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Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?


Replies to: Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?

  • TheAtlanticTheAtlantic Registered User Posts: 1,973 Senior Member
    edited May 2017
    As a Vandy student (non-engineer), I think much of what @bernie12 says is correct. Vandy puts a premium on "happiness", "work hard/play hard", and "having it all" so that students often stress themselves out trying to replicate an ideal image of what the college atmosphere is supposed to be like. The school itself isn't "laid back", but that's the general perception everyone has. With that said, I don't know how Vandy students could say they work equally as hard as students at MIT, (especially without going to both institutions), I just think the institution is tougher than advertised.
  • collegemomjamcollegemomjam Registered User Posts: 1,558 Senior Member
    I'm sure you are right. I was responding to the comments someone made about Vandy being EASY. It has rigorous majors, but I'm sure MIT is more rigorous. I can't imagine what it's like there, honestly.
  • TheAtlanticTheAtlantic Registered User Posts: 1,973 Senior Member
    @collegemomjam Yeah, I'm guessing the comparison was made based on claims of grade inflation at schools like Harvard, that are perhaps less pronounced at MIT (and Vandy). It's really hard to compare across cases to determine school rigor though, even when looking at GPA averages.
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 5,201 Senior Member
    edited May 2017
    @TheAtlantic : It is easier if you are STEM. STEM instructors tend to often use course websites or other platforms open to the public. I generally find that most instructors do not change over time, so you can often even rely on older course websites. Like, the guy I posted for ochem at VU has been at about that level for...ever and he ain't changing for the selectivity. Matthew Shair at Harvard (a well-known organic chemist) and David Evans were not changing for anyone either. The time when it gets tricky is when there is a lot of faculty turn-over, then you have to wait for their materials to start surfacing. But in the case of MIT for example, though Open Courseware materials are old, they are representative.

    The social sciences are much harder, but I suspect that unless one is a liberal arts college or have a different program structure, they are very similar within tiers. Political Science is fairly standard for example. I stumbled upon this for example and it was interesting (I noticed that lots of students complain about the workload of a particular instructor at my alma mater so attemped to find her syllabus. I failed, but found something else):


    The Rice and Emory syllabi are strikingly similar. However, the two courses (like their numbering) suggest some differences about the departments (I will look into Rice eventually). For Emory, that statistics course is almost foundational/intermediat"ish" and is now even after a a basic stats course required for pols (QTM 100) and numerous other majors as I mentioned earlier. Why? Emory's Political Science Department has a much heavier research methods emphasis at the UG level and you have quite a few mathematicians teaching. There is a Polsci/Math joint major for example (Courtney Brown, which is "interesting" to say the least, for example, even in a freshman seminar course, includes a differential equations resource in his reading list lol: http://atlas.college.emory.edu/schedules/index.php?select=POLS&view=cse&t=5179&sc=POLS&cn=190&sn=1

    I can only wonder if it flops, I do not know how often he offers this seminar, but I imagine it is supposed to be a primer or talent selection site for his upper division course)

    The typical school either has a methods class as optional or as a requirement that is independent of other courses. There, many upper division courses (especially the new research requirement) actually require the methods course.

    I suspect Rice must be traditional putting that course at such a high number, but they just may use numbering differently.

    Idea is that you can learn a lot by looking at this type of stuff when accessible (a departmental website also goes a long way).
  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan Registered User Posts: 11,755 Senior Member
    edited May 2017
    IMO, a rough but pretty good way to tell rigor in a subject at different schools is to look at how many undergrads they send in to PhD programs in a subject. If a school sends a lot of students in to PhD programs (absolute number or proportional) in a subject, that doesn't mean they won't have easy courses in that subject (some unis track) but it does mean that they definitely have the rigor, resources, and know-how to do well in PhD admissions and some kid can get a top education if they want it.
    This holds even more for the top PhD programs in a subject.
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 5,201 Senior Member
    edited May 2017

    As for inflation, while unfortunate in some ways, one can argue that H students deserve the inflation in certain courses/areas at least compared to some places that aspire to compete with H (as not the places that already do). Also, from my skulking around on their "i-sites" when more were available, it appears many courses, even your traditional STEM weed-outs are less dependent on exams as the only grading method and use more graded assignments and problem sets. No doubt that in comparison to many/most elites, exams in those courses are brutal, so having other means to assess students doesn't hurt. I am fairly comfortable if it results in higher grades because at least they will know which skills indicate a high level of competence in the field. Another form of grade inflation or higher grades even in STEM at certain Ivies is the course tiering. Like often the very high level freshman and sophomore courses designated for those with high prior exposure and high ambition in the field, assign a much more generous distribution of grades perhaps to incentivize students taking the courses. Usually courses like Physics 16 and Math 55 (and now LSci 50 I guess) at H for example demand a lot more time than even the course right under so to get any enrollment, you can't be too stringent in grading or else folks aren't gonna enroll. "Bait"(okay, reassurance) is kind of needed.
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 5,201 Senior Member
    edited May 2017
    @PurpleTitan @TheAtlantic @cobrat @CALSmom : Just to show I wasn't pulling your legs or being super shady lol: http://www.businessinsider.com/colleges-with-the-hardest-working-students-2015-12/#17-harvey-mudd-college-34

    This definitely reveals little about rigor, but it does reveal a lot about perceptions of students. Like H at 25...not surprised. They tend to be much more self-critical and criticize the school a lot (maybe one reason they stay in solid shape despite unfairly functioning as a poster child of a lot of negative things occurring in higher education. Hey, if you are at the top, you are a big target in every respect). JHU could be up there partly because it is very rigorous and students expectations for it (created by its reputation) were met versus their ability levels. Some student bodies may be more self-aggrandizing or complacent with the current state or status quo and some may be more humble, aware, or critical. Who knows?

    PT: Many of the schools producing lots of PhD's do seem to have special strengths in areas that they feed from. It is likely a mixture of the nature of coursework along with a heavy encouragement for students to engage in more co-curricular opps as opposed to only EC. Basically, intellectual engagement goes beyond random late night convs. at said schools. Takes a particular sort of institutional culture which could include more students taking academic risks (especially since some graduate schools actually do consider the level of course work you took a lot when just evaluating the transcript portion of the profile). They aren't like: "bring me some shiny objects, even if fool's gold and we may interview you". It is more like: "Do we have evidence that you can survive this or see through independent projects driven by your own inquiry". The latter case is more complex than just selecting bright people and great test takers. Also, to get an unusual amount of students to even attempt a PhD takes a curriculum, opps, and mentoring that actually inspire students to go in that field as opposed to kind of just using it as a vehicle.
  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus Registered User Posts: 72,127 Senior Member
    bernie12 wrote:
    JHU could be up there partly because it is very rigorous and students expectations for it (created by its reputation) were met versus their ability levels. Some student bodies may be more self-aggrandizing or complacent with the current state or status quo and some may be more humble, aware, or critical. Who knows?

    Isn't JHU a school with a large number of pre-meds relative to its size? That may induce students to work harder than otherwise indicated by the difficulty of the material, in order to earn Acceptable grades and avoid Bad, Catastrophic, or Disastrous grades that would cause them to be weeded out.
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 5,201 Senior Member
    @ucbalumnus : Yes it does. JHU actually looks like a confused school. It has a curriculum that clearly feeds lots of PhD candidates, but has lots of pre-meds. When attending Emory, I stumbled across some of their materials and other than chemistry courses and maybe like neuroscience, Emory is basically JHU lite where they would have to make some of the lower division math and physics courses substantially more challenging and interesting across the board. The instructor options make it vary wildly, especially when an intro. calc. course offers like 15 sections! The general biology course would have to be restored (yes it has gone down, even one of the traditionally more rigorous sections has turned it down and they all changed the curriculum again to make the course slower and the first semester easier by moving some of the more complex genetics topics to the second semester) to a higher level and bchem instructors would have to change their philosophy some despite it being just a tad better than what I have seen elsewhere. JHU was more: "doing what we are supposed to do educationally" on a more consistent basis and that may have to do with less sections with much larger sizes. Much easier to control quality and level.).

    There was generally the same type of course offerings (like both had a bio-calc series that pre-meds and bio/neuro sciences majors took) and tiering in some areas but JHU was blow for blow more rigorous in most courses. Granted that a more "sciencey" pre-med core (as in required pre-health in it focus more on higher level problem solving and research scenarios, even biology courses such as general biology and bchem which traditionally and at some other elites are still stuck on essentially rote memorization) could be excellent for something like the new MCAT (and maybe the most recent old one), it still isn't usually friendly to raw grades. Those classes are tough and yet JHU grades/curves more like a VU or Emory (still using the B- average).

    Basically JHU gets a disproportionate of pre-healths (another reputational thing/halo effect) but is not ultra pre-med friendly. More pre-industry or pre-science friendly than anything else, but it seems like one of the schools actually cut some slack for lower GPAs in med. school admissions. If you do not make the cut for med. school the first time there but get an okay GPA even in something like biology, the major is structured such that you will come out with key skills and experiences that make you competitive for alternative or gap year opps it seems. I think JHU has the right model, but it certainly will lead to a complaint/stress oriented culture with that amount of pre-healths.
  • Saint68Saint68 Registered User Posts: 46 Junior Member
    OP here. I wanted to thank everyone for the robust discussion, there is a lot of very helpful content here. Based on this discussion plus some other considerations I am going to steer D1 towards 'match' and 'safe match' schools. Just think they'll be a better fit. Thanks again.
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