Campus Visit Notes: Middlebury College

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College: Middlebury College

Location: Middlebury, Vermont

Type of Institution: Private liberal arts college

Size: 2,400 students

Admissions Advice: Like many super selective liberal arts colleges, Middlebury admits a large percentage of its incoming freshman class through Early Decision. For students who love Middlebury, this is the best option as the admission rate is more than double the admission rate for regular decision candidates. And because Middlebury is a school which meets 100% of demonstrated financial need, it is a potential Early Decision option for students requiring need-based aid as well.

Most popular majors: Environmental Science, Economics, Political Science, languages, Neuroscience

Words to describe students I met: Outdoorsy, passionate, collaborative, globally-focused, athletic

Unique academic aspects: Middlebury College prides itself on the Commons System, a living-learning community including students of all grade levels. For freshman year, students will select a writing-intensive freshman seminar which then determines their Commons / residential hall placement for the first two years (with some additional options, like the Academic Interest Housing options). There is a big support team of upperclassmen, faculty, and staff located in each Commons, and tons of social and academic programming throughout the year.

Middlebury is also one of a handful of colleges to offer a January term (J-term), a four-week intensive where students can focus on one specific class either on-campus or out in the world. This breaks up the academic year and provides a great opportunity for hands-on learning, internships, or just the chance to spend some time away from Vermont in the dead of winter.

Unique social/cultural aspects: Middlebury loves gap year students. In fact, there is a cohort of partial gap year students who enter Middlebury each year in February, “the Febs“. Nearly 20% of the entering freshman class takes advantage of this each year, giving students 7-8 months of time off between high school graduation and the start of college. My tour guide was a Feb and spoke enthusiastically about his choice to take time off for travel and work before the start of college. He also shared some insights into how Middlebury welcomes these students to campus mid-year and helps them build connections within the Feb starts and the greater Middlebury community. One of the coolest traditions for this group of students is that they ski down a hill on campus (in cap and gown!) for their winter graduation ceremony.

Colleges that seem similar:  Whitman College, Colgate University, Colorado College, Williams College, Hamilton College

Concerns about this college: Middlebury is truly in the middle of nowhere, and the downtown area encompasses little more than one square block. There are enough services on the outskirts of town for students to do the basics (a few stores, restaurants, drug stores), but there isn’t much else. For many, this isolation and immersion in the outdoors is a reason to choose Middlebury. But for city or suburban kids who want the convenience of big box stores and off-campus activities like concerts and restaurants, Middlebury probably isn’t the best match.

Overall impressions:  Middlebury is an amazing liberal arts college option for students interested in outdoor adventures, collaborative intellectual pursuits, and a social life that centers around campus activities. The college environment strikes a great balance between preppy and hippie/granola, academic and social, theory and real-life application. Students I met were all incredibly friendly and outgoing – you have to be in such a small community, and particularly in a community with such cold, long winters.

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Campus Visit Notes: Reed College

College:  Reed College

Location: Portland, OR

Type of Institution: Private liberal arts

Size: 1,400 students

Admissions Advice: Reed College is all about fit. Most applicants have top scores and GPAs, so readers look beyond that and focus on elements like intellectual curiosity, interest in interdisciplinary learning, and communication and debate skills. They place a high value on letters of recommendation (again, ideally with a focus on fit) and the supplemental essay.

Most popular majors: Biology, Psychology, English, Math, Physics, Social Sciences

Words to describe students I met: intellectual, quirky, scholars, independent, inquisitive, liberal

Unique academic aspects:  For a school with such an “alternative” reputation, Reed College actually has quite a strict set of core requirements. For example, every freshman will take the Humanities 110 seminar which includes interdisciplinary courses based on Greek, Roman, and Mediterranean literature. Additionally, there are a range of core requirements across arts/humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, among other areas. Reed wants to make sure students come out of the experience knowing how to think critically about a range of interconnected topics and ideas.

Reed is also a science powerhouse. Students majoring in the sciences get their own lab space and funding for materials (if needed) as they complete their senior thesis projects. They have strong connections with other universities, such as 3 + 2 engineering programs with CalTech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Columbia University, and a computer science degree partnership with University of Washington.

Unique social/cultural aspects: Renn Fayre (aka “Renaissance Fair”) is kind of a big deal at Reed College. This multi-day celebration is thrown by the junior class and takes place after seniors turn in their thesis projects. It features a parade, parties, crafting, fireworks, and many other activities.

I was also impressed to learn about the fine and performing arts facilities at Reed, and just how common it is for students to take classes in these areas. The campus has two theaters, a new performing arts center, tons of instrument practice rooms, and dance studios for use by classes, student groups, and even the community in general.

Colleges that seem similar:  Brown University, Oberlin College, Lewis & Clark College, Grinnell College, Pitzer College

Concerns about this college:  Reed often doesn’t receive serious consideration from my students because the college doesn’t have any sports teams. Sure, there are a range of PE classes and club teams students can join, but there aren’t opportunities to support your team and show your school spirit in a more formal, traditional way. Additionally, much like neighboring Lewis & Clark College, the campus political vibe is extremely left-leaning. While vibrant discussion and debate are common on campus, students likely won’t get much exposure to conservative viewpoints here.

Overall impressions: Reed lived up to its quirky and intellectual reputation. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the amazing academic culture on campus and opportunities through programs like “Paideia” and the the celebration surrounding the completion of senior thesis projects. The campus was quiet, calm, and beautiful – a perfect setting for deep reflection and focus – while the exciting city of Portland isn’t too far away. My visit confirmed that Reed isn’t a school for everyone, but for the right student, it is an amazing place to grow intellectually.

So you got into college. Now what?

Another year, another admission decision season. This is probably the most emotionally draining couple of weeks in a young person’s life (until they move to college a few months down the line…) The decision time brings tears of joy, tears of sadness and sometimes strange surprises as colleges experience huge increases or decreases in their applicant pool compared to previous years.

So what happens after you get that admission letter, or, hopefully, multiple admission letters?

Financial aid and scholarships – More information on this should be coming your way if you have not received it yet (via email, your college portal, and/or postal mail). Most colleges will get this information out within a few days of the admission decision as it is obviously an extremely important piece of the puzzle. Click here for more information on evaluating financial aid packages.

Admitted student events – You’ve wooed your colleges, now it’s their turn to woo you back! Colleges will roll out the red carpet for admitted student preview events held throughout the month of April. Students and parents will have the opportunity to tour (or re-tour) campuses, learn about housing options in great detail, meet current students, sit in on classes, and interact with faculty. At some colleges, don’t be surprised if the president and top faculty are around to greet you.

Phonathons and other outreach – Many colleges have student volunteers call admitted students to talk about their experiences at the college and answer any questions. This is a great opportunity to ask about those things you don’t necessarily want to ask when parents are around. What’s the dating scene like? What does the campus look like on game day? Am I going to make friends easily here? Don’t be shy on these calls. You are already admitted to the college and this is a great chance to see if it would be the right social fit for you.

Don’t forget the national deadline to decide where you will go to college is May 1st.

Seniors: How to stay ahead of the chaos this fall

Senior year has arrived!  You all know that now is the time to focus on developing your college list and writing that standard college essay. Your high school counselor will likely give you a checklist of items to do this fall focused on getting applications prepared and submitted on time. However, here are a few less well known (but still important) things seniors should focus on in the beginning of the school year:

Letters of recommendation requests 

If you are applying to Common Application colleges or, generally speaking, selective universities, be sure to identify teachers to write your letters of recommendation early. Look through your college list and see how many letters are required and from whom. The most competitive colleges will require two letters of recommendation from teachers in core academic subject areas (math, science, language, social studies, English) plus a counselor letter. Some colleges will allow you to submit an extra letter from someone outside of those traditional subjects as long as the letter will shed light on something new about you. Some valid examples of others you might ask: employer, fine arts teacher or club adviser.

The key part is asking early. If you attend a large public high school, that popular English teacher may be asked to write over a hundred letters of recommendation (literally), so asking at the beginning of the year will make sure you’re on the top of the list. Also, as you might suspect, your teacher will be more enthusiastic about writing letters earlier in the year compared to deadline time.

Scheduling admissions interviews

As an alumni interviewer for the past several years, I can tell you that the students who contact me earlier in the interview season have a slight advantage. They are demonstrating their interest in the college early and showing me that they are on top of things. On my end, I am refreshed and excited to start interviewing students each year in September and October. Once the holiday season approaches in November, I am often starting to get burnt out on interviews and need to begin saying no. Friends who interview off-site for other colleges (Pomona, Occidental, etc. ) echo my sentiments. Typically you will be able to request admissions interviews starting in September, so prepare early!

Have the financial fit conversation with mom and dad

It is absolutely crucial for students and parents to have a conversation about financial fit before the college list is finalized and applications are submitted. Parents should use this as a tool to teach their child about budgeting (students are, in fact, about to enter adulthood!). Have a frank discussion about finances and establish some boundaries for total cost per year, loan amounts that you are comfortable with, student employment expectations, etc. Decide what is best for your situation and make sure that your college list includes schools that are more of a financial safety based on total cost of attendance or likelihood of qualifying for financial aid or merit scholarships. Getting on the same page early ensures that there aren’t awkward conversations later once decisions and award letters come out.

A few words of wisdom on evaluating financial aid packages

The majority of the nation’s college and universities finished releasing their admission decisions just a few days ago. Now students and parents are frantically scheduling trips for “Admitted Student Days”, where colleges try to convince you to choose them over the competitors. But before booking a flight or hotel, I encourage families to review their financial aid and scholarship package. Why waste your time and money visiting a school that isn’t financially feasible for you to attend?

At many schools, students and families won’t receive their financial aid and scholarship packages until a week or more after the official acceptance letter. If you’re one of the lucky full-pay families who don’t require financial assistance, by all means go ahead and schedule those visits to any school you are seriously interested in attending. But, if you completed the FAFSA or are hoping for other support to defray the cost of college, you may want to hold off on visiting until the award letter is in hand. Even if you utilized the Net Price Calculator for you chosen schools, financial aid availability and formulas can change a bit from year to year.

While colleges and universities have a noble mission of educating young minds, they unfortunately don’t always have the student and family’s best interests at heart when it comes to financial aid. Their goal is to fill the freshman class and sometimes this means they can get away with providing financial aid and scholarship packages that are somewhat misleading. Letters often confuse students and parents with vague terms or the use of last year’s tuition amounts. On top of that, colleges present this information in different ways, making it very difficult to truly compare your options.

Here are a few things to be aware of as you review your financial aid and scholarship award package:

Colleges often front-load merit scholarships and other financial support. What this means is that your package as an incoming freshman may change drastically after you complete your first year on campus. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common as colleges compete for the best and brightest. My advice? Read the fine print associated with any grants or scholarships you’ve been awarded. Is this renewable for all four years of your education? (Side note: Is it realistic for you to graduate from this school in four years?) If the scholarships are renewable, do they require an additional application later on or is renewal automatic? Does maintaining the scholarship require a certain GPA or involvement on campus? Be sure you fully understand this award and how it continues (if at all) to support you beyond the first year.

If your package includes loans, be sure you understand the interest rate and payback terms. Another practice that is common (but less so now) is the inclusion of loans in your financial aid package without a full explanation of the interest rates, monthly payments and loan terms. If this isn’t clear in your award letter, call or email the financial aid office to ask before accepting any offer. Email is best because then you’ll have a record of this exchange in case there are any issues later on, but expect to wait a few days for a response.

Understand the true cost of attendance and what is/is not included. Schools may present a separate “fees” or “other” category to include various additional costs of attendance besides tuition itself. If those costs aren’t outlined clearly in the letter, ask! While one school may include an estimated budget of $1000 / year for transportation costs, another school might leave that out of their award. Textbook costs are another potential big expense (hundreds of dollars a semester) that may or may not be included in your cost of attendance.

If you’d like to read more tips about evaluating your financial aid offer, check out this piece from the Huffington Post or this Forbes article. Educate yourself and don’t be afraid to ask questions on the front end!