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Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?

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Replies to: Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?

  • tutumom2001tutumom2001 Registered User Posts: 619 Member
    edited March 15
    Few, if any, posts mention honors programs. A spinoff question would be "Are more selective colleges more difficult than honors programs at less selective colleges?" As someone who went through the honors program at State U, I was fortunate to have more in-depth courses, mostly smaller classes, like-minded classmates, and more available professors. I imagine my experience is different than most students on my campus. But, does it more closely mirror the more selective colleges?
  • LizardlyLizardly Registered User Posts: 2,244 Senior Member
    Good point about Honors program. A kid who craved more challenge could try that and likely find more peers.

    OP, I did think about the issues you raise when talking to my kids about college. Son1 has his grandpa's extreme smarts, his introversion, and some OCD, but also has more insight, self awareness, and confidence than grandpa. I didn't worry about him academically at college. Son1 isn't as adventurous as I am, but he isn't risk averse either. I worried more about him finding and making friends. (Even introverts get lonely.)

    Son2 I did worry about academically. He is smart, social, not crazy about hard work.. He has some athletic and leadership qualities his brother lacks, so he had some selective colleges to choose from, but I wasn't sure he'd be happy doing the work. We did talk about the relative academic difficulty of his choices. Much to my surprise, he picked the hard school, and even more to my surprise, he is studying and making good grades.

  • megan12megan12 Registered User Posts: 642 Member
    OP, I agree that someone who is working "at capacity" would have an important decision to make. Does he/she want to keep pushing so hard at a college where the students will be above his/her level, or does he/she want to go somewhere that will challenge him/her but leave room for other activities. One question would be what does he/she want to major in? If it's something in STEM, then a more selective school might be extremely challenging, but something in the Humanities might be more doable. It would be difficult but in a different way. It requires different skills than a major in STEM.

    It also depends on what the student wants out of their college experience. S1 is a genius and wanted to go to a school that was filled with other geniuses so a less selective school was not a good option for him. He wanted to be challenged and interact with others that were at his level of thinking. It wasn't just about the selectivity or rigor of the school necessarily, but the environment that he lived in as well. S2 is smart but not at the genius level of S1. He works his butt off to get high B's, low A's. I would never suggest to him to apply to a top tier school because it would be too difficult for him (he probably wouldn't get in anyway), and I would rather he worked at his level and enjoyed his time at college. In the end, all anyone really wants is a good job that they like and a happy family life. So why kill yourself in a college that's way too difficult for you if you can have the same end result somewhere else that will be taught at your level?
  • mathmommathmom Registered User Posts: 29,717 Senior Member
    I took first year German at Harvard and then many years later as a refresher at Pasadena City College. They both covered almost exactly the same amount of grammar. The PCC course used a text book with much more useful vocabulary (aimed at people who might be a tourist in the country.) The big difference was that in the spring the Harvard course had you reading a short detective novel by a respected literary author. The PCC class had no such expectation. In addition a greater portion of the class did the homework.

    My oldest son was a computer nerd with many years of experience programming. He was looking for a program where he would be challenged. I can't know what other schools were like, but he certainly was challenged at the selective program he ended up at. (At the time in a four way tie for first place in CS.)
  • 4Gulls4Gulls Registered User Posts: 369 Member
    Good point @blossom. My kids excelled at a run of the mill high school. At their competitive colleges they did not have the same background and grounding as many of their peers. It definitely took more effort, especially in the large curve-based intro STEM classes for my S. Other factors to consider are how rigid (or flexible) are core classes that are required? At some schools it's a lot easier to dodge difficult classes. Lastly how many classes can the student take pass-fail? Some schools are generous with this and it's an easy way to manipulate GPA. You can also look at what the threshold is for Dean's List at various schools and what percent of students achieve this.
  • MotherOfDragonsMotherOfDragons Registered User Posts: 3,956 Senior Member
    Probably the biggest difference I've seen between the really competitive schools and the not-competitive schools I've attended is that for the classes that grade on a curve in the non-competitive colleges, I have occasionally crushed the curve and made people in my class really sad. I was not the curve crusher in the more competitive schools.

    The material covered in my majors (industrial design, english lit, comp sci and now studio art), wasn't super different from teacher to teacher or school to school. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, Van Gogh is Van Gogh, Java is Java...

    The truly abysmally bad teachers were always at the community colleges, though. Which is why I'm personally not a fan of community colleges-in many cases it was much harder to be successful there than at a solid non competitive 4 year school with better qualified teachers. CC's were often a high dropout rate mill churning ill-prepared kids through a grinder of checked out teachers.

  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 4,632 Senior Member
    @mathmom : Some research has suggested that it is much more likely that students at selective institutions will be given more cognitively complex tasks than those at others. I think this has a lot of truth. It simply gets difficult comparing the selective schools to each other. Again, once they are kind of in the "most" selective or "elite" category, seems like you cannot look at differences in selectivity to make predictions. You can pretty much only look at the past. Some exceptions are places like Duke where some departments (like econ., math, and physics) have morphed over the decades to look much more like Ivy peers in terms of the cognitive and intellectual demands put on the students, but many places pretty much stay however they were. We know selective LACs tend to be more challenging because the general focus is teaching so the instructors will invest more time into their courses meaning that they will also likely expect students to invest more time. Research Universities on the other hand seem less predictable. Looking at STEM and some social sciences I could only claim that they are varying degrees of "tougher than non-elite counterparts". How much tougher reallydepends.To me, assessment in forms of assignments, projects, and exams and one trend I notice among departments perhaps not "far" tougher than non-elite counterparts is that they may take a standard course, move at a faster pace, maybe even "expose" students to more depth, but that is all it often ends up being, "exposure". If you look at the assessments, many will not be much harder than much less selective schools. So the "exposure" to more depth can often end up being a bunch of handwaving saying "here is all this cool advanced material but I promise not to test you at this level." I notice that junior tenure track faculty are especially prone to this pitfall. In either case, all students must overcome is the pace. A deeper understanding is perhaps not required to do well. They simply need to learn at level 1,2, and sometimes 3 faster than their counterparts.


    On the flipside, in STEM, most elites have at least one department that subscribe to a weeder mentality where the introductory and intermediate courses are trying to take some students (especially the pre-health crowd) out. Often it is chemistry, but at some places physics or to many students' suprise, biology, is used to do some damage. More rigorous departments will usually try to force their course to a bell curve by a) going at a fast pace, b) using assessments that have morr level 3 and 4 items (effectively putting problem types that students have not seen before and making them derive it) or c) course covers content not usually covered in intro or intermediate courses AND holds students responsible (as in it isn't just handwaving). B) and C) are what through seemingly perfect students off of their game the most. Some are more prepped for B) than others, but what often happens with C) is that students will have AP/IB credit and good instruction for HS and think they'll skate in the introductory course, but the introductory course catches them off guard with a lot of new content that is more challenging than covered by AP counterpart (for example, WUSTL covers real quantum mechanics like particle in a box model which requires some understanding of differential equations in its 1st semester general chemistry. My alma mater will integrate content from organic chemistry 2 into general chemistry for the sake of orienting students toward structure. Harvard's Life Sciences 1a covers a ton of biochemical and bio-organic type concepts. The pre-health physics sequence there emphasizes biologically relevant applications at a high level). Usually B) and C) come together. This may be less of a transition in physics or chemistry, but could be big for biology courses where students are very used to memorization and a de-emphasis of deeper chemical concepts (schools with more rigorous biology sequences typically integrate a lot more math or chemistry or go very hardcore with molecular genetics concepts).

  • ScipioScipio Super Moderator Posts: 8,447 Super Moderator
    My daughter's freshman roommate at Harvard had taken 4 years of Latin in HS and was thought by her teachers to be quite good at it. She continued with it in college, thinking it would be relatively easy for her. But she was amazed at how fast it moved. She said in the first three weeks of Introductory Latin at Harvard they had already blown past her level of knowledge that she had acquired over four years of HS.

    I know this is not a comparison to a less competitive college, but it is an illustration that the workload at a selective college can be quite demanding.
  • MassDaD68MassDaD68 Registered User Posts: 1,453 Senior Member
    @Scipio It might just be that Harvard was aware of what a typical HS curriculum entails and decided to only dedicate three weeks of the first year to HS review and then to start on new material. I seem to remember the same thing happening in my Physics 101 class. the first few weeks were basically a review of the HS physics class then it was time to move on and learn new things.
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 4,632 Senior Member
    @4Gulls : I think that is more of a department by department thing so a student would want to compare specific departments of interest between schools. Like I noticed neuroscience at my alma mater was much more stringent than many comparable schools in that you had to take 4 specific core courses (no, it was not choosing between 2 categories). 2 of them were kind of run-of-the mill survey "content overload" courses and one was neurophysiology which has a very sizable math and physics module (like 2/3 exams cover the physics) and another being a capstone that is a writing seminar where they have to read and critically evaluate primary literature in the field. This means that there are at least two difficult courses that could do damage and if you luck up and get an easier person for the neurophysiology then your poorer background may screw you over in the seminar course. Chemistry at most schools is quite rigid (many core courses, especially for ACS certification) and its overall difficulty is fully dependent upon the instructors and how they run individual courses. Unfortunately, for those who want to dodge the difficult instructors at my alma mater (Emory which is considered elite but not super elite) the best instructors were the most rigorous by a long shot and were as rigorous as analogous courses at "super elites", WUSTL and Northwestern can claim this as well. But this is another case, where choosing a couple of difficult instructors can pay off in key electives and upper division core courses by simply building tolerance to high intellectual rigor. And among honors thesis candidates, students who choose certain instructors have a clear advantage in whatever graduate class they choose.

    You have biology at my school, which was a dodgefest. They made it very easy for students to dodge difficult courses and instructors. Cores came from 3 columns with like 3-4 choices each. Many, if not most, would choose the so obviously easiest courses that always had the easiest instructors. If you asked a pre-med biology major who and what they were taking per semester after taking the introductory sequence, you could almost finish their sentences with the names of the courses. There were some very stereotypical pathways to choose if you only cared about having a high GPA, and there was no course or courses to hold students accountable for earlier course work. I think this is a common motif in biology curricula and requirements though unless the student chooses a concentration.
  • cobratcobrat Registered User Posts: 12,285 Senior Member
    edited March 15
    As far as grade inflation, outside of say, humanities, looks like many have a "you will work and think very hard before we give you your inflated grade in this course".

    @bernie12

    Funny you mentioned that as I've heard of complaints about grade inflation in fields outside of humanities at elite/respectable institutions including HY.

    For instance, the Government and Social Studies majors were considered by most HS classmates/colleagues who attended Harvard to be the "gut"/"jock" majors there.

    I've also heard similar complaints/ribbing about perceived greater grade inflation/easier workloads within the engineering school at Columbia*. You should have heard how dismissive the EE/CompE/MechE majors were about the workloads/rigor/grade inflation of their CivE or moreso...Industrial Engineering counterparts(a.k.a. The SEAS equivalent of the "Econ/Business major" in their words).


    * It's more interesting when one considers that up until the late '90s, Columbia was one university where the engineering school actually had much lower GPA/SAT requirements so long as one was lopsided in favor of math compared with their College/Barnard counterparts. It was a bit of a sore point with some SEAS alums I knew from that period.
  • mom2andmom2and Registered User Posts: 2,179 Senior Member
    I really think a lot of this is perception and not reality. How does anyone honestly know if a course at Harvard is more academically difficult than the same course at Tufts, at BU, at Penn State of UDel, unless they have taken both courses or have taught both to the same grade level for a number of years. This is truly all conjecture. Once you get to a level of selectivity that requires students to have good HS prep and GPA and high SAT/ACT, the students are generally capable of reasonably high level thinking and of moving quickly through the material.

    There was very little difference in "academic hardness" between the calc and science classes I took at my well regarded, but not Ivy undergraduate schools (full of a lot of Ivy rejects) and the advanced math and science classes at my top 15 graduate school. It really depended on the material and the professor.

    Comparing Harvard to a community college, or a non-selective college, of course. But if a kid is accepted into a college with stats that are within range for the school and they have the motivation to be there, I think they will do fine.
  • mathmommathmom Registered User Posts: 29,717 Senior Member
    cobrat, no one considered Government to be an easy major when I was there. If for no other reason, that they were one of the few department that took fighting grade inflation seriously. They were still keeping the curve lower than the rest of Harvard decades later. In any event, my gov major roommate seemed to work as hard as the rest of us.
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 4,632 Senior Member
    edited March 15
    @mom2and : Course Hero and course websites posted by the professors at said institutions are a viable source. If you can get a reasonable sample, you can compare directly. However, one must be careful with schools that have multiple sections/instructors for a course which is very common. I usually, when comparing, look at who students consider the most difficult section and compare it to another section perceived as difficult. If there is a large mismatch between the two, it reveals that the norms or expectations for that particular course are different at those schools. What may be hard in one context may be considered an easier or medium option at another. But without decent samples of material (assignments, exams, etc), it is hard to compare. It is why I like posting the actual course materials when possible.

    @cobrat : That definitely happens, but I thought Social Sciences at H was an honors track that had that intro weeder course that was and still is full of work. Also, it is rare that social science and humanities departments develop enforced norms, so one cannot expect to see consistency among profs.
  • cobratcobrat Registered User Posts: 12,285 Senior Member
    cobrat, no one considered Government to be an easy major when I was there. If for no other reason, that they were one of the few department that took fighting grade inflation seriously. They were still keeping the curve lower than the rest of Harvard decades later. In any event, my gov major roommate seemed to work as hard as the rest of us.

    The comments from the Harvard alums I knew (mostly attended in the '90s/early-mid' 00s with some attending in the '80s) included a few who did joint concentrations in Govt and another concentration/major(often STEM including pre-med oriented).
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