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2013 December 27

Third Common App submission

Around 11 p.m. on Dec 27, my son submitted the third of his Common App college applications (Brown), just 70 hours after his second application—and he did take Dec 25th off. The Brown essays were easier than the earlier ones, in part because he could reuse stuff he’d already written, and in part because they asked simple questions with tight word limits.  He did have to write more than many Brown applicants, because he was applying as a prospective computer science major:

Because you have expressed an interest in Chemistry, Computer Science, Geology, Mathematics, or Physics, we would like to know a bit more about you. Respond to the following questions separately, and please remember to include the number corresponding to each question in your uploaded response! (Limit your total response to 500 words.)

1. Many applicants to college are unsure about eventual majors. What factors led you to your interest? What experiences beyond school work have broadened your interest? (Feel free to elaborate on one of your previous responses.)

2. What concept in your anticipated major were you most proud of mastering?

3. Briefly describe the course(s) you have taken relating to your chosen field.

The first question is just a rehash of a question they already asked:

Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated in our Member Section, earlier in this application? If you are “undecided” or not sure which Brown concentrations match your interests, consider describing more generally the academic topics or modes of thought that engage you currently. (150 word limit)

The duplicate question was a bit tricky for him to answer without repeating himself, especially as his generic Common App essay also talked about his interest in computer science.  The third question could have just been answered “See course descriptions in transcript”, but he expanded that answer to talk about his progress through different programming languages and managed to work in a project that had been too short to include in the transcript.  The second question was the most interesting, but essentially impossible to answer—once you’ve mastered a computer science concept, it seems pretty trivial, not something to be proud of.  He sidestepped that one a bit by listing concepts that he feels he has a firm grasp of that are important to CS, rather than ones he is particularly proud of.  (He did mention his pride at being good enough at Python to teach it when the instructor he is TA for can’t teach the class.)

He now has three days to do three applications (MIT, CMU, Olin), and two more days for one more application (Caltech has a Jan 3rd deadline). Most of Monday, Thursday, and Friday will be taken up with the 3-day workshop with Ailin Conant of Theatre Temóin that WEST is doing on Dec 30, Jan 2, and Jan 3, so he really has only four full days for the four applications. I doubt that he can get all four applications done in time, but I’ll be satisfied if he gets MIT done—any beyond that are lagniappe.

We did notice one more problem with Common App today—if you use their “I” button to italicize anything, it does a terrible job, changing the font size and family, not just putting the text in italics.

2013 December 25

Second Common App submission

Around 1 a.m. on Dec 25, my son submitted the second of his Common App college applications (Stanford).  He now has seven days to do 4 more applications. Originally he had planned to take Christmas off, but he has fallen behind schedule, thanks to a bad cough and 2 full days spent rehearsing and performing in WEST Ensemble Players’ production of Inspecting Carol, where he had the role of Sidney Carlton (and hence the roles of Jacob Marley and Mr. Fezziwig).  The production was an excellent one, with all the actors cast true to type.  I’m looking forward to their production of Much Ado About Nothing in the spring—he’s with a very talented group of actors this year.

Actually, he’ll only have 6.5 days to do four applications, as I promised him that if he got the Stanford application done before going to bed, I’d sign him up for the 3-day workshop with Ailin Conant of Theatre Temóin that WEST is doing on Dec 30, Jan 2, and Jan 3.  (The link to the site will probably break in a few weeks, as WEST does not keep archival links to classes once they are over—I think that they should maintain permanent links for each class, but they generally discard chunks of their website every 4 months, and reuse the URLs.)

I doubt that he can get all four applications done in time, but I’ll be satisfied if he gets the next two (Brown and MIT) done.  The ones after that on the list CMU, Caltech, and Olin, did not seem to be as good fits, though each is still a good enough fit to be worth applying if he can get the essays done.

It was a good thing that he and I were checking the completeness of the application process together tonight, as he found a mistake I had made—the transcript and counselor letter had not had their final submission.  I was unable to complete the submission with Firefox—the Common App website went into an infinite pause generating the PDF preview.

I had no trouble doing the submission with Chrome, though.  I did see that they added headers and footers to all the uploaded documents, one of which interfered with footers I had put in the transcript (to explain the codes for the different educational providers).  I took advantage of needing to fix the footers to update a few other things on the transcript—like the name for the English course he is taking fall semester, and his intention not to continue with Page to Stage (one of his four theater activities in the fall) in the spring.

He now has 2 complete applications (fully downloadable by the colleges) on Common App, plus the UC applications.  In another week, he’ll be essentially done with college applications (with just the UCSB College of Creative Studies additional application).


2013 December 18

First Common App submission

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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.



2013 December 15

Still more difficulties with the new Common Application

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:33
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In Difficulties with the new Common Application and More difficulties with the new Common Application I talked about how home school parents were supposed to become “counselors” to enter the school profile, counselor letter, and transcript and about problems uploading the transcript.

Today, we finally got all my son’s recommendation letters finally submitted.  Three of the four teachers had no trouble submitting the letters a month or more ago, but the 4th thought she was finished, while the Common App record still showed it as incomplete.  We finally sat down with her to try to find out what the problem was.  All the parts of the submission showed green checks, but the button to submit the recommendation letter wouldn’t let her submit.

It turns out that she had left blank one “required” field on her profile—the one that says what school she teaches for.  This particular question is one of the worst-implemented “features” of the new Common App.  Whoever designed it assumed that the list of schools they had was complete, so that teachers just had to select from the list—and then made it so that teachers could only select from the list.  How any sane, competent person could believe that any list of schools is complete is beyond me.  Of course, the list is far from complete, as it includes only full-service accredited high schools, not specialty schools like art schools, theater schools, after-school academies, foreign-language schools, home school co-ops, … .  The teacher had skipped this field, because they did not include her school.

It would take only a slight redesign of the form to allow teachers to check a box that says “my school is not on this list” and enter the name and address of their school (though it would take a slightly larger redesign of the back-end, since the list of schools would no longer be static).  The Common App folks had this bug pointed out to them months ago, and they’ve still not fixed it (or even acknowledged it in their newsletters to counselors).  Lack of forethought, incompetence of execution, lack of testing, slow responses to bug reports—it is no wonder that teachers, students, parents, guidance counselors, and admissions officers are all cursing the folds at the Common App.

What we ended up doing was entering a “white lie” for the teacher.  She marked that she teaches at a school where she has done a few classes on contract this year.  She’s not an employee of the school, but she does teach there, even if it is only about 5% of the teaching she does.

Update 2013 Dec 15:

In browsing other posts about the Common App, I finally found who to blame:

I did learn that Common App, which has a staff of just ten people, didn’t do any of the site programming. That is all handled by Hobsons, a 39-year-old for-profit company based in Cincinnati, that is owned by the British media company, Daily Mail and General Trust. Among other properties, Hobsons owns Naviance, which has had trouble working together with the new Common App. The two companies call themselves “partners,” and neither wants to apportion blame. [Susan Adams, The Common Application to College: Great Idea, Disastrous Execution]

So if you are looking to do a web site that needs to work for a large number of users, do not under any circumstances hire Hobsons. (Perhaps the name is because you’d only hire them if faced with “Hobson’s choice”?)

Second Update 2013 Dec 15:

I tried informing the Common App staff of the workaround we had found (they had been less than helpful in our initial attempts to find out why the teacher’s recommendation was not appearing in the student files), and got this “friendly” response:

Your request could not be processed because the ticket is already closed. To submit this as a new issue, please log into the recommendation and navigate to the help pages.

It seems that they follow the common help-desk practice of arbitrarily closing tickets when the problem has not been solved, so that supervisors can claim that they have very few unresolved problems.  Yet more evidence of incompetence.

Third Update 2013 Dec 16:

When I entered a new ticket, the Common App support staff replied:

The option to select ‘School Not on List’ should have been presented to you. Once you do a search, at the bottom of that list, is the option to select ‘School Not on List’.

We did not see any such option—perhaps it was on the 20th or 100th screenful of the list.  Once it was clear that the school was not there, we did not scroll through the extremely long list of schools presented.  The “School not found” option should be at the top level, not requiring scrolling through an unending list of irrelevant schools.

It’s nice that they have a workaround—it’s too bad that it is so thoroughly hidden as to be essentially useless.

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).

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