College Acceptance at Top Schools Tougher Than Ever: 2016-2017 Results

 
2016-2017 was the toughest year in the history of college admissions. The number of students from top Houston high schools like Memorial, Stratford, St. John’s, Kinkaid, and Strake Jesuit who were disappointed at acceptance time was far higher than ever before.
You must know the following facts. Admission to the most popular and highest rated colleges in the U.S. (roughly equivalent to the top 150 colleges and universities in the U.S. News, Forbes, or other rankings) is ludicrously competitive. Parents, students, and school counselors are radically over-rating the chances for admissions at these most sought after colleges. College acceptance at top schools has never been more difficult.


 
Boston University is a textbook example of how dramatically competition has increased in the last few years. Boston University admitted 30-40% of freshman applicants between 2010 and 2013. In the first half of the 2010’s, middle class students in the top 25% of their class, with nice but not spectacular resumes, good essays, and ACT scores around 30 or SAT scores around 1250 would be good candidates for acceptance. Most of those students would be offered college acceptance by Boston U., a small handful would be denied.

Fast forward to 2017. This fall, Boston University received a record-breaking 60,000 plus applicants for 3,400 freshman spots, and accepted only 25% of applicants. Every single admitted freshman at BU this year was in the top 7% of their high school class!!! The median SAT score was 1450!! And this is at a college that is high quality, but by no means an elite university.

The same jump in competitiveness is happening at UT-Austin, Texas A&M, USC, Vanderbilt, Georgia and nearly every college and university that students at Memorial, Kinkaid, St. John’s, Episcopal, Awty, Lamar, and Stratford will apply to. This year, UCLA received over 100,000 freshman applications, the first university to ever break the 100K mark. UT-Austin experienced the same massive increase in freshman applications, with the number of fall 2016 applications expected in the 60,000 plus range, a jump of 20,000 from just two years ago.
Last fall, I visited college admissions information sessions put on by TCU, SMU, and Trinity TX. All three made the same strong announcement to the families and students in the audience: “It is much tougher to get accepted to our school than a few years ago. Don’t go by the historical profile that we’ve typically accepted.”

Good grades and SAT/ACT scores are only a starting point in gaining acceptance to the top 150 colleges and universities. Successful applications require a compelling theme, interesting and unique essays, and standout activities to break from the pack and catch the attention of admission staffs.

If you want to learn more about what it takes to get accepted at top college choices, please read this post.

College Admissions Mistake #4: Failing to Make College Visits

 
College visits are important for demonstrating real interest in the college and they also yield a trove of critical information. A campus visit that is spent wisely will help your family decide if the school fits your child’s needs socially, academically, and culturally.

In today’s hyper-competitive admissions landscape, colleges pay close attention to student visits. For admission staff, visits are an indication of the student’s interest and seriousness about the school and the admission process. Even public universities are now taking inventory of sign-ins at the admissions office. A visit, tour, and overnight campus stay could be the difference between acceptance and denial.

Further, campus visits during in-session periods of class are the best way to get a thorough understanding of the campus culture, academic climate, and campus social life. Visit classes and departments, the school bookstore, and try to connect with faculty and staff. Arrange for an overnight stay in the dorms, meet and interview current students. That’s how you find out what is really going on at the college, beyond the marketing materials, fancy websites, and shiny fitness centers.

College Admissions Mistake #3: Assuming Private Universities are Too Expensive

 
When choosing colleges to research and apply to, many students and families make the critical college admissions mistake of eliminating private universities because of their sticker price.  Yes, private universities often have a higher sticker price than their public university counterparts. However, the actual cost to families is frequently the same or less than what you would pay at your local flagship public university.

The average discount at private universities was 48.6% in 2015. With an average yearly total cost sticker price of just less than $35,000, an education at the 725 private colleges ranked by US News frequently ends up as less expensive than public universities, especially when compared to out-of-state public universities.

Here’s the math: $35,000 minus 48.6% discount ($16,800) equals $18,200 in total cost on average for private universities. UT-Austin estimates their yearly total cost for Texas residents at $23-25,000, as does Texas A&M. Neither of these schools will give middle class students a dime of aid, unless the student is an elite academic scholar. Many private universities will cost your family less than the flagship public universities in Texas, or your home state, and will provide many more valuable services.

Popular out-of-state universities like the University of Colorado-Boulder, UCLA, and the University of Georgia are almost always more expensive than private universities. These schools give out minimal aid to middle class families and most families will pay 100% of the total cost.  CU-Boulder estimates the out-of-state total cost at $50,469. UCLA costs over $60,000 per year for out-of-state students and Georgia estimates their non-resident total cost at $45,128.  When compared to the average cost for a private university, these massive public universities are much more expensive.

Further, we must raise the question of value. If most of the classes your child attends have 150, 300, or more students and most tests are multiple choice, then what is the real quality of his or her coursework? If a college costs less money, but does much less to help your son or daughter grow and build skills and experiences that will positively impact their career prospects, then is that college providing a worthwhile return on your investment?

College Admissions Mistake #2: Not Understanding Different Types of Colleges and the Traits That Distinguish Them

To properly evaluate and choose the right colleges for you, we must understand the traits of the different pools of colleges in the U.S. College education is not a widget that is exactly the same at every college or university, even when comparing the same major at two or more schools. Different types of colleges have different missions, different size/scale, varying availability of professor interaction, and varied pedagogical methods.

Public research universities with 25,000-65,000 undergraduate students (UT-Austin, A&M, UCLA, U of Alabama, etc.) offer large (200 or more students), mostly lecture oriented classes, with discussion-based courses available only to upper division students, if at all.

Smaller private colleges with approximately 2,000 students, sometimes called liberal arts colleges or teaching universities (Trinity TX, Amherst, Williams, Pomona), typically offer nearly all courses in discussion-based settings, with a small number of lecture courses. Nearly all classes are 25 or less, with many classes of 10-15 students.

Medium sized universities, typically private with 5-10,000 undergrads (Ivies, Stanford, SMU, TCU, Tulane, Vanderbilt), with some larger 10-20k undergraduates (USC, NYU, BU, Baylor), vary in the kinds of teaching styles and settings on offer. Some do a great job in limiting large lecture classes and mandating professor support for undergrads, many do not.

Penn and other Ivies have lots of lecture classes that have 100 or more students and professors who are not so available as hoped for. First and second year courses at UCLA, UT-Austin, Texas A&M, LSU, and many flagship public universities usually have 200 students or more. Faculty to student ratios at these and other universities are misleading!

We have had dozens students come to us in the last decade after a semester or two of personal and academic struggle at UCLA, UT-Austin, Texas A&M, LSU, and many other flagship public universities. In nearly every case, the students remarked that the biggest obstacle to their success was the overwhelming size and scale of the university.

These students were surprised that all of their classes were large lectures of 300-plus students with professors who were not helpful. Their families, high school staff, and teachers had not advised them (obviously they had not worked with us on college admission) that these universities were massive in scale and could prove difficult to navigate.

Many other uninformed students and families are surprised that Penn and other Ivies have lots of lecture classes that have 100 or more students and professors who are not so available as hoped for. BU, USC, and NYU and many other medium-sized private universities are notorious for offering 1st and 2nd year classes that have several hundred or more students like those found at public research universities.

College Admissions Mistake #1: Sending in Poor Quality Essays and Applications

 
Poor quality essays and applications will drastically decrease your chance of acceptance at top college choices. My father and partner, Dr. Shumsky, was an admission committee member at Northwestern University and the University of Virginia, elite universities where nearly every applicant is in the top 10% of their high school class. One would expect such universities to receive top-notch essays, resumes, and applications from their applicants. Yet, each year, the in-boxes were filled with low quality essays, resumes, and recommendations.

“nearly 90% are terrible, with another 5% in the poor range.” -UT-Austin Admissions Representative on Application Quality

Our colleagues in admissions departments at competitive colleges like Emory University, Vanderbilt, Macalester, Bowdoin, The University of California system, and The University of Texas At Austin report the same problem. One colleague at UT-Austin commented thus about the quality of applications and essays, “nearly 90% are terrible, with another 5% in the poor range.” Yes, admissions rates are plunging because of increased competition, but good applications still stand out like diamonds.

The primary reason students in our community do not achieve the results at acceptance time that are equal to their strong high school achievements is that the quality of their essays is below par. Most students and families mistakenly believe the college essay must sell the school on the student by pointing out the student’s good traits.

Admissions staff read tens of thousands of essays and nearly all are the same. Student faced minor challenge and overcame challenge by strength of character. Student won contest and felt proud or student lost contest and found merit and value in the process. These kinds of essays bore readers and fail to give a taste of the student’s real voice, experience, and identity.

High quality essays are authentic, personal, detailed, and interesting to admissions readers. If you don’t have good essays, your prospects are vastly reduced.

Top 10 College Admissions Mistakes

When talking with families in our community and reading what is written and said on the Internet and in forums like college confidential, we see that much of the conventional wisdom about college admissions is misguided. In our community, parents and students often wonder why they don’t gain acceptance to the colleges that they are most attracted to. Much of the college admissions process seems unclear and overwhelming. College admissions mistakes occur because families, and many high schools and counselors, lack a full understanding of how the process works and which factors are crucial.

Additionally, the colleges themselves have a way of dancing around the important information as they market and sell their offerings.  We must acknowledge that college admissions is a subjective process where success is not entirely related to academic achievement, grades, and test scores, nor the size of one’s resume.  This acknowledgment is difficult because it is a challenge to our basic ideas about how the world works.

As the important elements in college admissions are changing all of the time, we must pay very close attention to the reality of what is happening now and not rely on outdated ideas.  We have ongoing relationships with college admissions staffs and professors, hiring managers and graduate school admissions staffs, and research curricula, employment patterns, and student outcomes 365 days per year. This information helps us to give your family the best advice possible.  More information about the major factors in college admissions and how your child’s application will be evaluated can be found in this post.

To help your family avoid disappointment at college acceptance time, we offer you the top 10 college admissions mistakes.

1. Sending in Poor Quality Essays and Applications

My father and partner, Dr. Shumsky, was an admission committee member at Northwestern University and the University of Virginia, elite universities where nearly every applicant is in the top 10% of their high school class. One would expect such universities to receive top-notch essays, resumes, and applications from their applicants. Yet, each year, the in-boxes were filled with low quality essays, resumes, and recommendations.

Our colleagues in admissions departments at competitive colleges like Emory University, Vanderbilt, Macalester, Bowdoin, The University of California system, and The University of Texas At Austin report the same problem. One colleague at UT-Austin commented thus about the quality of applications and essays, “nearly 90% are terrible, with another 5% in the poor range.” Yes, admissions rates are plunging because of increased competition, but good applications still stand out like diamonds.

The primary reason students in our community do not achieve the results at acceptance time that are equal to their strong high school achievements is that the quality of their essays is below par. Most students and families mistakenly believe the college essay must sell the school on the student by pointing out the student’s good traits.

Admissions staff read tens of thousands of essays and nearly all are the same. Student faced minor challenge and overcame challenge by strength of character. Student won contest and felt proud or student lost contest and found merit and value in the process. These kinds of essays bore readers and fail to give a taste of the student’s real voice, experience, and identity.

High quality essays are authentic, personal, detailed, and interesting to admissions readers. If you don’t have good essays, your prospects are vastly reduced.

2. Not Understanding Different Types of Colleges and the Traits That Distinguish Them

College education is not a widget that is exactly the same at every college or university, even when comparing the same major at two or more schools. Different schools have different missions, different size/scale, varying availability of professor interaction, and varied pedagogical methods.

Public research universities with 25,000-65,000 undergraduate students (UT-Austin, A&M, UCLA, U of Alabama, etc.) offer large (200 or more students), mostly lecture oriented classes, with discussion-based courses available only to upper division students, if at all.

Smaller private colleges with approximately 2,000 students, sometimes called liberal arts colleges or teaching universities (Trinity TX, Amherst, Williams, Pomona), typically offer nearly all courses in discussion-based settings, with a small number of lecture courses. Nearly all classes are 25 or less, with many classes of 10-15 students.

Medium sized universities, typically private with 5-10,000 undergrads (Ivies, Stanford, SMU, TCU, Tulane, Vanderbilt), with some larger 10-20k undergraduates (USC, NYU, BU, Baylor), vary in the kinds of teaching styles and settings on offer. Some do a great job in limiting large lecture classes and mandating professor support for undergrads, many do not.

We have had dozens students come to us in the last decade after a semester or two of personal and academic struggle at UCLA, UT-Austin, Texas A&M, LSU, and many other flagship public universities. In nearly every case, the students remarked that the biggest obstacle to their success was the overwhelming size and scale of the university.

These students were surprised that all of their classes were large lectures of 300-plus students with professors who were not helpful. Their families, high school staff, and teachers had not advised them (obviously they had not worked with us on college admission) that these universities were massive in scale and could prove difficult to navigate.

Many other uninformed students and families are surprised that Penn and other Ivies have lots of lecture classes that have 100 or more students and professors who are not so available as hoped for. BU, USC, and NYU and many other medium-sized private universities are notorious for offering 1st and 2nd year classes that have several hundred or more students like those found at public research universities.

3. Assuming private universities are too expensive or not worth the price.

The average discount at private universities was 48.6% in 2015. With an average yearly total cost sticker price of just less than $35,000, an education at the 725 private colleges ranked by US News frequently ends up as less expensive than public universities, especially when compared to out of state public universities.

Here’s the math: $35,000 minus 48.6% discount ($16,800) equals $18,200 in total cost on average for private universities. UT-Austin estimates their yearly total cost for Texas residents at $23-25,000, as does Texas A&M. Neither of these schools will give middle class students a dime of aid, unless the student is an elite academic scholar. Many private universities will cost your family less than the flagship public universities in Texas, or your home state, and will provide many more valuable services.

Further, we must raise the question of value. If most of the classes your child attends have 150 or more students and most tests are multiple choice, then what is the real quality of his or her coursework? If a college costs less money, but does much less to help your son or daughter grow and build skills and experiences that will positively impact their career prospects, then is that college providing a worthwhile return on your investment?

4. Failing to Visit Prospective Colleges

In today’s hyper-competitive admissions landscape, colleges pay close attention to student visits. For admission staff, visits are an indication of the student’s interest and seriousness about the school and the admission process. Even public universities are now taking inventory of sign-ins at the admissions office. A visit, tour, and overnight campus stay could be the difference between acceptance and denial.

Further, campus visits during in-session periods of class are the best way to get a thorough understanding of the campus culture, academic climate, and campus social life. Visit classes and departments, the school bookstore, and try to connect with faculty and staff. Arrange for an overnight stay in the dorms, meet and interview current students. That’s how you find out what is really going on at the college, beyond the marketing materials, fancy websites, and shiny fitness centers.

5. Starting too late

To kill the most deadly myth of college admission, let me make it very clear to you: 9th grade performance counts! There are too many students and families running around with the idea that my 9th grade, and even 10th grade academics are not critical in college admission decision making. WRONG!!!

9th grade is not as important as 10th or 11th grade, which are the most important years in the minds of admissions officers, but no one is given a free pass on 9th grade performance, in or out of class. Furthermore, it is important to start working on your extra-curricular activities from your first day of high school.

If you have consistent work, with increasing depth, on an interest, activity, or academic subject over the course of 4 years of high school, you are well on your way to standing out from the crowd of nearly identical applications. If you can do so with 2 activities, interests, or subjects, then you are likely going to be a strong applicant at most colleges and universities.

College admission staff, like Harvard Dean of Admission William Fitzsimmons, have long advised that the college admission process takes several years to work through if one is to make informed choices. At a minimum, one should start planning course work and extra-curriculars before starting high school. College research and investigation of majors and career paths should ideally start no later than 10th grade. Campus visits should also begin in 9th and 10th grade and interviews, if applicable, in 11th grade.

Standardized testing such as the ACT and SAT should be completed by June of 11th grade. Very few students hit their target score the first time through, so take your first test in the winter of 11th grade and give yourself at least an additional 2 chances to reach your top score. SAT Subject Tests should be taken in June of the year that the course was given. For example, if you take chemistry in 10th grade, then you are best served by taking the SAT Subject Test in June of that year. The material will never be more fresh in your mind.

All of these steps, and many more, take careful thought and deliberation that cannot be side-stepped. If you, like most American families, wait until spring of 11th grade to get serious about college admission, then you will have much more stress and uncertainty than is necessary. Make it easy for yourself and start early!

6. Not Understanding Majors and College Curricula

Just as said above, college education is not a widget that is the same at every university, even in the same department. Said simply, economics may be a completely different program at Penn than it is at University of Texas at Austin. The history department at SMU may focus on contemporary issues in American history since 1900, while the history department at Wheaton may focus on the history of the enlightenment and the origins of Western civilization.

Further, the teaching style, kinds of texts used and the methods of examination could be vastly different from one university to the next. Even within a university, there is great variation from department to department. STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is often quite different from programs in the social sciences, arts and humanities, and pre-professional areas of the curriculum. STEM majors typically have a heavier workload (20-30 or more hours per week outside of class) than their peers in other majors (12-15 hours per week outside of class).

For example, The engineering program at USC may offer lots of hands-on guidance from professors, but in business, USC may have large classes and professors who have little interest in supporting undergraduates. Some universities and majors allow students to begin taking focused coursework in their major from day one. Others require a specific order of coursework or do not allow students to take focused courses until taking the “pre-major” requirements.

Additionally, there is the issue of general education requirements or core curricula. Nearly every university in America requires some minimum of classwork across the major areas of the curriculum as a general requirement for graduation. Some, like Texas A&M, UCLA, and UT-Austin demand lots of specific coursework and a minimum of courses in science, mathematics, social science, arts and humanities, and foreign culture. At those universities, undergraduates spend nearly 50% of their time in required core or general education classes.

At other colleges and universities, a much smaller set of requirements is demanded of each student. The number of general education requirements is critical information because general education courses are often boring and students tend to acquire lower grades in them because of lack of interest. If you are the type of student that does not do well in courses that do not engage you, then you should look for colleges that have smaller general education or core curricula. You will not want enroll in a college that forces you to spend half of your time in classes that are not related to your area of study or interests.

7. Focusing on the Wrong Variables

What matters most in your college experience is the quality of the education you receive and how it lays the foundation for the first stages of your career. You must find schools that will challenge you and engage your curiosities and that have a strong program in your area of interest. However, attaining solid grades is imperative if you are to get into graduate school or acquire a good job upon graduation. You must then attend a school where you will be able to succeed academically.

The following factors do not matter or matter very little: the prestige of the college, the student-faculty ratio, the average starting pay of recent graduates, the luxury of the dorms, the record of the football team, the famous alumni and superstar faculty.

The following factors are crucial: percentage of first and second year classes that use multiple choice tests (aim for less than 30%), percentage of students graduating in 4 years (minimum 60%), percentage graduating in 6 years (minimum 70%, with at least 80% preferred), percentage of first and second year classes that you are likely to take that have 30 students or less (minimum 50%), quality and availability of career services, quality and availability of learning support services (especially if you have a learning or attention problem), availability of professors for one-to-one guidance and mentoring, availability and ease of study abroad programming, placement rate in graduate school and percentage of recent grads in full-time jobs in student’s field of study within 6 months of graduation.

8. Putting Too Much Emphasis on High Prestige “Dream Schools”

Nearly every child in America would love to attend Harvard, Stanford, Rice, or Vanderbilt. They are highly prestigious institutions filled with some of the strongest and most successful students and faculty in the world. Of course, they are attractive to you and your teenaged child! Yet, these are not by any means the only best fit schools for your son or daughter.

Finding schools that your child dreams about attending is the easy part of the college admissions process. What about the schools they are very likely to be admitted to? That’s always a more difficult component of the college research effort. Success in college admissions requires that you recognize that some schools are so highly competitive that you may not be admitted, even with a great portfolio of grades, scores, and activities.

Do not put all of your hopes and energy into applications to dream colleges and universities. This is a strategy that will surely lead to disappointment. You must recognize that while it is nice to be accepted to dream schools, your first job as an applicant is to find schools where you can be happy, get a great education, and are very likely to be accepted or are solidly in the median range of middle class applicants.

You must find safe choices where you can be happy! There is no point in applying to a college just because you will be admitted. If you are not going to be happy there, or are not confident in the quality of education, then you should not apply. Every student in America needs 2 safe choices where he or she can get a great education and be happy.

If you want to apply to 5 dream schools in addition to 2 safe choices and 2 target/median range choices, then go ahead. But do not let denial from dream schools sink your ship. Success while you are enrolled in college is much more valuable to your career prospects then admission to a dream school. In the end, what matters is getting a great education, building skills and career training, and having an engaging and fun college experience. There are hundreds of great colleges and universities that will deliver all of the above.

9. Spending Too Much Time and Effort on The Wrong Activities

College admissions staffs think about applicants much differently than you or your high school staff might imagine. Today’s admissions staffs do not put as much emphasis on athletics, performing arts, and school clubs as in years past, unless the student will pursue the activity as an extra-curricular or major while in college. For most applicants, these activities will not add much value to their portfolio.

Admissions staffs are very concerned about the current generation of applicants having inflated resumes and simply following what Mom, Dad, or the school pushed them to do. If you want to catch the eye of admissions, then you need to pursue activities and experiences that are going to stretch your life experiences and push you out of the bubble of your school and neighborhood. Your portfolio should contain depth of commitment over several (preferably 3 or more) years of high school across two or three major areas.

Mature students are expected to go after the interests that they are passionate or curious about. Diving deep into prospective academic or career paths is especially valuable, both for the student’s development and in terms of giving weight to the portfolio. Independent research papers and projects, intern or work roles, challenging yourself to face issues and communities far out of your comfort zone; these are the prized elements of a strong application portfolio.

10. Rushing to Apply Early

Early admission plans may not make much impact on your chance of admission at most colleges. Nearly all middle class high school parents and school staff members are pressuring students to apply early as if it were a magic formula for assured acceptance. They quote endless statistics about the percentage of acceptance being much higher for early applications.

College personnel further push the agenda of early applications when they speak at high schools and in informational meetings. Let us spill a couple of raindrops on that fire. Could it be that early application is more of a tool in the college’s interest than it is for students? Colleges are businesses and want to lock down those who will be attending, gauge the strength of their current applicant pool, and determine the efforts they need to spend in further recruiting and budgeting as soon as possible. Might that may be the reason they push early applications?

Here’s why early application may not do much to increase your odds of acceptance. First, the very best applicants apply early and at most schools, the early applicant pool is far stronger than the regular decision pool. Early action (non-binding early application) does very little to help your chance of acceptance at most competitive colleges. Yet, every year, families are in a hasty rush to get all applications in by early action deadlines. This frequently leads to lower quality essays and applications.

Early decision (binding early application) does give a more significant boost to your chances of admission, but usually not as much as it did in the decades gone by. At the most competitive schools, it may even harm your chances of admission because the early decision pool is much stronger than regular decision.

Some schools and families use early decision as a strategic card to be played for raising a student’s odds at the most competitive college on their list. This is a mistake. One should only apply early decision if a college is head and shoulders above the other schools on their list.

Teenagers are evolving organisms and very few are clear about the school that is their top choice. Often students feel that one school is by far their top choice in September, but by February have an entirely different perspective. Don’t get stuck with a binding offer of admission at a college that isn’t your top choice.

Frequently ignored in the rush to apply early is that some students would be much more likely to be accepted in the regular pool. Early applications require admissions to make a decision by Christmas time, before the 12th grade first semester grades are received. If a student has had a mixed record, but will produce their strongest academic performance to date in the fall of 12th grade, then that student should not apply early.

Don’t rush, take your time and create the best application possible. Do not use early application as a strategic card that you must play. If you can complete a great application in time for early deadlines, then go ahead and do so. If not, regular deadlines are just fine.

A Brief Guide to American Colleges and Universities

 

 

Warning: All Colleges Are Not The Same!!

One of the many misunderstandings that Americans and foreign applicants hold onto about college education is that all colleges are the same. Our college guide is intended to overcome the assumption that US News’ top 150 or 200 colleges all provide roughly the same product/service. In speaking with thousands of families over the last 25 plus years, we have found that less than 5% understood the different kinds undergraduate experiences offered by the various types of colleges and universities. Yes, the assumption goes, schools have their distinctive flavors and culture, but they are all offering a similar program of academics, faculty, and activities. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are some commonalities, but the real story is more subtle than that.

Understanding College Types

Generally, the first step to understanding college education options is to have a useful system of classification. College guidebooks and many folks mistakenly categorize colleges by their competitiveness in acceptance, but this is in no way useful. US News and other rankings systems (totally useless in our opinion) have a system of categories which includes National Universities, Regional Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Liberal Arts Colleges, etc. Grouping colleges in such a manner does nothing to help a consumer understand the important qualities that matter. Instead, a family with a college-bound child would be best served in grouping colleges by their mission, for the mission gives one the best understanding of what the college will actually do with/for your child upon enrollment.

Without further ado, these are the 3 types of American colleges that are most frequently attended by middle class students. We have purposely left off community colleges, technical pre-professional colleges like DeVry, arts schools like Savannah College of Arts and Design, and certificate granting institutions. Our college guide has 3 categories:

  • Public Research Universities
  • Private Research Universities
  • Private Teaching Colleges

Public Research Universities

texas-amPublic research universities are the most broadly attended type of American college option of the three. These are a state’s publicly funded universities (paid for by local taxpayers) which were built to educate a wide spectrum of the state’s young people and to create the breakthroughs and advancements in the various academic disciplines. Names you might know in this group are University of Michigan, UT-Austin, Texas A&M, UCLA, University of Georgia, etc. This group also includes a state’s non-flagship or secondary university campuses such as Cal State Northridge, North Texas State, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Texas Tech, Stephen F. Austin, Northern Colorado, etc.

The first thing to understand about public research universities is that they are big. Typically, they enroll 25,000 or more undergraduate students, but many are double that size or more. In addition, many of these universities have large graduate school student populations as well.

Big Schools = Big Classes of 250 or More

What does the large size mean from a pragmatic and experiential point of view? Typically, it equates to extremely large class sizes for lower division undergraduates. With general education requirements that force every student to take a handful of introductory courses in each of the major academic disciplines, a logjam almost always ensues. General education requirements are typically the courses that are largest and most boring.  These classes are not difficult, but they frequently give students lots of trouble.  At some public universities, students will spend 50% of their 4 years or more enrolled in large and dull general education classes.

big-lecture-hallMany students enrolled in Biology 101 or Introduction to Psychology will see class sizes of 250 or more, with classes held in auditoriums. It is not uncommon for classes at public universities to have as many as 1,000 students, or for professors to be simulcast on large video boards.

Even upper division courses, which are attended only by majors in that subject, can frequently have more than 100 students per class. A recent graduate at LSU, with a major in psychology, reported to us that she did not have one class with less than 100 students during her 4 years at at the university. These universities offer very few classes that are discussion-based, with nearly all classes formatted as professor lectures. Sometimes large lectures are broken down into smaller discussion groups led by graduate-level teaching assistants, but most students will tell you that the discussion groups do not add much educational value.

Accompanying the large class sizes is a general atmosphere of anonymity and bureaucratic headaches. Professors at large public universities are paid and judged on the basis of their research and publishing success, with very little emphasis on the quality of their teaching. In fact, most tenured professors at public universities will be spending the overwhelming majority of their work hours on research and interacting with their graduate students. Going further, many lower level courses will be taught by graduate students (sometimes non-native English speakers) or transient and inexperienced adjunct faculty. One researcher, Andrew Hacker, author of “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It,” found that 70% of courses at research universities are taught by adjuncts.

Even when teaching an introductory class of several hundred students, professors typically offer no more than a couple of office hours each week for visits from undergraduates. If you are a struggling student, there will not be a professor looking out for you at a public research university and he or she will most likely not be available to help academic-advising-lineyou either.

Does Anybody Care? Who Will Help Me?

Academic advising may be of decent quality, though many times not, but is frequently difficult to acquire. As with professor attention, a massive number of undergraduate students will be competing for the time and attention of an undersized advising staff. The same is true with regard to career and psychological services as well. Study abroad offerings are usually fairly broad, but limited to university-sponsored offerings only if one wants to receive full credit.

When problems arise, be they academic, personal, or bureaucratic in nature, students at public research universities report difficulty in quickly resolving the issues. As with many of the university’s functions, the general problem is one of scale. Too many students, too few resources.

On the more positive side, public research universities have several outstanding features. Number one, they usually have every major you could ever imagine. Not only can you acquire an engineering degree, you can usually have a specific major in civil, mechanical, computer, or even petroleum engineering. Beyond the standard curriculum and majors such as economics, chemistry, and history, you can typically study specific and applied areas such as architecture, broadcast journalism, nursing, special education, agricultural science, construction science, or sports ucla-number-of-majorsmanagement.

From a technology and laboratory resource perspective, most of the public research universities have great facilities and cutting-edge equipment in their labs. Gaining access to such resources is not always easy though.

The student population at public research universities is usually quite diverse. Most of these universities make a strong effort to enroll minority students and those who come from less-privileged backgrounds. As for activities, most public research universities have big-time sports programs and lots of support and interest from undergraduate students. In terms of clubs and organizations, you will find nearly any interest represented from the arts, politics, media, foreign cultures and languages, to academic specific clubs. One may have to compete with large numbers of fellow students though, if one wants to join the college orchestra, newspaper, television station, or comedy troupe. Fraternity and sorority offerings are usually pretty broad and important on these campuses, with lots of students involved in Greek life.

The Buzz of 25,000 or More Young Adults Living Side by Side

Socially, there is a buzz that surrounds life on many public research campuses. Such a large number of young adults living side by side and free from the constraints of family and societal pressures leads to an energy that is unmistakable. If you are into sports and school spirit, the excitement of attending college football or basketball games at UT-Austin, the University of Alabama, Indiana University, or the University of Oregon cannot be matched.

In choosing the right college for you, public research universities may be attractive. Usually they are less-expensive (if you are a state resident) when compared with private colleges, but they do not typically give financial aid to middle class students. Of course, these schools offer the classic “college experience” that most students are searching for. But, remember that in today’s hyper-competitive market for graduate school and jobs, your first concern must be acquiring a top-notch education and strong grades. High quality education is certainly available at public research universities if you search for it, but it cannot be assumed. If you are the type of student who requires attention and guidance from professors and staff, then you need to think twice before enrolling at a public research university.college-experience

Families must be careful to thoroughly investigate the fit for their child in such an atmosphere. Number one, not all departments at all public universities are high quality, even in the case where a university is held in extremely high regard. Second, the method of instruction and examination rewards those who are self-directed learners. If your child is highly motivated and able to breakdown lectures, concepts, and textbooks with little assistance, then he or she will likely have a solid experience at a public research university. If, your child lacks self-discipline, needs high levels of attention and discussion for understanding of academic materials, or is intimidated by busy and dismissive faculty or staff, then you should think twice before sending your son or daughter to a public research university.

Private Research Universities

Private research universities occupy a middle ground between the massive public university options and the small colleges that most refer to as liberal arts colleges. Most private research universities have between five and seven thousand undergraduate students, though some have 10,000 or more undergraduates. Well-known medium size private research universities include: NYU, University of Southern California, the Ivy League schools, SMU, Duke, Northwestern, TCU, Baylor, Vanderbilt, Boston University, and the University of Miami. The characteristics shared by these schools are as follows: funding by private tuition and endowment, lots of big-name faculty and resources, and a focus on cutting-edge research by professors and graduate students.

Like public research universities, professors at these colleges are paid and promoted largely by their ability to create important research and published scholarly work. Most of these kinds of colleges have major graduate programs and professors will spend much of their time grooming their Master’s and PhD candidates. However, unlike at public universities, most private research universities put pressure on their faculty to give some attention to their undergraduate students because Mom and Dad are paying hefty tuition bills. The amount of attention varies by big-classes-at-harvarduniversity and by department, but generally, private research university students will find that a healthy portion of their professors are willing to support and guide them.

High Prestige and Medium Size Does Not Guarantee Attention from Faculty

In terms of the academic experience, private research universities offer varying pedagogical emphases, with a mix of discussion-based classes, lectures, and labs. However, one can expect that many of the lower division classes will be larger, lecture-based courses. One recent client, who attends an Ivy League university, was shocked and saddened to find that our warning to her about large class sizes even at exclusive and prestigious universities was actually true. It turns out that every one of her first year classes had more than 100 students, with very little interaction with professors. This example is not the rule, but it is not an outrageous exception either.

From a curricular standpoint, some of the private research universities offer nearly as many options as the flagship public research schools and most will have nearly every academic and pre-professional option on offer. Engineering is available at most private research universities, as is business (though both are absent from most of the Ivy League schools), but some highly specialized areas like nutrition, kinesiology, graphic design, or architecture will be less widely available.

Curriculum Questions

While nearly all colleges in the United States have lightened their general education requirements, private research colleges will vary in terms of the broad educational curriculum required of every graduate. Some, like Columbia and Boston College, still demand a heavy core curriculum of required courses, while others require a bare minimum of one course from each of the core academic disciplines (science and mathematics, humanities, arts, social sciences). There are a number of Catholic and Christian private research universities that require coursework in theology as columbia-core-curriculumpart of the distribution requirements. Schools like Baylor, Santa Clara, and many others do not necessarily require one to study scripture, but insist that spiritual and ethical education is an important part of the college experience.

If one could make a broad generalization about education at private research universities, it might read as thus: you will probably get some attention from professors and smaller classes as you move into your final two years, but there’s no guarantee of real guidance and connection. Some universities and departments offer research and guided independent study experiences to nearly every student on campus. Others advertise great opportunities for research and internships, but fail to deliver on those promises. Advising is much the same.

Private research universities generally offer more available academic and career advising as compared to public research universities, but your mileage may vary by school. Some of the medium sized private schools do a great job of supporting and assisting their students, while others are downright terrible. And in no way should one equate prestige, price, or size with quality of academic programs and attention from faculty and advisers. Some of the “elite” universities are the least generous with guidance.

At private research universities, there is an increasing effort to diversify the student body. Historically, many of these schools have been filled primarily with upper middle class students, but that has changed over the last two decades. Some of the private research schools have fantastically diverse student bodies with large numbers of international students and students of color or less-privileged backgrounds. Some are still quite homogeneous, with most students sharing a similar successful suburban, professional family background.

Big Time Sports, Medium Sized Universities

tcu-footballSports have been a calling card and a major area of investment for private research universities over the last 25 years. One need only look at USC, Syracuse, TCU, Vanderbilt, and Duke for examples of schools building a national reputation of excellence through the rise of their sports programs. TCU is a great example of how sports success can transform a university. Following their Rose Bowl appearance in 2011, TCU received more than double their annual average number of applications. Suddenly, a school that was somewhat selective became much more selective. Following the above examples, many of the private research universities offer the same kinds of resources and activities that were once only the domain of big public universities. Massive new football stadiums and arenas give students the same buzz and rush of adrenaline as their public university counterparts.

Greek life is big at private research universities as well. Some campuses will see half or more of their students pledging fraternities and sororities, but others, particularly the big-city schools like NYU or Boston University will have smaller Greek participation. In terms of clubs, activities, and events, this pool of schools is top-notch and students will find plenty of outlets for their interests. Study abroad is emphasized at many schools of this type and large portions of the student body will study at foreign campuses, some of which may be just a foreign outlet of the same university the student is attending (ex. NYU-Paris).

For the average student, social life at a private research campus will never be boring. You will always find enough action and energy to keep you busy and even with a smaller private research university, you’ll find 5,000 or so classmates at your fingertips.

To summarize, private research universities offer a nice hybrid of the outstanding variety of academic and extra-vanderbilt-universitycurricular options at public research universities without the scale problems and bureaucratic obstacles of massive public institutions. That said, one would be mistaken to assume that by attending a private research university, one will be nurtured and guided by professors and faculty. There are many excellent and supportive universities in this pool, but there are equally as many that are falling way short of their reputation and marketing promises.

To find out the truth of what a private research university offers on a regular basis, you need to visit and talk with current students. They will be forthright about their experiences and the reality of life on that campus. Will you get your academic, personal, and social needs taken care of? You will need to do some digging to find out for certain.

Private Teaching Colleges (Often Called Liberal Arts Colleges)

This pool of undergraduate schools is under-appreciated by the average middle class student and family. Schools like Trinity University (TX), Southwestern (TX), the Claremont Colleges, Wesleyan University, Oberlin, Sewanee, and Connecticut College provide top notch education and extra-ordinary student support and records of job/graduate school placement. Yet, most families and students are unfamiliar with these schools.

Many hear of the size (typically ~2,000 students), the category name “Liberal Arts,” and the lack of pre-professional programs (“what would I do with an English or chemistry degree?”), and immediately dismiss the entire pool of schools. In our experience of nearly 30 years of working with students and families on college admissions, we find these schools to be the least popular and the least likely to inspire enthusiasm in high school students’ hearts and minds. Despite Teaching Colleges’ lack of broad appeal to young adults and families, we feel that they are the most valuable and reliable set of undergraduate institutions in the U.S.small-college-classroom

In an economy that is hyper-competitive and increasingly directed towards high levels of technical, communication, research, and reading skills, private teaching colleges are the only pool of schools that can be universally counted on to provide an appropriate education that leads to competitive job options or fruitful graduate school placement immediately upon graduation. There are several factors that contribute to the high quality of a teaching university’s educational offerings, but the most outstanding feature is the intimate scale and setting.

Teaching Colleges Ensure Access to Small Classes and Professor Guidance

At such an institution, students will find professors who are paid to teach, support, and collaborate with students as their main function. While professors at these schools might be top notch researchers in their field, publication and notoriety is not their primary goal. Further, most of these colleges have no graduate students at all, while others have but a small number of graduate students to compete for professor attention.

Students at these colleges can be certain that they will find small class sizes from their first day on campus. While an occasional class of 35-50 might be found, almost all classes will be 25 students or less, with many courses taught in a seminar fashion. Nearly all courses will be discussion-based and ample time is given to supporting student inquiry, answering student questions, and encouraging further exploration of student ideas.

Outside of class, professors are highly available for extra attention related to academic needs. Further, many professors at teaching universities will encourage students to visit with personal, career, and vocational concerns as well.

When students need help, professors and staff are there to support them. Most professors know their students on a first-hand basis and will take the time to help students write and re-write essay drafts or to have a cup of coffee and chat about homesickness.

First-Name Treatment at Career Services Office

Career services and alumni work closely together in order to help students gain job placement upon graduation. In oberlin-career-centerareas like mental health services, study abroad, graduate school admissions assistance, and student affairs, staff look out for the students and are both flexible and available with easy access. It is not uncommon for professors and staff at teaching universities to personally oversee a student’s job search or graduate school placement.

Besides the small size of classes and the highly supportive faculty and staff, there is a third factor that encourages high quality in academics at teaching colleges. That factor is the quality of the curriculum and materials that are used in coursework. While students at public and private research universities will often spend their first two years digging through big, boring, and general textbooks and survey coursework that often fails to engage, students at teaching colleges will read original academic works that are interesting and challenging from their first day on campus.

The method of student evaluation by professors will look different than their research university colleagues as well. Whether in biology, computer science, history, or economics, students will write research and synthesis essays as their primary mode of evaluation. Further, students will be expected to present material to classmates in both individual and group assignments from day one. This gives students at teaching colleges a huge leg up over their research university compatriots who will spend two years, if not all four, taking multiple choice tests as their usual form of evaluation.

The major academic weakness at teaching colleges is the lack of highly specialized and pre-professional programs. While some schools, like Trinity (TX) and Southwestern (TX) offer business and other pre-professional majors, most of these colleges stick to a more traditional array of majors. By no means are their offerings limited to just the “liberal arts.” You can find some of America’s best Chinese, computer science, Latin American studies, music, drama, geology, biology, and physics programs at teaching college campuses.

The traditional curriculum is not sufficient for those who want to work in a highly specialized field immediately upon graduation. If you are intending to go to work as a petroleum engineer upon college matriculation, then you are better served by attending a research university that offers an undergraduate major in your area of interest.

Easy Access and Outstanding Placement Rates to Top Graduate School Programs

trinity-career-servicesFor most students, this is not the case. In fact, graduate school admission staffs, including those at medical, MBA, and law school programs advise students that they would prefer that applicants get a strong broad-based undergraduate education with courses that teach them how to read, write, and reason abstractly rather than choosing a specialized pre-professional program.

In Dr. Shumsky’s tenure as a member of graduate academic and medical school admission committees at the University of Virginia and Northwestern University, he found that graduates of teaching universities, regardless of their undergraduate major, were the most highly sought after candidates. At UVa Medical School, English majors from teaching universities were frequently amongst the first candidates to be accepted.

Socially, teaching universities do not generate the same kind of buzz that 80,000 screaming college football fans will create. Social life is typically more intimate, as it is usually easy to get to know nearly all of your fellow classmates from first-year students to seniors. Student life and activities are closely tied together, with all students having access to school theater troupes, art and music facilities, school media and publications activities.music-troupe

Students at teaching universities will find an encouraging participative atmosphere. Even if you have never acted before, you will still have the opportunity to sign up and join the school productions. While at public research universities, access to music or art studios is limited only to majors, anyone at a teaching university can use the school’s equipment and facilities. The same is true with college radio, newspaper, TV, and film outlets. If you want to participate, you just sign up and dive in.

Plenty of Fun, But Less Buzz

Most students gather at parties on-campus or in surrounding apartments and homes. Even though one will not find a raging party going 5 or 6 nights a week like at some larger universities, students at teaching universities still have lots of fun. The keg parties will be for 50 rather than 500 students. Universities of all sizes bring in loads of speakers, musical acts, and have social programming and events happening nearly every night of the week.

Diversity tends to be less widespread at teaching universities. You will certainly find plenty of students of color and students from all over the globe, but there will typically be a much smaller number of students from less economically privileged families as compared to public research universities.

Summary

The breadth of American college options give a college-bound student lots of variables to think about. We hope our college guide deepens your understanding, dear reader. The good news is that there are many fantastic options in each of the 3 pools of schools outlined in this guide. The keys to choosing the right options are awareness and honesty. College applicants and their families need to have frank discussions about what factors are most important to the student, where the student will likely be happiest and most successful, and what the parent expectations are. The biggest obstacle in both choosing colleges and obtaining a successful college experience is fantasy.

Most high school students are far too wrapped up in media and social imagery and hyperbole about college being the best years of your life. This seductive idea has led far too many students to pursue “the classic college experience” and possibly reduce future opportunities. College should absolutely be a fun time, with plenty of social life and parties, but the bottom line is acquiring the skills and experiences that will lead to success in the job and graduate school marketplace. You must understand your needs in terms of learning support, social stimulation, and guidance.

Today, more than ever before, simply matriculating from college will not guarantee prosperity and job security. The happy-at-first-jobexpectations of employers and graduate schools have increased several-fold over the last two decades. You must do well in college from a GPA standpoint (3.3 GPA is a good goal) and participate in the out of class activities that employers and graduate schools value if you want to reach the bright future that you imagine.

Support from professors and staff will make that internship, research project, or study abroad opportunity much easier to acquire. These experiences can separate you from the herds of applicants for your first job or graduate school placement. Some students are organized, driven, and mature enough to make their way through college without faculty support, but most are not. If you or your child is a current high school student, then you would be well-served to reflect on this key point immediately.