Last night, my son submitted the first of his Common App college applications. Because the deadline for the applications is January first, he has about 12 days to get his remaining 5 college applications done. I suspect that he’s not going to make it for all of them, as the essays take him forever. Each of the colleges he is applying to requires a one to five more essays in addition to the Common App essay, and these essays have the sorts of prompts that shut him down—personal reflections, for the most part. Strict word limitations are not particularly helpful (it can be harder to write a 500-word response than a 1000-word one).
The essay that has taken him the longest so far (discarding at least four drafts and trying lots of different approaches) is the Harvey Mudd essay with the prompt “What influenced you to apply to Harvey Mudd College? What about the HMC curriculum and community appeals to you? Please limit your response to 500 words.” It did not take him long to come up with a list of appealing things about the college, but getting it into a coherent essay that was under 500 words was a major struggle. In the end he managed to get about ¾ of his list in with a decent flow—I hope that the admissions officers appreciate the effort he put into it!
So far, starting in September, he has managed to finish a Common App essay, 2 UC essays, and 2 Harvey Mudd essays. Completing 5 essays in 3 months does not argue well for doing approximately another 10 in 12 days. If he doesn’t get applications submitted, he won’t get into the corresponding schools, so he is planning to prioritize the remaining applications, and try to get the most important applications done first. Right now his order is Harvey Mudd (done!), Stanford, Brown, and then, at about the same priority UCB (done!), MIT, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon. He has UCSD and UCSB as “safety” schools, since there was no extra effort applying to them as well as UCB, and the Creative Studies CS degree at UCSB looks like it might provide a little of the small-school advising and community that is missing at UCB.
My wife thinks that Brown will be the best fit for him, as he would not have to take any courses that didn’t interest him (he has a wide range of interests, but they don’t match the “general education” requirements at most universities). While I see her point, I think that the smaller collaborative geeky community at Harvey Mudd may be a better fit for him, and he can do about half his general education as acting classes at Pomona and half with fellow geeks at HMU, so it wouldn’t be as onerous as most general ed requirements. I also like that Harvey Mudd has a higher ratio of women than the corresponding engineering and CS departments at any of the other schools—I don’t care for the “brogrammer” culture that has developed at some schools, and HMUs success at recruiting top women in tech fields is a good sign that the culture there is more open.
Stanford is attractive mainly for the entrepreneurial opportunities and how richly equipped the engineering facilities available to undergrads are—the reduced transportation hassles of being only 3 hours from home by public transit are a minor bonus. UCB, MIT, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon all have top notch reputations, but the faculty seemed more focused on the grad students than the undergrads. Opportunities for research projects are big at those schools, but undergrads have to be pretty pushy to get them.
In terms of theater for non-theater majors, UCB, Brown, and Stanford probably provide the most opportunities, but also the most competition for roles. The CMU theater program is world-class, but their productions are not very open to non-theater majors, though there are other theater opportunities not associated with their department. Caltech has only a small theater department (closed when we visited campus). Harvey Mudd has only a small amount of theater on campus, but the other Claremont colleges (particularly Pomona) make the theater opportunities about as good as at the big schools. MIT seems to be in a middle ground, with more theater than Caltech, but less than other schools. In terms of making theater an official part of his education, Harvey Mudd’s willingness to count acting courses as his humanities concentration and UCB’s acting minor are probably the most attractive.
Personally, I think my son would be best served by going to Harvey Mudd or Brown for undergrad education, then to grad school at Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, or Carnegie-Mellon (depending on what specific field in computer science he gets most interested in). But if he changes his mind about grad school, and wants to go straight into a startup from college, then Stanford, MIT, or Berkeley could be a better choice.
From a financial standpoint, Stanford or Berkeley would probably come out cheapest, and Brown the most expensive (based on very rough estimates from on-line net-price calculators), but we can afford 4 years at any of them, so price will probably not end up being an important factor in his decision.