Gas station without pumps

2013 November 28

First college application sent

Last night my son got his first set of college applications sent off: University of California, which has its own idiosyncratic deadline and application form. UC does not ask for transcripts and does not want letters of recommendation—students have to enter all their transcript information into web forms.  The lack of letters of recommendation may be a blessing in disguise, as one of his recommenders has still not been able to get the Common App to accept her letter for him. The UC web forms are set up to be fairly easy (though tedious) for students at California high schools, since UC has a list of all UC-approved courses at each high school, but they are really a pain for a home school student.  We were lucky in that his home-schooling was done under a public-school umbrella (Alternative Family Education) that appeared on the drop-down list.  Otherwise, it would have been difficult even to say where he did his high school education.  The instructions for home-schoolers seem to be non-existent and figuring out where to tuck various bits of information was tough.

He ended up applying to 3 of the UCs (UCB, UCSB, and UCSD), though the only campuses he has visited are UCB, UCLA, and UCSC. Why the change?  Well, UCSC is too close to home—he needs to move to more independent living.  Our visit to UCLA made it very clear that undergrads in computer science there got almost no attention from faculty (unless the students were very strong at self-promotion) and acting was mostly restricted to theater arts majors. UCB was better—much better on the acting opportunities, with an attractive acting minor, but undergrads in computer science still had little research opportunity or interaction with the faculty.

We added UCSB primarily because of the College of Creative Studies (CCS) there, an honors college of about 300 students that (the website claims) has close faculty advising and is expected to do graduate-level research as undergrads. The computer science major within CCS looks quite interesting, and (if it lives up to its advertising) may represent a good compromise between the resources of a large university and the attention and nurturing of a small college. Unfortunately, we don’t have an equivalent of the Common Data Set numbers to know how selective CCS is nor does their web site really tell us what they are looking for.

One interesting point is that CCS has a supplementary application that is circulated among the faculty—we regard it as a good sign when the faculty care enough about their program to be involved in choosing who gets in, and when a university allows the faculty to have some say (most UC admissions keep the faculty completely out of freshman admissions—except for coaches at the sports-mad campuses, who seem able to get jocks in even when they don’t come close to being UC-eligible).  Note: transfer admissions at least at UCSC is different, with faculty in the intended department having final say about whether students can be admitted to the major.

UCSD was added as an afterthought, as having a reasonable engineering program while being easier to get into than UCB (38% instead of 17% for male freshmen—UCSB is even higher at 43%).  It is more of a safety school than a careful choice, but the marginal effort of doing an application to it was small—mainly trying to rank the six colleges there based on the very scanty information on the UCSD web site. If he gets in at UCSB or UCSD, but not one of his top three choices, we’ll probably end up doing another visit to southern California, to see how these two campuses feel to him.

The UC applications cost $70 per campus plus another $11.25 each to send SAT scores for a total of $243.75.  He’ll be applying to another 3–7 colleges, so I expect that application fees will end up costing around $1000.  When the cost of college visits and taking the SAT and AP tests in the first place is included, the cost of the application process rises to around $4000–5000.  That seems like a lot, but is dwarfed by the cost of college itself, which for us will be $120,000 to $240,000, depending on which college he goes to—the amount of financial aid that we qualify for seems to vary enormously from school to school.

UPDATE 2013 Dec 1: A reader just pointed out “You can have your official score report sent to one UC campus, and all campuses you apply to will receive it.” I wish I’d noticed that buried in the instructions.  (I’d looked for it, but must have skipped over the line that said it.)

My son, like many high school seniors, has been struggling with the college application essays.  The two he produced for UC seem pretty good to me—one concentrates on the data logger project and is an adaptation of the essay he wrote for the Common Application prompt, while the other talks about why he chose to home school and what that has done for him.  Both essays managed to pack in a lot of information about him and his education, without sounding like laundry lists.

But it took him two weeks to write these essays whose combined length was just shy of the 1000-word limit.  He still has a large number of essays to write (1–3 per college application), and his writer’s block seems to get worse the more important the thing he is writing, so he’s been struggling most with the colleges he cares most about. I have the same problem—I can knock off a blog post like this one in an hour or two, but I have research papers still unfinished that should have been published a decade ago.

The huge amount of time each application takes means that there’s no way that he’ll be applying to the 100s of colleges who send brochures and postcards (most of which are getting recycled unread these days).  Occasionally one of the colleges will send a letter to “the parents of …”, and I sometimes read those for the amusement value, as most of them are so far off target as to be ludicrous.

The main limitation on how many colleges he applies to will probably be how many essays he can get done. I suppose that is why each selective college adds a bunch of essay questions to their application—not so much to find out more about the student as to reduce the flood of applicants to just those who are somewhat serious about attending. This selection process may be counterproductive though, as it would be much easier to churn out acceptable essays for schools he cared nothing about than to try to get a really good essay for a school he cares a lot about.

This weekend, I’m hoping he’ll get the essays done for one of his high-priority colleges (Harvey Mudd or Stanford, for example).


  1. Although we have years left for this, I really appreciate all the information you’ve been sharing Kevin. Thank you!

    Comment by Suji — 2013 November 28 @ 11:42 | Reply

    • I agree. We don’t even have kids, but are trying to decide if we will some day settle in the US. These posts give really nice insights into the university system from several angles.

      Comment by Ras — 2013 November 28 @ 13:09 | Reply

  2. UCSB is our local campus, so let me know if you end up being more interested in UCSB later on and have questions for locals.

    The CCS is well-regarded and there is indeed a high level of faculty contact for such students. The CS department is perhaps not as strong overall as other departments (such as materials science) that are in the top 10 in the world. But there is a fair bit of robotics, visual processing, and computer security research going on. I know that the graduate CS courses are open enough that high school students on a Hacking Team at my son’s school were welcome to audit a graduate-level computer security course as training.

    UCSB prides itself on cross-disciplinary projects. Many professors are part of two departments and there are many institutes with professors from multiple departments.

    It is a good university for biking, bus transportation out to downtown Santa Barbara is reasonably good. UCSB is also fairly handy to an Amtrak station. Some neighborhoods in Isla Vista can be a little sketchy, especially around holidays like Halloween. I’d recommend a dorm to start with or a neighborhood not adjacent to the beach.

    Comment by Yves — 2013 November 28 @ 14:31 | Reply

    • Thanks, the information is appreciated. Dorms are definitely called for the first year or two of college (and maybe all four).

      The CS department is probably not as strong as most of the other schools he is looking at, but he has a much higher chance of getting in at UCSB.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 November 28 @ 17:05 | Reply

  3. Great post, though I’ll admit that I’m mostly interested in your approach to this process from the perspective of a faculty member at a small school wondering how to interact with applicants. We (the physics department) have asked admissions for all kinds of lists of applied students, ranging from “checked off physics on their application” to “strong scores on the ACT.” My question for you is, what would show you that we’re really interested in your son? We’ve done emails, letters, and, most recently, phone calls. I have a suspicion that the phone calls from physics faculty are novel enough that they’re noticed, but I’ll admit that of the ~200 calls I’ve made over the last two years, something like 80% have simply been me leaving a message. I’d love to know your thoughts!

    Comment by Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist — 2013 November 28 @ 18:30 | Reply

    • I don’t have specific advice about getting students to visit, apply, and attend—I’ve done some cold-calling for UCSC in the past (mostly at the grad level, but some for freshman who have been admitted also) and know the frustration of just leaving messages which are never returned.

      Unless your school is one of the top ones in the fields my son is interested in, he’s not going to apply. It’s not enough for the school to be interested in him—he’s got to be interested in the school also. He’s advanced enough that he needs a place where he can start senior and graduate level research in his field right away, while still taking normal courses in other fields. For example, he’s doing computer engineering projects at about the level of a senior in computer engineering, but wants to take math and physics at about a sophomore level, and he needs a composition class that is tailored for tech writing, rather than literary analysis. An honors program that would waive gen ed requirements and prerequisites, but give him close faculty guidance in choosing good classes, would be desirable. First, though, the good classes and research projects have to be there, and a lot of decent schools just don’t have enough depth and breadth in computer science and computer engineering to meet his needs. On the other hand, some of the schools that do have the depth and breadth also have enormous classes and large numbers of grad students, where the faculty and undergrads live in almost entirely disjoint worlds—that’s not very appealing for a top undergrad either.

      He had a couple of good interactions with faculty at Harvey Mudd. One was a fairly simple one—the tour included a tour of the faculty office building, punctuated with spiels about the academic program, and one stop was in the hall where the physics faculty had their offices. As the tour guide was giving his spiel about the first-year science required courses, one of the faculty came back to his office, but rather than avoiding or ignoring the tour group, he stopped to chat with the tour guide and shared an anecdote about the first-year physics class with the tour group. My son had also contacted one of the CS faculty before the tour, and they had a great conversation both about the faculty member’s research and about research opportunities for undergrads.

      Although he did not talk with faculty at Olin College of Engineering (except briefly with the instructor of the one class he sat in on), he was impressed that the admissions decisions were made by faculty, not by admissions officers. There is a fairly large panel pre-screening the applicants, but the final decisions are made by the faculty. I don’t think that was true at any other college he is applying to (except the CCS program at UCSB, and they only make the decision about the entry to CCS, not about entry to UCSB). Olin did not come out on the top of his list, though he really liked the project approach to learning engineering—the problem was that they had too little depth in computer science and did not really get to the level he was already at for the first 2 years.

      At most of the schools we toured, there was no interaction at all between the faculty and the touring applicants. At best you might see one from the back of a 400-seat lecture hall. Having faculty interact with the tours could go a long way towards making a school seem attractive to bright students (though it might scare away some students who want to go to college to get away from teachers).

      I suspect that by the time students have started applying to colleges, it is far too late to interest them in your school. One of the best ways I can think of to get students interested in a particular school is to bring them to campus a year or two earlier for an intensive summer course in something cool but relevant to the field you are trying to recruit in. Mentoring high-school science fair projects could help, though that only draws from a fairly small radius, because of travel time. (Note: I attended an NSF-sponsored math weekly course in Chicago when I was in high school, but my son has not had such an experience—all the relevant science or math camps always conflicted with theater camps, which he regarded as a better use of his summer.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 November 29 @ 00:12 | Reply

  4. I went to UCSD and at least at the time Warren was considered the college most CS students went to although if I recall correctly Sixth college had an emphasis on computer arts. Mostly though it doesn’t really matter. They just have different GE reqs and so you can double dip better by going to certain colleges.

    Comment by Jason Buell — 2013 November 28 @ 18:50 | Reply

    • He ended up ranking the colleges by what the gen ed requirements were, and minimizing the b**s*** classes. He wanted to be able to do theater and computer science, and some colleges seemed to require so much stuff that he wasn’t interested in that he wouldn’t have time for both of his main interests.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 November 28 @ 23:31 | Reply

  5. My name is Phill Conrad, and I’m a faculty member in CS at UCSB, and the liaison between CCS and the rest of the CS program. I would welcome the opportunity to talk with you about CCS and what it has to offer. CCS isn’t right for every student, but when it’s a good fit, I don’t think there is a better opportunity at any other school. Feel free to contact me at

    Comment by Phill Conrad (@pconrad) — 2013 November 30 @ 00:19 | Reply

    • Once he gets through writing college essays (he’s still got about 10 to go—we’re hoping he gets them all one by the Jan 1 deadline), he might contact you about CCS or visiting UCSB. As honors programs in large public universities go, CCS looks pretty good (better than any of the other UCs, I think). There is still the problem that CCS doesn’t offer many courses and those mostly first-year courses, so most of his CS classes would be with general UCSB students, not with CCS students. UCSB students have better SAT scores than the UCSC students I’m used to, but nowhere near as high as UCB, which is nowhere near as high as Harvey Mudd. Being surrounded by people as smart as he is (and smarter) would be very good for him, and I’m not sure that UCSB has a high enough concentration of the smartest students for that effect to occur. The CCS House has only room for 45 students, so even if he got in he’s unlikely to be housed with other CCS students.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 November 30 @ 09:29 | Reply

  6. By the way, CCS at UCSB has one of the most flexible GE programs of any undergraduate program I’m aware of.

    Comment by Phill Conrad (@pconrad) — 2013 November 30 @ 00:22 | Reply

    • Well, I think that Brown University is even more flexible, since they explicitly have no general education requirements and all students put together a program of study in consultation with an adviser (not just honors students). More comparable to CCS at UCSB is Michigan State’s Honors College, which is pretty flexible (no explicit requirement for ethnic studies or for American History, like CCS has, just
      1 course in introductory writing
      2 courses in the area of the arts and humanities
      2 courses (lecture classes) in the area of the natural sciences
      2 courses in the area of the social sciences
      A student may propose substituting additional courses in one general education area for work in another if such a substitution would contribute in a meaningful way to the student’s overall program That looks like about 4–6 fewer gen. ed. classes than UCSB’s CCS, with more flexibility.

      However, I doubt that my son would thrive at MSU, unless its culture has changed a lot in the 39 years since I graduated from there—he has less than 0 interest in either football or beer, and his tolerance for cold weather is unknown. Santa Barbara offers a climate that is more like home for him, though I don’t know much about what living in dorms at UCSB is like.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 November 30 @ 09:01 | Reply

  7. Thank you for sharing your admissions experiences. What is your take on the CS department at USC? Would a strong CS student be challenged there?

    Comment by Linda — 2013 December 31 @ 00:05 | Reply

    • I don’t know the CS department at USC. We’ve been to the campus six times, because of California State Science Fair, and do not care for the neighborhood or the campus, so did not investigate further. In the US News rankings, USC is 20th for grad schools in CS, which is respectable. What that means for undergrads there, I’ve no idea, as we did not check USC. If my son goes to school in the LA area, it will be either Harvey Mudd or Caltech (if he gets the Caltech application done, which is looking less and less likely as the deadline gets closer).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 December 31 @ 00:26 | Reply

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