My son and I went on a prospective-students’ tour of Carnegie-Mellon today. CMU is high on his list, because of their great reputation in computer science research, and because a lot of their undergrads go on to earn CS PhDs.
The tours today were a bit disappointing.
One problem was that CMU doesn’t do information sessions this time of year, so we did not get to talk to any admissions officers. Actually, that’s not quite true—I spoke on the phone with one for about a minute, because I asked the receptionist at the admissions office about the line on their website directing home-school applicants to fill out the “home school supplement” of the Common App, which has been eliminated this year. Colleges were informed of this change last spring, but CMU couldn’t be bothered to fix their web site. They even printed up new brochures with the out-of-date information. The admissions officer I spoke with on the phone knew of the change and said that we should just fill out the Common App, but he did not seem at all perturbed that CMU was coming across as being unable to adapt to change (I didn’t say that to him—but I sure thought it). They seem to have fixed the page after I talked to them, though, as that erroneous information is gone from their undergraduate admissions requirements page, though the Google cache still has the old version (it’ll probably be fixed in a day or two, when the Google spider next crawls the site). So it seems that Admissions can learn from their mistakes, at least if someone points them out to them.
The tours themselves were lead by cheerful students (all female), but were curiously lacking in content. Although CMU is strongly a tech school, we had a creative writer, a journalist, and a biologist as guides (no engineers or computer scientists). Essentially nothing was said about academics (the creative writer mentioned the availability of tutors in the dorms, which she had really needed to get through beginning calculus). We did not see any classrooms on the tour, though they did mention that the biggest classroom on campus only seated 200 or 250 (I forget which). The tour guides did talk a little about athletics on campus, but since CMU is a division 3 school (which means no athletic scholarships) it is clear that it is not a sports-mad campus (unlike say, UCLA and UC Berkeley, whose highest-paid staff are head coaches).
The tours reminded us a bit of the UC Berkeley tours—touching a little on everything, but not providing much substance on anything. We went through a number of buildings, which have more diversity on the insides than the yellow-brick exteriors suggest. The contrast between the soulless mediocrity of the business building and the impressive fine arts building was particularly striking—and showing us that contrast seemed to be the only reason for setting foot in the business building.
They did not take us into the Gates Building (where computer science is), probably for fear of getting lost—the floors don’t line up and the entrances and exits are on the 4th and 5th floors with bridges to other buildings. Overall, the interior of the CS and engineering parts of the CMU campus seem to be deliberately designed to be a maze. They obviously don’t take fire safety very seriously, as exit signs point to staircases, then don’t give any indication in the staircase whether you have to go up or down the stairs to get out. (Exits are more likely to be on the 5th floor than the 1st, because of building below ground and into the sides of ravines.)
There was a lot of information about student projects posted on the walls at CMU (unlike UCB, where projects seem to be kept in strict secrecy, even from the students), and it seems like undergrad students do get involved in some interesting things, but there was nothing that told us what fraction of the undergrads did these interesting projects. Was it everyone (like at Harvey Mudd)? most students (like at Stanford)? those who really wanted to (like at UCB)? or only a very rare lucky few (like at UCLA)?
We did notice a lot of students studying at CMU, both individually and in groups—since this is the beginning of the school year for them, it seems that the classes ramp up fairly quickly. We didn’t see many hard-copy books, though, so perhaps people weren’t studying, but just staring at their computer screens to avoid talking to people.
The campus seems appropriately busy—not a ghost town like Caltech and not a pullulating mass of humanity like UCLA. The campus is surprisingly spacious for an urban campus, and the proximity to University of Pittsburgh (a much larger school) makes for a huge college town neighborhood, with many mediocre eateries and beer halls. We did manage to find a pretty good place to have dinner (Spice Island Tea House), but the food in that part of Pittsburgh does not seem to have the diversity of Berkeley (few places in the US do). Still the neighborhood is much better than the area of Los Angeles that USC is in, so all the emphasis in the tour about the safety of campus seemed a bit like overkill—I guess that they are trying to reassure people from suburbs that being in a city is not as terrible as their imaginations paint it.
The emphasis on safety through limiting access made it pretty clear than CMU does not have an honor code system like Harvey Mudd’s, where the students are trusted with 24-hour access to labs and machine shops (after passing safety training).
The demographics of the CS students seemed a lot like the demographics of the CS students at UC Berkeley, but not much like the demographics of the rest of campus. We noticed a lot more male students than female students around the Gates Building, and a lot of the study groups were all Chinese students (I wasn’t close enough to hear whether they were speaking Chinese or English, and I don’t know whether they were foreign students or Chinese-Americans). The male/female imbalance of CS departments is common across the country, so CMU is not unusual in that respect.
So far, only two of the tours we’ve been on (Stanford’s and Harvey Mudd’s) seem to have been intended to attract computer science or engineering students. Those are the only tours that have shown use the machine shops for building student projects and talked about what courses engineering students take and how students get involved in faculty research projects or start their own (including starting their own companies—a real obsession at Stanford). I don’t know whether this is because the other campuses don’t want engineering students to apply, or whether their admissions departments don’t know enough about engineers to know what would be attractive to them.
My son and I think that he could do well at CMU, and that there are enough exciting projects going on that he could find something to work on, but the tour did not lead to the same level of excitement for him that Harvey Mudd did.