits by college representatives to your campus and, for colleges you already are interested in, you should check their websites–some schools visit  particular regions intensively while others are more like rock stars (or hip hop stars or whatever), visiting only a few venues to which you must travel.  If you do go to a presentation, try to introduce yourself and follow up with an e-mail to the presenter.  The more competitive the school, the more important it is that you have shown interest during the application process.

 When you have a list of schools that you like and that seem like  a good fit, you should add schools which are out of your comfort zone in the sense that are out of state or in a state you have not yet considered.  The rest of this post and the tools I suggest will focus specifically on western states, but the states involved include everything from Hilo  to Fargo, so there should be something for all but the most East Coast Preppy among you.

3. So step 3 is to look for schools which are a good match for you but which are out of state.  This is especially true for residents of California and our brethren on the East Coast,  places which have, for the most part, higher tuition and higher living expenses than do other, western states.  I will focus on tools for researching and evaluating western colleges for the remainder of this post.

What About Out-of-State Tuition?

But wait, you protest; isn’t the tuition for nonresidents much higher?  If I go to Oregon or Washington or Arizona (etc, et al) won’t I pay even more than I would in my home state?   The answer is maybe.  Yes, out-of-state tuition can be prohibitive in any state, but there are exceptions and more importantly, there are local and regional programs which alleviate or eliminate the extra cost.

As an example some of the smaller Oregon colleges–and a few of these are very good schools–have been particularly aggressive in recruiting students from California, offering in-state Oregon tuition to out-of-state students.  More generally, the  Western Undergraduate Exchange program can also drastically reduce costs at many colleges in many majors.  So next you should:

Reduced Tuition for Students Living in the West; Evaluating Impacted Majors

3.  Go to the Western Undergraduate Exchange website.  You can click on the link I provide here.   This lists schools participating and allows you to examine schools which participate.  You can check them by major, as the availability of WUE tuition support depends partly on the major.

The WUE is highly informative in another way–you can look at most colleges in the West and figure out which programs are looking to recruit students; put another way, you can see which programs are most impacted, meaning are hardest to get into, for the majors which interest you. Most of the WUE support will not be for majors which have too much demand or for which the college, for whatever reason, wants to help out-of-state students get into.

There may be  a few majors in which the universities have specific reasons for promoting out-of-state students even if the major is in high demand, but this is not the rule. As an example, History majors are still relatively common and many of the popular  WUE campuses do not offer a discount for History majors because, well, they have enough already from inside the state and have no reason to encourage others to apply.  For a more hip example, if you look up some of the Digital Arts and Computer majors, you can deduce how in demand they are, at which schools, which tells you not just if the WUE will help you but will also suggest  how demanding the admissions requirements are for these majors at these schools.  It might be much harder, for example, to get into the Digital Arts program at the University of Oregon than it would be to major in Music there.  Some colleges do not yet offer a Digital Arts Major, so check with the college website as well–they may not offer it yet, so it won’t show up on the WUE list.

I will go into using the major selection as a strategic move when applying  in later posts, though I have addressed it in briefly in earlier posts on this site.

4. Identify at least 4-6 colleges which are out-of-state a which are a good match for you in terms of GPA and test scores.  Hopefully you used the search by major tool on the WUE site and fiddled with different configurations to look at whether various majors and colleges participated in the WUE program.

I recommend not applying to more than ten colleges from your final list, with twelve being the highest number you should apply to (more about that in another post), so in the coming months, you should continue to research colleges.


Other Factors to Consider:  Would You Want To Live There Under Other Circumstances?

5. Consider factors you have not yet considered:  weather is important, as are other kinds of “climates” like the social climate and the political climate, as well as the potential for regional connections.  Is this a party school or an academic school or a place with both good academics and a good social life?  Is there an arts community? Are there opportunities to see music and theater?   What kinds of companies show up at job fairs and recruitment visits?  You should look up the city or town on wikipedia and other sites, and you should go to student review sites such as unigo–keep in mind the limitations of these sites, however–most of these students are evaluating without much direct experience with other schools, which makes many of their comparative evaluations suspect.  Also, research on user reviews shows a bias toward negative reviews.  And you should, if possible, visit the the school and explore its setting.  I mean the physical school, not just the website.  I would not want to enroll in the University of Washington, for example, without checking out Seattle, at least for a couple of days.  Especially if you are from a sunnier climate.

Philosophers Debate College Admissions

In college admission, college admissions, college application, common application, university application information on September 9, 2011 at 9:06 pm

To be technically correct, two philosophers engaged in an interesting and informative dialogue about the admissions rat race with a professor of education. I am speaking of a recent episode of Philosophy Talk, featuring Stanford Professor Emeritus John Perry and Stanford Philosophy professor Ken Taylor. This is a brilliant radio program and is always worth a listen, but for those who are currently running the admissions steeplechase, this episode is a must.

The Ed Prof in question, Mitchell Stephens, is the author of Creating a Class, a study of the university applications process. The message Stephens conveys is that the competition is ferocious for a particular subset of elite schools, and he believes that this is for a very good reason: successful, middle class parents have absorbed the lesson that it is not only harder to attain a middle class life today, it is also harder to sustain a middle class life through adulthood. He argues further that being in the right university–at the right lunch table, as he memorably phrases it–can make a difference, because of the associations that come with the elite names, like Yale or Stanford–or the associations that don’t come with the names of little-known schools. University names create assumptions about their graduates. Coming from a more elite school as an undergraduate will help you in the next step, whether that be employment or in applying to grad school.

I have to admit that he is right, to a large extent, but this is the result of a sort of feedback loop between such universities and those who want to attend them.

I also believe that one of the philosophers in particular, John Perry, makes a convincing case that we still do have a great university system in California, as well as a great community college system (and that most of the other states have good to excellent systems). Perry points out that it is still possible for students to move from a community college to a (relatively) prestigious university before going on to an excellent graduate program or job. He argues further that a student can find, say, a German instructor at a community college who will give instruction just as good as a German professor at Stanford. And students can improve the “brand value” (my term here) at each step of the process–from community college to a good university to a top-ranked grad school. I guess Perry should know, since he’s been there and followed a path like that himself.

The take away of Perry’s argument is this: those students–and parents–who think that they will live or die by their Stanford or Yale or University of Chicago application need to get a paper bag and start breathing into it (do people still deal with hyperventilation in that way, or have plastic bags become ubiquitous?) In the event that plan A fails, they also need to have a well-though-out plan B, and C and even D, and I think that at least plan C should include a good, out-of-state university, preferably one with relatively low tuition.

If you already know what you what your first choice is, it makes sense to spend time looking at other options instead of finding out everything possible about your first choice. You will hopefully arrive there anyway and will be able to see if all for yourself. There are some exceptions to this when choosing a major, of course. Oversubscribed majors turn away many more students in relationship to less popular majors at the same schools. But there are certainly places where you could be happy and well educated that you do not even know exist. And you won’t know they exist if you don’t look. Also keep in mind the cost factor. Other costs tend to mirror tuition costs, and it will almost certainly require more money to live and eat near Harvard than it will around the University of Oregon.

In previous posts I have discussed some of the other options to consider, particularly for students from California, where I am based. In addition, I have written about the college admissions game, in which many institutions actively recruit qualified students in order to be able to turn down a larger percentage of applicants and therefore become a more “selective” and more prestigious university. Those are the rules of the game, but you have a wide latitude to decide if you are going to play with the “elite” or find an excellent alternate choice–or both.

Welcome to the Jungle

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement, university application information on August 30, 2011 at 10:29 pm

College Advising and Essay Development for the College Class of 2024, from Singapore to Palo Alto.

The College App Jungle is my blog devoted to the  world of college applications.  The pursuit of college admissions can seem increasingly Darwinian, but my hope is that this blog will provide you with the context and means to have a fulfilling and successful transition into college.   A clickable table of contents for a selection of popular topics can be found below.

Contact Me for college advising and help with application essays–my essay development and editing service is the best in the business.

Links to Key Contents and Application Success:

The Secret of College Admissions:  How College Applications Are Evaluated

The Common Application

Common Application Essay Prompts for 2019-2020

Common Application Portal

(Warning:  do not set up your Common App account before it reopens on or about August 1–most of the Common App site will go offline at the end of July, and any data entered before they roll out this year’s portal on or around August 1st will be deleted.  Go ahead and write the essays on your favorite word processor, but don’t upload them until August.)

Stanford Essays–

Click here for: The Stanford Roommate Letter (Essay) for 2019-2020

Click here for: the Stanford Intellectual Curiosity essay–my first post on this for 2019-2020 is combined with the parallel essay prompt for Brown University.

Click here for: The Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompts (These have  been relatively unchanged for years and the 250-word supplemental essays will remain the same for 2020)

More on the Stanford Supplement Prompts

Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, UPenn, Columbia–still waiting for them to confirm prompts for 2019-2020. Here are a couple of last year’s prompts–food for thought, but do not write them until they go live–

Yale for 2018-2019

U Penn for 2018-2019

University of Chicago

I have a soft spot for The University of Chicago Essay Prompts, because they are often so brazenly weird and even when they seem a little too-cute pretentious, they are interesting. Chicago requires two supplemental essays. 

Click to learn:

How to Write the Chicago Supplemental Essay One for 2019-2020 

How to Write the University of Chicago Essay Two (the interesting prompt) for 2019-2020

Chicago Prompts for 2018-2019, and The Chicago Application Essay Quote Prompts for 2018-2019. Or just click below for old prompts that you may still write about:

Some other topics of interest for Chicago and others:

Writing About Books- Part 2 (2011)

How to Persuade: The Rhetorical Situation

College Application Trends, Statistics and Advice

Ivy League Admissions Data for 2019-2020–See the most recent data available on admissions and how early applications impacts admissions chances

Advice on the College Application Rat Race

Researching And Selecting Colleges:  Go West, Young Person–an old post, but still so true, for those looking to get great bang for their tuition buck, particularly if you live in the Western United States.

College Application Success:  The Seven Rules–timeless advice on how the system works

The above is not a comprehensive list of posts but gives you a representative sample.  You may browse further using the Archive link.  

In the twenty years that I have been helping students navigate the application and essay process, the essay itself has become much more important. The reasons are clear. Over the last decade, we have seen increasing numbers of qualified high school students face decreasing numbers of seats available in our universities. Essays and supplementals are key to distinguishing your application from the 100,000 plus that will go to the top two UC’s this year, and the tens of thousands to each of the Ivy League schools.

The information available on this blog is for the free use of college applicants and essay writers.  Use it to help you get started before you send your work to me.  Topics range from general discussions about the craft of writing to specific discussion of college essay topics and the changing world of college applications. I also review trends in admissions and changes occurring in the world of academia.

The contents of this blog are intended for the use of college applicants and their parents to assist them in the college application process and in developing quality application essays. Please refrain from using this blog for your own commercial purposes. If you wish to duplicate any of this information, please contact me to explain and request the right to do so.  Full access to sample content is available via a subscription.  Contact me to subscribe.

Early College Admissions Data for 2011 and What This Means for You

In college admission, college admissions, college application, Uncategorized, university application information, university rankings on June 16, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Some early data is rolling in on this year’s college admissions, and all the news is up for those institutions known as “selective” universities–up meaning turned down for even more applicants this year. To wit: Stanford saw the number of applicants rise from 32,022 for 2010 to 34,000 in 2011, an increase of over 6%; across the Bay, U. C. Berkeley went from 50,312 to 52,920, an increase just north of 5%; and across the continent, Harvard saw an increase from 30,489 applicants last year to 35,000 this year

The wide net cast by many–if not most–of the schools who have risen to the top of U.S. News and World Report’s heap of illusions is well known by now. This includes promos and invitations sent with more frequency than credit card offers to the homes of high school students, many of whom have a snowball’s chance in a pizza oven of being admitted.

Also widely reported is the effect that these tens of thousands of what I call “prejects” have on the bottom line of these same selective universities. Thirty thousand admissions fees paid by kids (okay, parents of kids) who will under no circumstances ever tread the halls is a tidy sum reaped by a university for a very inexpensive data collections system. An admissions officer can screen dozens of applications a day, most electronic, and let’s face it, the first step is an algorithmic gate–at or below GPA x, no admit. At GPA y, maybe. If I were cynical, I would argue that the universities have found a way of making rejects pay for the system that screens their students.

It is still true that the sweat and tears of applicants does matter, but only for those already near the top. So be realistic. If you don’t have a 4.0, or a 3.75 with a tremendous story to tell, don’t waste your time with the “selective” schools. If you do, go for it–and put plenty of time into your essay if you are going to be a Senior in September.