Leaps of faith in college selection

by tomme1 min read25th Jul 201226 comments

5

Personal Blog

Since this fall I will be applying to college in the USA, I have compiled a hefty list of colleges based on the following criteria:

-4-year school;

-co-ed or all men;

-Biology major;

-"full-ride" financial aid available.

The problem's that I have quite a lot of choices, hundreds, as a matter of fact. So how should I narrow down my list even further, given that I don't care about other stuff, such as campus size or location?

Moreover, to how many colleges should I apply? As far as I know, mpst people apply to 6-9 colleges, but some even apply to 20! I guess that by applying to as many colleges possible, my chances of admission go up. But, I probably won't have time to write hundreds of admission essays, or the money to send in my application to all these colleges.

Lastly, as my objective is to gain admission somewhere, should I only apply to colleges with acceptance rates above a certain percentage? What should that percentage be?

If anyone would like to take this in private, I'd be more than happy to receive some advice from any member of the community!

 

 

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So how should I narrow down my list even further, given that I don't care about other stuff, such as campus size or location?

You must care about some other stuff. Do you want to be involved in research? (This will be very helpful if you want to go on to graduate school / become a scientist, but still helpful even if you don't.) Then you might want to rank schools based on how much of a commitment they provide to undergraduate involvement in research.

The college's acceptance rate doesn't mean all that much because different people apply to different colleges. Much more interesting will be the average SAT scores of admitted students. Basically, the rationale behind applying to 6-9 colleges is that you apply to 1-2 stretch schools, where your application is worse than the average accepted student's (but you still might get accepted, since someone has to be below average!), 3-5 schools where you're an average to above average student, and then 1-2 safety schools where you expect to be a top student (and thus be guaranteed to get in).

That rationale won't fit for you if you need the full ride to go (and are looking for a merit-based scholarship rather than a need-based scholarship); then you'll essentially only be applying to safety schools, with the schools where you expect to be an average student are the stretch schools (since most schools don't give full rides to average students, but they might).

You might find this comment thread interesting.

As much as you don't think school size matters, from personal experience, it can matter a lot. As you are interested in the sciences, I would recommend not attending one of the smaller colleges, even if they are top ranked (Haverford, Swarthmore, Amherst etc). If you look at their course curriculum, they don't have the number of students or resources to have a wide variety of upper level courses.

A larger research university, while it might have lower admissions standards, would have a much more diverse set of classes to choose from and more research opportunities. I went to a large research university and did not have any problem getting paid (10$/hour) to work as a research assistant in the physics department, the chemistry department, and the ceramic engineering department (I was un-focused at the time). I definitely recommend taking the time to look at the department course offerings for each school you are thinking of applying to. Don't just look at the course catalog because that just lists all the possible courses available. Most departments post all the courses they are offering each semester, so view those to see what is actually being offered.

What do you plan to do with a biology major? PhD? Pre-med? If you are interested in pre-med, it would be wiser to go to a school that has that as an actual major if you are certain you want to become a doctor. If you want to go the PhD route, it might be wise to pick a school that encourages you to do a research paper/thesis in your junior or senior year, in addition to working as a research assistant for a couple of years. If you are looking to get a job right after getting your bachelors, certain schools (Drexel is one I can think of off the top of my head) require you to do a full time internship your last year; often the students are hired right out of the internship.

You should care about location as well. If you are an international student, you will likely not have a car available when you arrive. If you attend a school outside of a big city, you will probably need to buy a car and also pay for insurance. So that needs to be factored into your cost.

I also recommend looking into each schools extra curricular activities. Do they have programs you would be interested in joining? For example, are you comfortable attending a school with religious affiliations (Notre Dame, Villanova) or would you feel out of place? Does the school have an active club associated with whatever major you are interested in? Does that department offer lectures on topics you are interested in? Different departments have different focuses; don't assume that just because a school has a certain major it will have the focus you want. For example, if you were interested in politics, but specifically women in politics, it would be helpful to attend a school that has a center for women in politics, versus one that focuses more on international relations, European politics, diplomacy, etc. I don't know enough about biology to make a similar comparison.

Also, is there a program available at the school that would allow you to get your masters in addition to your bachelors in 5 years? That might be an easy way to weed out schools, especially since a masters is quickly becoming a standard for higher levels of employment.

If you don't get a free ride, one of the ways that I used to cut cost is to become a Resident Assistant. Schools typically pay you for your work in free room and a meal plan, which saves at least 10,000 a year, if not more. When that is supplemented with working as a tutor or some other on campus job, especially if you have scholarships of some kind, you can pay off a good chunk of student loans.

All of this is very time consuming of course, but most of the answers can be found somewhere online.

Funny you mentioned Haverford and Swarthmore. If you go to either of those (or, for women, Bryn Mawr), you can take classes at either of the other two OR at the University of Pennsylvania - though this last option will cost a little extra in money and time, I knew more than a few people who went to UPenn to take courses on esoteric subjects.

My first class at Haverford was at Bryn Mawr. Several Bryn Mawr students came to Haverford for the astronomy and particle physics courses, or music. Others went the other way, to take graduate math courses, or geology...

So, if you would prefer somewhere small but want some not-exactly-standard option, check out whether a small college enables outside courses. That will expand their menu significantly.

But, I probably won't have time to write hundreds of admission essays, or the money to send in my application to all these colleges.

A lot of schools use the Common Application, which allows you to apply to many schools with only a little extra work per-school.

Lastly, as my objective is to gain admission somewhere, should I only apply to colleges with acceptance rates above a certain percentage? What should that percentage be?

The traditional way American high school students handle this is by applying to a range of schools from ones that they would be very lucky to get into to ones they are certain to get into. Note that acceptance rates are deceptive because certain school receive far more applications than other, approximately as good schools (i.e. Harvard receives tons of applications from people who haven't a chance of getting in whereas, say, less well know schools may have admission standards almost as rigorous but receive fewer applications from people who definitely won't get in). Information about expected GPAs and test scores for admission to each school is out there, either as part of the school's website or in college admission guides which you can purchase. It might also be googleable.

You definitely don't want to only apply to schools with high acceptance rates, on average they are less prestigious and prestige will help you with employment (on the other hand, they're also more likely to give you a free ride). So apply to schools with a range of acceptance rates.

So how should I narrow down my list even further, given that I don't care about other stuff, such as campus size or location?

You should at least consider what the student body will be like. Presumably you want peers with similar interests/intelligence? Easy to travel to and from if you'll be going home? Maybe find out if there are Less Wrong meetups near by? Campus size matters quite a bit-- smaller schools will give you more personal attention, you'll know a larger percentage of people there and you'll feel less anonymous. Larger schools usually have more options, a higher likelihood of finding people with things in common, better facilities etc.

A lot of schools have required courses, you might want to look into what those are for the places you apply. Are you from outside the states? Some schools will have more diverse student bodies than others and many have an international focus-- you might feel more at home there. Do you have any other interests or hobbies?

You definitely don't want to only apply to schools with high acceptance rates, on average they are less prestigious and prestige will help you with employment

If I recall correctly from when I was applying, Oxford has a 25% acceptance rate. There's massive self-selection by students.

When I applied, the University of Chicago has something like a 60% acceptance rate, despite being an academic peer of the Ivy League. Only the brainy and quirky applied, so there was massive self-selection in the applicant pool. But that was a bit more than a decade ago, and things have changed.

Right, as I say just above that the rates themselves can be deceptive. I just mean that he doesn't want optimize "likelihood of getting in" for every application because doing so would be at the expense of prestige.

Tomme, your priorities are probably wrong.

The greatest long-term value you get from college is probably the friends you make, followed by the name on the degree if it's a good school, followed by the stuff you learn. Do not underestimate the power of making good friends in college. Practically everything that I've done after graduation has been with friends I made in college. The best way to predictably make certain types of friends is by joining a residential living group with a culture based around the types of friends you want.

I would especially criticize filtering by "full-ride" scholarships on the following grounds: if you're smart and dedicated you can get a good job which will allow you to quickly pay back loans, and taking out loans will (usually) allow you to go to a better school (better social scene, better name, better things to learn) than you otherwise would.

if you're smart and dedicated you can get a good job which will allow you to quickly pay back loans

That's the sales pitch for loans, of course — with the implication that only stupid and lazy people have trouble paying them back.

Yeah, I'm updating on this a little bit, but I'm still not fully convinced -- do you have some good examples of people who are clearly not stupid or lazy who regret taking out loans to go to a better school?

Specific examples? No, I'm not in the habit of inquiring after my acquaintances' finances.

But here's a thought-experiment: Suppose you take out loans to pursue a field that experiences a turndown or bubble burst — such that before you pay off your loans, there are substantially fewer jobs available in the field than qualified entrants.

It is easy to declare that anyone who can't find a job is thereby shown to be stupid and lazy. However, this ultimately forms a goalpost-moving or "No True Scotsman" argument; the weirdness of which is shown by the fact that it sets different standards for "stupid and lazy" in different fields, depending on a fact not under the control of the supposedly stupid-and-lazy person — namely the number of available jobs in that field.

I'd strongly disagree with the student loans thing. Winding up with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans puts serious, crippling limitations on your post-graduation degrees of freedom. By all means, go to the best school you can, but the economy is uncertain, and there's no guarantee of that 'good job.' Paying off student loans on a service industry salary may well be a form of Hell.

OK, I'm updating on the loans thing, but I'm still not fully convinced either way. Obviously there's no guarantee of a good job, but a big name on your diploma will undoubtedly make it easier to get those jobs, no? Especially if you major in something sensible, and take appropriate steps so that you get recruited as you leave university?

I do think that having a big name on your diploma improves hireability (depending on what you intend to do), but I suspect, on average, that the improvement is substantially less than a hundred percent. And given that we're discussing a question of free for a smaller school, or potentially-hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars for a big school, it's a very expensive less-than-an-order-of-magnitude improvement.

Now, the above is a little misleading. Even a full-ride scholarship, school costs money in terms of lost time and opportunity. That said, most people fresh into the job market can't expect to make as much as it costs to go to school at a big name school like MIT, so time is not the majority of the cost here either way.

I'd also point out that majoring in something sensible and putting yourself out to recruiters improves your odds no matter what school you go to, and reduces the margin between expensive and cheap schools.

Before I could begin to answer this question, I would need more information. Most importantly, your task is widely different if you live in the US now or are currently abroad.

Generally speaking, you should consider why you want a college degree: Do you think it will provide useful skills (practical or abstract)? Or is a US college degree a certificate that will open doors, regardless of what happens at college?

Since you will probably want a job once you get out of college, you consider which schools have a good reputation in biology. That is one way of signalling. Ideally, you want a school that signals strong for biology but not for other majors: that way you don't get the increased competition against students in other areas.

Other considerations can be important to factor in as well, but others have already mentioned these.

You've implied that you are not from the US. I have noticed that students who have peers of a similar nationality often have an easier time assimilating into universities and seem to form stronger connections both with other international students and with local students. If I would have to guess, it is because they don't end up feeling as displaced. So you may want to consider which schools are likely to get more transfers from your country or have strong international programs in general.

The problem's that I have quite a lot of choices, hundreds, as a matter of fact. So how should I narrow down my list even further, given that I don't care about other stuff, such as campus size or location?

Consider how likely you are to get into each college, and then maximize the perceived quality of the institution, and the employment rate/salary and/or gradschool/medschool application success of its Biology grads.

(Incidentally, I semi-strongly recommend you consider the student body/social life as well.)

Moreover, to how many colleges should I apply? As far as I know, most people apply to 6-9 colleges, but some even apply to 20! I guess that by applying to as many colleges possible, my chances of admission go up. But, I probably won't have time to write hundreds of admission essays, or the money to send in my application to all these colleges.

There are two overlapping solutions. To reduce costs, you can apply early to one or two schools that are either your top schools (meaning that if you get in, you will not apply anywhere else) or ones that are high-safety/low-realistic, such that you are likely to get in, and you will only apply to reach schools during regular admission. One significant issue is that early decisions usually come out around December 15th, while most regular admissions are due in around January 1st; this means you will still need essays pre-written and edited, and for your school to send in your grades and recommendation letters ahead of time in case you do apply. (This method also gives you some info on which others schools you should apply to.)

(Though this can lead to lulz- I know a girl who applied early to Stanford, wrote up applications for literally 20 other schools, got in early, and never sent in the other applications.)

Also, you can try to see if you can get admission fee waivers, which eliminate admission fees for up to 4 colleges.

In addition, you may want to consider colleges with "rolling admissions". I have no experience with it; if you want more info, IIRC curiouskid has some experience.

For essay writing, it's often possible to reuse essays, with some editing, from school to school. (I had to do this extensively because I started writing my essays in June...using the previous year's prompts...)

Lastly, as my objective is to gain admission somewhere, should I only apply to colleges with acceptance rates above a certain percentage? What should that percentage be?

Just looking at percentages doesn't tell you enough about the school or you. eg some colleges had oddly high admission rates because only top students apply; Caltech would be vastly tougher to get into if you were very good in the humanities than if you were very good in STEM subjects. I don't know enough about biology programs to give you any specific examples, but this is a good thing to look into further.

How high you should aim in your college applications depends significantly on you- your grades, scores, extracurriculars, etc.

eg U of Chicago has a high admission rate because only well-qualified people tend to apply

Actually, in recent years the admission rate for U of C has gone down, for 2016 the rate was about 13%.

http://chicagomaroon.com/2012/04/13/college-has-lowest-acceptance-rate-ever-touting-caps-resources/

Yes, the U of C used to be a place where only those who "fit" really well into the hyper-nerdy culture actually applied. Thus, the admission rate was about 60% when I applied - but people who wouldn't have fit in (and succeed academically) didn't seem to apply.

About when I graduated, the administration decided that the admission rate was bad for the college (presumably because it didn't fit with the school's ranking on the US News ranking). So the administration put some effort into broadening the applicant pool. As far as I can tell, the academic program is just as strong as ever, but the student body is much less "quirky."

I don't consider it an improvement, but just because the move was hostile to quirky nerds doesn't mean it was bad for the college as an institution.

I'm a bit sad that I'll be attending UChicago after it lost (or at least started trying to get rid of) its quirky nerd culture.

It's not really, "trying to get rid of it," it's more that losing the culture is a byproduct of expanding to the general population. For example, the admissions office sent me a scarf after I got accepted to the class of 2015, and those who had a birthday between acceptance and attending got a handwritten note from the admissions office.

They also encouraged "phoenixing,"which is this: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lwitfzvflA1qh4kty.jpg

There are many pockets of quirkiness, it's just not prevalent throughout campus. Interestingly, the two largest dorms are the ones with the reputation for the least quirkiness (Max P and South), while the smallest ones have the most (Snitchcock, Breckinridge).

They also encouraged "phoenixing,"which is this: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lwitfzvflA1qh4kty.jpg

I see it, but what is it?

Posing like a phoenix in front of a camera. It's like planking, only UChicago specific, as the phoenix is our mascot. Bonus points for doing it at another college campus.

My sister did that after getting her acceptance to Chicago. This was recent, so apparently it's still a thing.

Thank you, fixed.

I think that since you already know your basic criteria, it doesn't really matter which specific school you choose. The reality is that you're probably going to get a pretty much equivalent education wherever you go. I'd consider prestige to some extent. Not because this will mean a better education, but because prestigious school often attract better students, and if you get in this will help you with building solid connections.

I think this is one of those things that isn't really worth stressing about. Just look at the list of twenty or so that you have now, and just apply to the five or six that you intuitively feel best about. Also, it might be worth applying early decision. That would mean you only need to apply to one school which could make it easier on you.

This is just a hypothesis, but I think that the variance in the education that undergraduates get is more determined by the specific undergraduate than by the school. In other words, if your motivated and want to do well, you will probably do well just about anywhere.