Archive | March, 2011

The George Washington University – a trip report

24 Mar

The big, brightly lit hall was packed with prospective students and their parents and there were no more seats left since we had arrived late to the information session.  But the staff at George Washington University (GWU) kindly brought in chairs to accommodate us and other latecomers.  An admissions officer and a student were up front, already deep into their presentation about the university.

GWU is a stone’s throw away from the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. and its very location attracts students who are interested in all things political, regardless of what they are studying.  And there is a wide range of undergraduate academic programs to choose from, starting with the largest undergraduate school, liberal arts, to business to engineering to international affairs to media and public affairs to public health.  One student’s experience was that no matter the class subject, the conversation topic inevitably turns to a discussion of politics.  This can take some getting used to, if one is more apolitical.  The university also prides itself in hiring professors who have had work experience in government, industry, and international affairs and because of its location, attracts an impressive roster of guest speakers.

The main campus is located in Foggy Bottom, about four blocks from the White House.   GWU’s 9,500 undergraduates are spread between the Foggy Bottom campus and the Mount Vernon campus, acquired twelve years ago and located a few miles away.  Shuttles run regularly between the two campuses on a 24-hour basis.

The Foggy Bottom campus consists of buildings spread out over several city blocks and there is no discernible campus to speak of other than signs that identify the buildings as belonging to the university.  The buildings are modern looking structures and blend into the cityscape.  As such it is very urban and this will likely appeal to some students and not others.  Although we did not see Mount Vernon, word is that it more resembles a traditional campus with green spaces, trees, quads, and is set in a quiet suburban-like area.  Our tour guide told us the appeal of having both types of campuses was what attracted him to GWU.  In addition, the university is planning on erecting a brand new science building in the next few years as the existing science facilities are aging.

GWU offers a lot of flexibility in their academic programs.  Students can major and minor across undergraduate schools, double major across schools and even switch schools.  They also offer an honors program and combined bachelor/graduate degree programs.  In the thirty years since I applied to college, GWU has risen significantly in rankings and become more competitive.  Last year the admission rate was 31% and this year, the number of GWU’s early decision applicants swelled 18.5%, attesting to the university’s ever-increasing popularity.  This is not your grandfather’s GWU.

Like any big university, the bureaucracy can be frustrating, according to a former GWU parent.  It is not cheap either, with tuition costing $42,860 a year and room and board adding another $10,120.  GWU offers a fixed tuition plan where students pay the same tuition for four years.  Ten to fifteen percent of the students receive merit aid.

In a few days I’ll post some photos of the university.


Testing 1, 2, 3

18 Mar

Last Saturday morning the alarm on my cell phone chirped brightly at 6:15 a.m.  With a muttered oath and groan, I stuck my arm out from under the warm cocoon of my blankets to turn it off.  Five minutes later, it chirped again announcing that my snooze time was up.  Time to make the donuts.  Like Fred the baker from the 1980s Dunkin Donuts commercial, I stumbled into the bathroom, shuffling in my slippers.  In my pre-dawn haze, I wondered how swimming or ice skating parents do it every day, waking up at 4 a.m. to take their children to practice.

It was SAT exam day and it seemed like my daughter’s entire junior year class was taking it.  After weeks of test preparation and tutoring, this was it.  I made my daughter a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast and packed some snacks and water.  By 7:30 I dropped her off at the test site and watched as she and other students disappeared into the school building.

Taking the SAT is a rite of passage for American teenagers applying to college.  Most colleges require submission of either the SAT I Reasoning test or ACT scores, although a growing number of colleges are now standardized test-optional.  According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing’s website, there are over 830 colleges that no longer use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of first year college students.  The list includes highly selective schools like Bates College, Bowdoin College, Mount Holyoke College, and Smith College.  These colleges have evidently determined that standardized tests are no longer a good predictor of college academic success.

In my posts I often compare the way things are with the way things were, if only because I’m at an age where I can.  Thirty years ago, everyone I knew took the SAT and dispensed with the ACT, which was more popular with students in the south and Midwest.  Thirty years ago, there was only one SAT; now there’s the SAT I Reasoning test, and myriad SAT II Subject Tests from biology to U.S. history.  The good news is, because colleges today will accept either the SAT I or ACT, students can pick the test that will better highlight their abilities.

Neither test is easy and the consensus is that the ACT tests knowledge while the SAT I tests aptitude.  There are other major differences:

  • The ACT does not penalize wrong answers while the SAT deducts one-quarter point per wrong answer.  So guess away on the ACT.
  • The ACT math section tests up to trigonometry while the SAT I tests up to geometry and algebra 2.
  • The ACT includes a science reasoning section that the SAT I does not have.

Lots of articles have been written about which test may be better for your child and here are two that summarize the issues succinctly: one by NPR and one in the New York Times.  Both were written in 2007 but the information is still relevant.  To help figure out which test is more suitable, students can do free practice tests on the Internet (see the College Board and ACT websites).

To complicate matters – and what’s not complicated in college admissions? – many colleges require SAT I scores along with at least two SAT II subject tests in lieu of the ACT test with writing alone (e.g., Swarthmore College).  This means that a student will need to take at least three SAT tests.  But then there are schools, like Carnegie Mellon University, that require applicants who submit their ACT scores to also submit two SAT II subject test scores.  So always double-check each college’s testing requirements.

All of this is a lot to think about and keep straight.  What’s more, students can take the tests more than once and many colleges say that they will consider the higher scores.  And there are different testing strategies to consider: picking one test and taking it more than once, taking both tests and submitting the better score, and variations thereof.  However way you look at it, it amounts to a lot of testing and test preparation in junior year.

Test-optional colleges, anyone?


Views of Johns Hopkins University

13 Mar

Welcome to Johns Hopkins University

Gilman Hall

The library

Inside Gilman Hall

The Johns Hopkins University – a trip report

11 Mar

That’s the official name of the university, with a “The” at the beginning of its name and an “s” in Johns.  The student admissions representative who presented the information session jokingly told the audience visiting on President’s Day that if applicants wrote “John Hopkins,” they will be rejected.  This elicited nervous laughter from the crowd of parents and prospective students.  Students and alumni refer to the university as Hopkins; my husband is a graduate and he can attest to the numerous ways people have butchered the school name.  It’s a pet peeve.

The University is best known for its world-class medical school and hospital, located in downtown Baltimore, Maryland.  We were visiting the Homewood campus in northern Baltimore, which houses the undergraduate colleges of arts and sciences and engineering.  Because of the reputation of the medical school, Hopkins attracts many pre-meds who make up 25% of the class.  Contrary to popular belief though, attending Hopkins as an undergraduate does not confer any special advantages when it comes to being admitted to the Johns Hopkins medical school.  Nevertheless, at least 85% of pre-meds are accepted into medical schools.  Our student representative was a case in point – she was a public health major going on to medical school.

Given Hopkins’ strong pre-med reputation, it surprised us to learn that one of the most popular undergraduate majors is international studies.  For students wishing to pursue serious study in international studies, Hopkins offers a 5-year combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program in international studies where students spend one year in Washington D.C. at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), another Hopkins graduate school.

In addition to the engineering and arts and science school, the university also created a new undergraduate business school in 2007, located in the Inner Harbor area of Baltimore.  Students can also pursue a dual degree with Peabody Institute of Music. Except for biomedical engineering where applicants must be admitted specifically to that major, prospective students do not need to state a major on their application.  The biomedical engineering program is ranked number one in the country and is highly competitive.  A student can be admitted to Hopkins but not to the major.

There are about 5,000 undergraduates and the entering class has doubled in size since my husband attended thirty years ago.  The admission rate in 2010 was 21% but the admission rate for early decision stands higher at 39% in 2011.  The student representative said one-third of the class is filled through early decision but in 2011 that percentage rose to 42%.

The campus consists of a series of redbrick buildings in the Federal style of architecture, organized around various quadrangles with green open spaces.  We decided to skip the campus tour and wandered around on our own.  The area seems safe enough in broad daylight but there have been incidences over the years as the campus borders a poorer section of Baltimore.

American readers of this blog will not be too surprised by the high cost of tuition at Hopkins but international readers should take a breath.  It costs $40,680 for tuition for the 2010-2011 academic year and room and board will add another $12,510 for a total of $53,190.

My overall impression is that Hopkins may be a good fit for students who are interested in international studies, the sciences, engineering, and medical related fields.  Hopkins students work very hard, frequently taking more than the standard four courses per semester.  Their men’s and women’s lacrosse team competes in Division I and matches are popular on campus.


Race to Nowhere: A Review

4 Mar

I was off-line last week because of winter break.  We visited a few colleges in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area and I will be filing a report later.  I also saw Race To Nowhere – with the ominous tag line: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture – at a local public school in a neighboring town.  This documentary is so popular that I was shut out of tickets for the screening at our high school.  This film is being shown directly to audiences at schools, colleges, and community organizations around the country (to find a screening near you, go to the movie’s website).  Often a school will host a panel discussion after the film, as was the case at the screening I attended.

The film explores the pressures placed on teenagers from heavy academic and extracurricular demands, and has become a hit in part due to strong word-of-mouth and national media attention.  Another reason for its popularity, I suspect, is because it touches a raw nerve, especially in our upper-middle class suburban enclaves where competition to get into elite universities is acute.

The first-time filmmaker, Ms. Vicki Abeles, is a mother of three who decided to make this film after her doctor told her that her children’s unexplained ailments were due to stress from school.  She interviews kids and parents who talk about how the heavy homework load and extracurricular commitments leave little room for relaxation or family time.  On the go constantly from one activity to the next, the children forego adequate sleep or even in one case, eating, to get everything done.  To cope with the pressures, many take stimulants and illegal prescription drugs or resort to cheating.  The medical professionals interviewed report the effects of stress in their young patients that include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, exhaustion, insomnia, even suicide.

The 90-minute film attempts to examine some of the reasons that contribute to the overload: too much homework, the emphasis on testing as a result of the No Child Left Behind law, the expectation from colleges for students to load up on Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the intense competition to get into college, parental anxiety that their children do better than they.

Ms. Abeles did an admirable job of presenting a complex, multilayered problem, especially since this is her first film.  She has created a thought-provoking and powerful movie that resonated loudly for me because my daughter is in the thick of dealing with the stresses and pressures and I’m always in search of ways to lessen the strains on her.  Judging from the Q and A session afterwards, not everyone agreed with the movie’s message.  One parent questioned whether the film was encouraging mediocrity and lowering of standards; as it is, the US lags behind other European and Asian nations in international math and science tests.  A panelist, a child psychologist, took issue with the way anecdotes were passed off as facts in the movie and pointed out that stress was not always bad and prepared teens for the real world (I don’t have his exact words but this was the gist of his comment).

This movie is worth seeing for the compelling issues it raises and adds greatly to the on-going national conversation about education.  It is rated PG-13.


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