Gas station without pumps

2013 September 6

CMU college tour

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:44
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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  They even printed up new brochures with the out-of-date information.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.


  1. What an excellent and thorough summary! Thank you.

    Comment by Mrs. Homeschool — 2013 September 7 @ 18:45 | Reply

  2. As a former CMU student I can assure you CMU has a very lively social life in the nearby communities that are all within walking distance. It is a school for nerds, proudly, and the tour you got did not in any way reflect the community, culture & character of the school. You didn’t mention the annual buggy races & carnival–which are huge community events the students operate–all engineering students are heavily involved. There are tennis courts for free sports time, but no, you’re right, it isn’t a heavy sports school. There is a football team that uses that big stadium, and attending games is part of culture, too (especially homecoming).

    I was an illustration & creative writing student, so I cannot comment on CS, b/c the Gates building didn’t even exist when I was there, but CMU has had growth, development & evolution since its founding that all make up the culture of the campus. I’d revisit it as an option for CS, b/c its reputation is so very good. You were unfairly toured.

    The trees on campus! The Ultimate Frisbee games that break out on “the mall…”

    And for the newbie, a thorough orientation. Anyway, so sorry you didn’t get a good enough sense of it from that tour. Don’t write it off just yet!

    Comment by L G — 2013 September 15 @ 05:41 | Reply

    • The buggy races and carnival were given prominent place by the tour guides—they weren’t important enough to us for me to include in the short blog post. My son is also a nerd, and is looking for a community where he will fit in. Attending football games is not something that interests him at all. CS at CMU does have a great reputation—it has been top 5 for the past 30 years—which is why it is on his list.

      Currently, his plan is to apply to the top 6 or so on his priority list, and CMU is definitely in that group. The point of the tours is not to cross schools off the list (though I think that he may have done so for UCLA and I’m sure he has for U. Colorado), but to get information to try to make a decision about where to go should he get in at more than one place.

      I mean no disrespect to creative writing majors, but they often see a campus very differently than how a CS student sees it. All of the points that you urge as positives were strongly urged by our tour guides (one of whom was a creative writing major), but they are not the points that he needed to hear to feel the CMU was home. His impression of CMU was that it was not a bad fit, but not a perfect one either.

      Oh, and as for “trees on campus”—he’s been rather spoiled by taking a few classes at UCSC—there are few campus trees that can compete with the coast redwoods of the UCSC campus. CMU’s campus is nice, for an urban campus, but not really all that special.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 September 15 @ 08:27 | Reply

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