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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).

2013 September 11

Not just a job ticket

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:31
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On my MIT tour post, Nita commented

As an engineer myself, I find it rather interesting that people automatically think that going to MIT will secure a certain type of position or opportunity. So not true for the field. There is such a need for developers that many of them don’t even have 4 year degrees to be viable in this field. Just getting a Certification in Oracle, Cisco and more will get you in the door to a ‘Help Desk’ or ‘Jr. Programming’ job without a degree and if you are good, your salary and the salary of your peers will be the same in about 5 to 10 years … all without a degree. Now if you want to become a Software Manager or Engineering Architect, the highest degree most have is a Masters—but it’s not necessary, what they want you to have is another ‘Certification’ a PMP which takes about a week to get. Really spend time talking to people in your child’s chosen career makes a big difference.

I started to respond to the comment, but as my response got longer and longer, I decided to turn it into a separate post.

While it is certainly possible to get a job in IT without a degree, I think my son would not be happy in a “Help Desk” or “Jr. Programming” job for very long (by which I mean more than a few weeks). He is patient with people who don’t know what he knows, and (I’m told) he’s been a good teaching assistant for the home-school Python class, but I think he’d get frustrated dealing with the rude behavior by stupid people that most help desk personnel have to put up with. A junior programming job would not be very rewarding either, as people in such positions are not trusted to make any decisions about the code, but just to implement what they are told or slap patches on badly written code that is already so patched by incompetents that it is nearly impossible to maintain. The most tedious and unrewarding parts of programming are given to junior programmers, with almost no opportunity given to show what one is really capable of.

His goal in going to college is not “to get a good-paying job”, but to learn cool stuff and to do cool stuff (which for him, at the moment, mainly means writing programs, though he’s gotten a bit interested in designing digital hardware as well).  It is unfortunate that computer science has recently been oversold as a job ticket, because it means that in most colleges he’ll be surrounded by people who are just there for the money and have little love for the learning. Computer programming suffers from even wilder boom-and-bust swings than other engineering fields, and I suspect that a lot of the current pushing of CS as a ticket to a good job is deliberate hype to keep labor costs low.

Part of what we’re looking for on our college tours is a place where many of the students are there for the learning, not the job ticket. Of course, since most parents and students have been taught to think of college as a job ticket, the information sessions and campus tour guides often spend a fair amount of time talking about how good the job prospects are for their graduates.  Both Brown and Stanford made a big deal out of Google’s active recruitment of their students, though Stanford included Google only as one of the many examples of employers who pay big bucks to recruit Stanford students.

We’ve been trying to read between the lines to find the places where he’d get the learning he wants and where he’d be surrounded by other students with similar motivations.  A high rate of students going on to grad school in CS and doing well is a good sign, for example, because it means that the students loved learning enough to forego high-paying jobs in order to learn more.  For students primarily interested in getting one of those high-paying jobs, the number of people getting job offers immediately after graduation and the size of those job offers may be more important than the number going on to grad school. Google recruiting is a good sign for both groups of students—Google pays well, but they are also interested in finding people who can do new things, not people who’ve just gone through cram-and-forget training to get a piece of paper with BS on it. Having a large number of successful startups formed by students or recent alumni is also a good sign for both groups, at least if the startups are doing cool new things, and not just random tweaks to whatever the current fad is.

Getting paid well to do cool stuff would be nice, but my son is not primarily driven by money.  His motivations might be different if we were rich and spent all our time comparing ourselves to still richer people, or if we were poor and spent all our time trying to make ends meet and pay off crushing debts.  But our family is solidly middle-class, with a paid-up mortgage and just enough income to indulge our cheap tastes and save for retirement and college. Our biggest expenses are food and education.

My son’s future is undetermined: It’s possible that he’ll get rich from creating a startup that hits the big time.  It’s possible that he’ll become a hot-shot programmer or engineer at a large company. It’s possible that he’ll end up as a professor or as a senior researcher in a national lab.  It’s also possible that he’ll end up as an actor, doing various contract programming and web-design jobs as day jobs to pay the rent between acting gigs.  He’s preparing himself for any of those possibilities (and probably others).

Right now, being a student is most attractive to him, and he is trying to optimize that experience.  If learning continues to be his main passion, he’ll probably stay in school through a PhD.  If something else beckons along the way, he might stop (or perhaps pause) with a BS and pursue the other opportunity.

2013 August 28

Advice I needed

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:20
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Kevin McMullin, in his blog post For parents: Leaders need to hold it together, has some advice that I needed today:

Parents, how would you feel if you were preparing for the biggest sales presentation of your career and instead of supporting you with reassuring encouragement, advice and confidence, your boss became progressively more stressed and emotionally unglued? You’d feel more pressure and less confident. And you’d probably resent your boss.

If you’re the parent of a student applying to college, don’t be like the anxious boss.

I completely understand why parents feel stress and anxiety during the college admissions process. Nobody is more invested in your student’s success and happiness than you are.

But the most important job for parents of college applicants is to be just that—the parent of a college applicant. The stress of college admissions isn’t happening to you; it’s happening to your kid. Be calm and maintain your perspective. Offer support, guidance and encouragement. Cheer from the sidelines and remind them that you’ll love them no matter what Northwestern or Brown or University of North Carolina decides about their application.

You’re in an important leadership role now. And leaders need to hold it together.

I have been getting a bit stressed about my son’s application to colleges.  As a home-schooling parent, it is my job to put together his transcript, his counselor’s letter, and the school profile.  The transcript is still missing some course descriptions (for the courses my wife did with him—I’ve not been able to get 1-paragraph descriptions from either my son or my wife all summer!), but I have complete drafts of the other documents.  I would estimate that I’ve spent about 20 hours preparing these documents, maybe more.

I’ve also been “encouraging” him to get at least his current top-choice application done before his workload increases.  (So far, only one of his classes has started, the ChemAdvantage AP chem course, though it looks like he’ll be working on the Arduino Data Logger and the Bluetooth light gloves all year as for-credit projects.)

We’ll be doing 4 more college visits starting Sept 6: CMU, Brown, MIT, and Olin College of Engineering.  CMU and MIT are obvious top-rated computer-science schools, Brown has a pretty good CS department and the lack of make-work distribution requirements is very appealing, and Olin has a project-based approach that is appealing.  Last year, the lack of a pure CS major at Olin made it a bit less appealing to him, but over the summer he’s found that embedded systems and computer engineering can be fun, so Olin moved up in his internal ranking.

From what we can tell on the web, CMU may not be a good fit, despite having top-notch CS and theater departments—the problem is that it seems that (like UCLA) non-majors get shut out of most acting opportunities.  We’ll check on this more carefully when we visit.  Acting looks quite feasible at Brown and at MIT, and Olin allows students to register for courses at Wellesley (2 miles away), which has 4 acting courses (though whether Olin students can fit them into their schedules is not clear).  I don’t know whether we’ll have time to visit Wellesley on this trip—we haven’t scheduled it, but if the MIT shadow day falls through, we might have an extra day.

2013 August 24

Which college?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:08
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I’ve been thinking a lot about where my son should apply to college (all applications must be completed by January 1, and some of them will take him a long time to fill out—especially the dozens of application essays).  So I was interested in articles like Mark Edmundson’s in The Atlantic, ‘Where Should I Go to College?’. He starts out with a good framing question:

Where should you go to college—assuming you’re a high school student and getting ready for this new phase of your life? Where should you encourage your son or daughter to go—assuming that you’re a parent? As a college professor, I get asked the where-to-go question frequently, and I know that all of us teaching in colleges and universities do too. How should one answer? What is the right thing to say to someone deciding on his or her future? For myself, I’m inclined to respond by posing another question.

Are you looking for a corporate city, or are you looking for a scholarly enclave? Neither of these kinds of schools exists in its pure form. To the scholarly enclave, even the most ideal, there will always be a practical, businessy dimension. Somebody’s got to keep the books and pay the bills. And even in the most corporate of colleges, there will be islands of relative scholarly idealism.

The article goes on in great detail about the corporate/idealism axis that he sees as the most relevant one for students choosing a college.  But he sees the distinction as almost synonymous with an engineering/humanities axis, which I don’t agree with—I know engineers and engineering professors who are very idealistic, who went into engineering with the hope that they could improve the world by solving some of the problems facing us.  The word “entrepreneurship” is a dirty work to Edmundson, but he has apparently not heard of “social entrepreneurship”, which attempts to use the high energy and adrenaline of start-up culture to do good, instead of to make piles of money.

His description of the “corporate university” does remind me of some colleges, where faculty and students alike seem to be always looking for fame and fortune (and fame is just as potent a driving force as fortune).  There are some faculty and students like that even in the most scholarly places, though the faculty usually job-hop out within a few years. But being laid-back and not interested in the corporate rat race are not the same thing as being scholarly.  There are plenty of places where students and faculty wander around rather aimlessly, just going through the motions of a scholarly life without the trouble of doing any original thinking. (Watch out for tour guides that talk mainly about the sports teams—a place that regards tailgate parties as the high point of college life is not likely to be scholarly.)

There is a quality axis that is orthogonal to the corporate/idealism axis.  Some schools strive for very high quality in teaching and research, independent of the uses that the students will put the skills to.  Such places may end up anywhere along Edmundson’s corporate/idealism axis, though he equates the corporate end of his axis with a disdain for learning: “Students still study. But in the old high school tradition, you study only as much as you need to study to get your A’s. If expedient but slightly shady means of A-getting arise, you may even evaluate them using a risk-reward equation.” There is some truth to what he says—that attending college for monetary goals is often in conflict with scholarly goals, but the “only as much as you need to study” attitude seems to be more prevalent in the humanities than in engineering, even though many students go into engineering in search of high-paying jobs.  (His description seems spot-on for business majors, though, who epitomize the corporate-university mindset, and who seem to be at the center of many cheating scandals.)

Even the most corporate of universities come in different flavors, with some preparing students to be cogs in existing corporations, while others are preparing entrepreneurs to start new ventures.  Those different goals require very different education and different psychological mindsets from the students. A risk-averse student may be very poorly served by an entrepreneurial approach, where the rewards are often more the adrenaline rush of high-stakes gambling than a high median return.  Similarly, a serial entrepreneur might be poorly served by a college that prepared them for a slow slog up a corporate ladder.

Larger schools can support both a corporate culture and a scholarly culture on the same campus—which aspect of the college you see depends on where you look and who you hang out with.  Places like MIT and Stanford come to mind.  Smaller schools may have a more monolithic culture, and figuring out where it fits along Edmundson’s corporate/idealistic axis may be as important as figuring out where it is on the quality axis.


2012 April 17

College theater programs vs. Tao of Acting

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:18
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Yesterday I was looking for colleges that might be a good match for my son, to get him thinking about what he wants in a college, so that we can visit a few next year.  Currently, he wants a school with a good computer science program (one in which he can get into research early), good modern physics (he wants to learn quantum mechanics and other 20th century physics, not just the 17th–19th century physics that first-year classes cover), and he wants to do a lot of acting.

I know about many good computer science programs, and I can find reasonably good proxies for the quality of physics teaching (though with the over-production of physics PhDs for the past 4 decades, almost everywhere now has competent physicists as instructors).  I know almost nothing about acting though, and so I turned to the Internet for information about theater programs.

I found several (at times conflicting) lists of the “best” colleges for training actors.  One find particularly resonated with me, Dr. Ken Plonkey’s blog and his free e-book Tao of Acting.  He says that for professional actors, nothing matters as much as experience, and that one should take training courses to learn specific skills (dialects, sword fighting, …) and for networking, but one should do so while being an actor, not before attempting to become one.  He feels that most of the college programs in acting are a waste of time and money, in that their graduates have less chance than actors who spend the same amount of time perfecting their craft in amateur theater.  Note: Dr. Plonkey’s bio page says he is retired from heading the Theatre Department at Southern Colorado State College (now Colorado State University Pueblo), so he would normally be expected to favor colleges as training grounds for actors.  I wonder if anyone who believes in college majors in acting has written a rebuttal—I didn’t find one in a brief search on-line.

Now, I don’t think my son currently aspires to be a professional actor (he doesn’t buy lottery tickets either), but I believe he does want to continue acting as a serious amateur.  The lists I’ve found for “best” acting programs are mainly conservatory-style programs, where the students do almost nothing but theater.  Some allow 7–10 hours a week for liberal arts, which is clearly not enough leftover time for someone who wants to major in computer science and study modern physics as well.

None of the “best” programs seemed to have any time for students not majoring in theater.  So I’m still looking for colleges that have a lot of opportunities for non-theater majors to act.

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