My son and I went on a prospective-students’ tour of UC Berkeley today. Because the information session and tour was scheduled very early in the day (starting at 9 a.m.), and public transit from Santa Cruz to Berkeley is slow (about 3–3.5 hours, using 3 different transit systems), we actually left last night, shortly after my early evening class ended.
We started with the 8:15 p.m. SCMTD Highway 17 Express bus over the hill for $5. It’s a fairly comfortable bus, being a relatively new natural-gas powered bus with soft slightly reclining seats, air-conditioning on hot days, and free WiFi. We took advantage of the soft seats to nap a bit, but did not try the WiFi, having no WiFi devices with us.
Then we took the VTA 181 Express from the Diridon train station to the Fremont BART station. This bus costs $4 for adults, $1.75 for children under 18, and spends a big chunk of the trip on the freeway after a couple stops in downtown San Jose. The bus was packed, apparently with San Jose State students going home from evening classes. Unfortunately, the ride was on a poorly maintained rattletrap bus with shocks that should have been replaced about 100,000 miles ago. The seats were hard, the floors dirty, and knee room close to non-existent. I’m guessing that either there is no money in Silicon Valley any more to maintain their bus fleet (or their roads) or that the money is concentrated in the hands of a few people who think that bus riders are so low-class that third-world quality is all that is needed. Perhaps VTA has been sinking all its money into expanding the light rail service and neglecting maintenance and replacement of its bus fleet.
The BART train ride from Fremont to Berkeley ($4.35) was fine—the ride was fairly smooth and the cars clean, though it was clear that they were far from new. It was a step up from the decrepit VTA bus, but not as comfortable as Caltrain or even the Highway 17 Express bus—and I usually find trains and light rail much more comfortable than buses.
Our connections were all excellent, and we got to Berkeley an hour earlier than Google Maps had suggested—the Highway 17 Express had made good time and we caught an hour earlier 181 than Google thought was possible. (The usual schedule calls for the 181 to leave just before the Highway 17 Express arrives, since the transit agencies don’t think much about synchronizing between systems.) We made it to our motel (Berkeley Travelodge) just over 3 hours after leaving our house, getting in before 11pm. Since the distance is 76 miles by car, we averaged about 23 mph, which is twice the speed of the public transit we took in LA.
The Travelodge had one of the smallest motel rooms we’ve stayed in (barely room for the 2 beds), and it smelled a little musty, but we slept well enough despite that. The “continental breakfast” was also about the feeblest attempt at that we’ve seen—I had a cup of tea providing my own tea bag and a tiny sweet roll in a plastic package. Our poor breakfast may have contributed to low blood sugar and less enthusiasm than we might have had with a decent breakfast.
In the morning we walked to Sproul Hall, the administrative building on Sproul Plaza where the information session was scheduled. The info session was so early in the day (9 a.m.) that the campus was nearly deserted as we walked across it to Sproul. Even Sproul Plaza was nearly empty.
Because we are doing our college visits off-season, there were only 2 families at the information session: a father and son from New Jersey and us. The admissions officer gave us his standard monologue, which was perhaps the least informative of the information sessions we’ve been to so far. The video they showed us seemed more intended to recruit parents to donate to the college than to be helpful in deciding whether UCB was a good fit. It was difficult to ask questions, because the admissions officer giving the session maintained a continuous monolog (often about his family and career, rather than about UCB) that did not pause long enough for us to insert a question. I did manage to ask one question about how home-schooling students were handled, but was told very little in response: there is no home-school supplementary form and that UCB does admit a lot of home schoolers. My son did ask a question about the difference between the engineering CS program and the letters and sciences CS program, which the admissions officer should have admitted he didn’t know, as the answer he gave was clearly incorrect, based on what we had read about the programs on the web.
The only substantive advice in the whole presentation was that the student essays should focus on achievements, not just activities, and that depth and duration of an activity are more important than breadth of different activities. This was not news to us, but it was more clearly presented than at other colleges. The depth-rather-than-breadth focus is good for his admissions chances, as my son has two activities that he has been engaged in for a long time: theater for the past 12 years, science fair for the past 8, for both of which he has positive outcomes to talk about, though no obvious super-star status. For example, he’s never won his category at state science fair, but he has gone to state 6 years running (a distinction shared by only about a dozen students), and he did make 3rd in his category one year. Since all his science fair projects have been in the field he plans to major in, tying them into his application should not be too difficult for him.
The tour itself had more people on it than the information session, and was fairly ably presented by the student guide. It was not as sports-focused as the University of Colorado Boulder tour—perhaps not even as much as the UCLA one, though there was more mention of traditions surrounding football games than we were really comfortable with, and the tour guide referred to the sports terms in the first person (“we won …”), even though she was not on the team herself (she did play in the band that accompanies one of the teams). As with the UCLA tour, we did get to see the interiors of a couple of buildings (the huge Valley Life Sciences Building and the Doe Memorial Library), but no classrooms. The interiors we were shown looked more like museum entrances or film sets than like working parts of the university. Because the dorms are at the uphill edge of campus, they were only pointed out to use from a distance. By the end of the tour (around 11:30 a.m.), Sproul Plaza was bustling, though the tour guide had felt obliged to apologize for how dead it was at 10 a.m.
Overall the Berkeley tour was perhaps the blandest and least distinctive of the tours we’ve had—it told us almost nothing about how well the school would fit my son’s needs.
My son had tried to set up an appointment with a CS faculty member at Berkeley, but he’d left it rather late, and the faculty member had said just to stop in during his open office hours (11–12) as he had no other time today. The trek from Sproul Hall to Soda Hall is a fairly long one (½ mile) for such a compact campus, and when we got there the professor was in a meeting (apparently with grad students). We waited around for about 5–10 minutes, but it didn’t look like he was going to be free, so we left without meeting him.
We looked over Soda Hall, which is a nice new building. We noted that it seemed awfully sterile: there were no conference posters, no announcements, nothing to break up the stretches of blank wall. The faculty offices all seemed to be tucked away in lab pods behind closed doors—we saw no welcoming open doors as at Harvey Mudd. They had a big TV screen in the main lobby flashing up research posters and unidentified pictures, but none of the posters stayed on the screen long enough to read more than the title, and the resolution was too poor to read the poster even if it had been up long enough. It looked like a movie set of a “futuristic” computer science department, rather than a real one. The only lab we saw was the one where we waited for the faculty member—it had a huge bullpen of cubicles for grad students, a few conference rooms and offices, and a kitchen. It looked like a department unto itself, and I wonder whether UCB is organized into independent fiefdoms that don’t talk to each other, the way so many large departments are.
We had lunch in a courtyard just down the hill from Soda Hall, that Google Maps currently identifies as “Northside Asian Ghetto”, which I doubt is any sort of official name. There were several Asian restaurants (Korean, Chinese, Himalayan, Japanese (udon), Japanese (donburi), Vietnamese), and lots of students and faculty eating lunch. I suspect that it is a favored hangout for CS students, though the few textbooks I saw were not likely texts for CS students. We saw a lot of students eating in groups, but we also saw a lot sitting by themselves.
Although we did not get a chance to talk with any faculty, we did get a chance to ask some CS undergrads about the program. It seems that the classes are even bigger than at UCLA, with 400 or more in the lower division and 100–200 in the upper division. There is more opportunity to do research, but students have to hustle a bit to find it—some of the students admitted that they didn’t know anything about research opportunities, as they had never tried to get involved, while one had done research his freshman year but had since dropped it.
I worked in one more visit, to the theater department to find out whether non-theater-majors had any hope of getting parts in productions. The answer was a definite “yes”—they do open casting for all productions with no slots reserved for theater majors or minors. The acting classes are the same way, though I note that Theater 10, 11, 110A, 110B, 111 all require an audition (a 1-minute monologue) to get into, and Theater 12, 162, 163 require an interview [ http://tdps.berkeley.edu/programs-courses/courses/class-auditions/ ]. The Acting Focus minor, which consists primarily of audition entry acting classes, looks like a pretty good fit for what he wants to do with theater in college, so that part of his education could be easily met at UCB.
Overall, UCB looked like a better fit than UCLA, but not really thrilling. Even though UCB has only about 25,000 undergrads (smaller than the undergrad university I went to), it is big enough and the faculty distracted enough by grad students and research, that it would be easy for undergrads to get lost in the shuffle if they didn’t push themselves forward.
We took the BART, VTA 181, and Highway 17 Express back home, again getting excellent connections. The VTA 181 bus this time didn’t rattle quite as much (the shocks were not completely gone), but it stank of stale urine. VTA really needs to work on their cleaning and maintenance problems!
We’ve got one more visit to do this Spring (Stanford), then a few more to do in September (MIT, Olin College of Engineering, maybe CMU and U Washington). He may apply to a few others without visiting them, visiting only if admitted.