Since S22 has completed his college application cycle, I thought I would provide a slightly different perspective - my own. Following are my thoughts about each of the schools we visited over the summer, written on the evening of each visit. For perspective, S22 was looking for schools with strong materials and / or nuclear engineering programs.
Northwestern: Very, very clean and manicured campus. LOVELY residential neighborhood with lots of great places to eat, shop, etc. Quiet and relaxed vibe. Loads of bike racks on campus - clearly a bike friendly environment, with electric zip bikes available at several spots on campus. Stunning setting - lake front on Lake Michigan. I could 100% see S22 enjoying this suburban campus feel. It feels safe and inviting, and a very walkable size. Update: S22 applied ED and was accepted!
One word: Gentle
Purdue: I was expecting a huge state flagship feel, with dated and industrial-esque facilities, but Purdue really surprised me. The buildings, especially the engineering quad, were beautiful and well kept, and many appeared to be brand new. Gorgeous green space with manicured lawns and landscape. It is a large campus and felt that way, especially compared to yesterday’s Northwestern tour, but for engineering students, most of their classes are held within the quad which should make getting around a bit less overwhelming. Tons of fantastic and varied food options on campus, including several chain restaurants and a full service Starbucks in about every 3rd building. 2 campus Amazon stores, Target, and 4 bookstores really placed a spotlight on the University’s size. The dorms are a mix of old, traditional non-AC buildings, and others are brand spanking new - such as the stunning Honors College dorm. My impression was that the engineering school gets a lot of love / funding from the University - their facilities appeared to be the most cutting edge and robust. The surrounding neighborhood is meh, but fine, with lots of burger and pizza joints lining the streets. In contrast, I don’t think Evanston even has a place where you could buy a burger for less than $20!
One word: Surprising
U. of Michigan: If yesterday felt big, today felt exponentially enormous. Neither S22 nor I connected with the school, and I think it primarily had to do with the overwhelming size. The campus is so spread out, and unlike Purdue, UMich doesn’t seem to have put much money into modernizing its campus. Massive scale buildings with old dirty windows and no character. The exception: the law school. Gorgeous, and the highlight of the tour (which is saying something when the undergraduate tour spotlights the law school). I also was less than impressed by the town of Ann Arbor - always a top pick for “best college town”. Just didn’t see it. Perhaps we missed the best parts? The clincher was the fact that the campus is so large, you have to take a bus to get to your classes, and I hardly see S22 standing at a bus stop in the snow waiting to shimmy his way on. It wouldn’t surprise me if UMich comes off S22’s list. Update: It was dropped from further consideration.
One word: Impersonal
MIT: Tropical storm Elsa blew through town just as we were about to take a self-guided tour. Torrential rains and flash flooding paused our trek, but by late afternoon we were able to walk the entire perimeter of campus. Unfortunately, we were not able to see the main academic quad. where most of S22’s materials science and nuclear engineering classes would be held, as it is an architectural fortress and inaccessible to the public. The overall feel of MIT was more serious than the other schools we have seen so far. Not intense or overwhelming, just serious. It could be that it is the most urban campus we have seen, surrounded by very tall buildings, less green space (although on the campus map it appears that the interior is very open and green), and more marble, or perhaps the lack of people on campus just made it feel more serious. MIT is grand and I felt small. That said, it is beautiful and regal, and you can just tell that a student would have access to the best of the best. I think I can see S22 here, but this is a school that I really feel I would need to re-visit once school was back in session and there was life happening within the marble walls. S22 liked it but said that he really didn’t get much of a vibe since we were only able to walk the perimeter and didn’t get to chat with anyone.
One word: Stoic
Columbia: Columbia was another school which surprised me in several ways. I was expecting it to be larger, more spread out, and with less green space - it’s in the middle of NYC. Interestingly, the campus was small, quiet, and nestled within a lovely neighborhood. The buildings were beautiful, but in a different way than MIT’s stoic marble structures. Columbia’s were red brick with elegant window moldings and green (metal?) roofs. Lots of trees, and 2 large parks flanking either side of campus. Every single building looked as if it leapt from the pages of Architectural Digest magazine, with the lone exception of the engineering building, which was perhaps the ugliest academic building we have seen so far. It was so bad it was funny. I thought we were walking up to the back side of the maintenance facility. Could not have looked more out of place. The campus is so cozy that it is 100% walkable. No bikes nor bike racks to be seen. In fact, from the freshman dorm at one end of campus you could clearly see the engineering building which is at the opposite end. S22 really loved the tight knit feel (so did I) but wanted more green space (which I can’t quite imagine in the middle of the world’s busiest metropolis.).
One word: Cozy
U. Penn: UPenn rivals Northwestern for the prettiest campus we have seen thus far. The buildings were varied and collegiate with beautiful walkways and historic bronze monuments. The interior of campus had stunning green space, but it is in an urban environment and S22’s perspective was “I don’t want to have to navigate crowded sidewalks and cross busy streets to get to class every day.” It has become increasingly clear that what he gravitates to are the quiet, connected campuses with leafy green quads, and no buildings over 5 or 6 stories tall. Walkable is preferred.
One word: Historic
Penn State: Another surprise! Given S22’s preferences which have become clear, and Penn State being the largest of all the schools we are touring (40,000 undergrads), I expected S22 to immediately walk away once he saw the campus map with multiple bus lines, etc…. While he may have paused at the sheer size, he quickly warmed to the natural, relaxed campus feel. No building over 5 stories, no busy traffic, nothing even remotely urban about State College. Of all the campuses we have seen, this one had the most green space, and the facilities were both beautiful and understated. It didn’t hurt that Penn State has it’s own creamery on campus, and we stopped for a quick scoop (which was delicious!). S22 really liked it, and the Schreyer’s Honors College would likely be a must-do in order to shrink the day to day reality of a 40,000 person college. I think it would also be important to re-visit when the campus is in full swing and bustling with a small city of kids.
One word: Relaxed
GA Tech: I really loved Ga Tech. It’s a beautiful, quiet campus filled with about a gazillion trees. I’m sure it rivals Vanderbilt for the highest squirrel-to-student ratio. It is a great size, with wide tree-lined walkways and hammocks nestled in bunches called “hives”. We were able to attend a live information session, and both the admissions counselor and student presenter were well spoken and wonderful ambassadors for the school. The engineering side of campus enjoys great spans of green space, newer buildings, and several cafes. The nuclear engineering building is almost hidden among the mature flowering trees. The campus has a very relaxed and happy vibe and I could absolutely see S22 thriving here. The surrounding city of mid-town Atlanta is lovely and vibrant, yet the campus proper didn’t wreak of hustle / bustle in the same way that some of the other urban campuses did. It just felt quiet and protected, and really welcoming.
On the second day, S22 and I met with the Dir. of Material Science Engineering recruitment, the Dept. Head for Nuclear Engineering, and visited the labs for both disciplines. Everyone was passionate about their work and extremely generous with their time and information. The overarching theme that I took away was that of flexibility and support. Both MSE and NE are very small departments, and as such enjoy a familial community. GA Tech as a whole focuses on giving the students as much freedom to pursue individual passions as possible, with the goal being to launch them with a broad set of personal tools to approach any complex engineering problem with confidence.
One word: Happy
Vanderbilt: Especially compared to Ga Tech’s fantastic information session, Vanderbilt’s paled in comparison. In fact, the entire session was spent explaining how to use the self-guided tour app. Only the last 20 mins were helpful in that they had a panel of enthusiastic students answering questions about their experience. Both S22 and I wished that a STEM student would have been represented on the panel, but the 3 chosen were truly great ambassadors for their school. While the info. session was a bit of a letdown, the campus itself doesn’t disappoint. S22 and I wandered the core and just marveled at how beautiful, lush and green the grounds were, and how architecturally gorgeous and well maintained the facilities were. The engineering and innovation center was stunning and modern, and the new dorms on West End were spectacular. We both truly love this school, and I think it was immensely helpful that over the past 8 or 9 years, we have spent a lot of time on campus and didn’t need much informational support to fill in the blanks (because we just didn’t get any!).
One word: Beautiful
Harvey Mudd: S22 began the day interviewing with an Admissions summer intern. She was a current junior and not the most engaging personality, but ran through the prescribed questions and looked to take a few notes. We then toured the Mudd campus with a great student guide who highlighted the brand new maker space and underground tunnel structure. The campus itself is very circa-1970 with old, dated buildings and architecture. The exception was the new computing center which was stunningly modern and gorgeous. Conversely, the dorms were the ugliest we have seen thus far and basically looked like prison halls. An information session and meeting with S22’s admission rep. concluded the official campus visit. S22 and I then met a friend of mine who works for Mudd (nothing to do with Admissions) for lunch and enjoyed a fantastic real-world account of life at Mudd. After digesting all of our encounters, the messaging that became clear throughout the day was that Mudd is academically extremely challenging, and the mantra “Study, Sleep, Socialize - pick 2” seems to be rooted in some amount of truth. I’m certain that S22 would walk away with a phenomenal education, but at what cost? S22’s take away was that his strong time management skills would carry him through the academic challenges, but that he would have to work really hard to schedule time for relaxation, fun, and sleep. He doesn’t want to work that hard 24/7. The biggest benefit that I saw was the Claremont consortium and the beautiful town of Claremont. Nestled in a very nice residential area, the 5 schools share one campus, multiple facilities, and a quiet location. Unfortunately, I don’t think S22 would have time to take advantage of these things, and as such Mudd probably fell on S22’s list.
One word: Consuming
Santa Clara: August 26, 2021. I believe that Santa Clara is the smallest of the schools we have visited so far, or at least it felt that way. A lovely school with new, modern-California architecture, Santa Clara delivered exactly what I expected. A kind, welcoming environment and a simple, relaxed approach. Particular highlights were the restaurant-style dining hall with its varied and themed cuisine stations, the large, clean dorms with an abundance of living configurations (for all grades, not just upperclassmen), and the extraordinary new engineering hub. A $300 million investment places these engineering spaces among the best we have seen. The negative is that because the school is small, it doesn’t have some of the nuanced amenities or curricula that larger schools often have. Neither materials nor nuclear engineering are offered, and while there are rumblings that with this new and expansive hub may come additional fields of study, it would take years to develop reputational strength and recognition. S22 really liked the relaxed feel of the school, but preferred the amenities and academic strength of some of the others on his list. To me, it felt like the collegiate version of his high school.
One word: Simple
Stanford: After touring Santa Clara in the morning, S22 and I enjoyed a quick lunch at the Stanford Shopping Mall before embarking on a self-guided tour of Stanford. Since we have been on campus several times previously, we just needed a map and a bottle of water. What I don’t recall from our previous visits was how overwhelmingly large the campus felt. Maybe it was the heat, maybe we just parked at the furthest possible point from the engineering quad, but today Stanford’s walkability felt unrealistic. A bike or motorized scooter seemed mandatory in order to make it to class. The architecture is insanely gorgeous and you would never tire of the view, but S22 remarked that while there is a ton of green space, there aren’t many shade trees, especially on the newer engineering quad. Honestly, I think I like the idea of Stanford perhaps more than the actual institution itself. Somehow 4 years seems like a very long time here.
One word: Sprawling
UC Berkeley: This was an interesting day. Not what I expected in many ways, but exactly what I had read about in others. Overall, Berkeley would provide S22 with a wonderful education, but each part of his life on campus would be stressed. First, academically, there aren’t enough teachers to offer reasonably-sized classes. Our tour guide explained that funding limitations meant that most of the freshman classes would have over 1,000 students enrolled, but that there aren’t any lecture halls large enough to accommodate everyone “…so, the professors ask that all students who don’t really need to be in attendance watch the recorded lectures online”. Residentially, there isn’t enough housing for the freshmen, and none for sophomores, juniors, or seniors. By lottery, some freshmen are asked to find housing off campus. That is of course an issue when you don’t know anyone to be your roommate, don’t know the surrounding area (which is a bit sketchy), and can’t have a car since there isn’t parking available for students. Plus, the campus is very hilly and you would need some sort of motorized device to get you to class on time. The problem is, our tour guide said that motorized bikes will be stolen, so don’t bring one. All in all, Berkeley represented what a state-funded school in California offers - fantastic teaching but with a long list of negatives to go along with it.
One word: Stressed