College Admissions Decision Part IV: Visiting Colleges and Writing My Application

See Parts I and II and III in my series revealing where I’ll be going to college.

I tried to improve my grades. The fall of my senior year I earned a 3.97 GPA, bumping my cumulative GPA to a 2.99.

Heartened by my improvement, I visited a range of colleges. I visited liberal arts colleges. These kinds of schools are the gem of United States higher ed. Private liberal arts colleges only serve undergraduates, are committed to a broad base of learning, and boast a high student to faculty ratio. My whole family has been educated in liberal arts colleges (Smith, Claremont, Amherst, and Middlebury) and all had tremendous experiences. I also visited large research universities. In a large university there are more resources, more people, more organizations, and more happening, but less face time with professors, a less personal atmosphere, and sometimes overwhelming living situations.

I did not look at undergraduate business programs. I have many real world business experiences and, besides accounting, classroom work wouldn’t enrich it much I think.

I did consider the overall entrepreneurial culture of a college campus. I want to be around kids who dream big and aren’t ashamed of to say it. I considered how passionately students took to the "life of the mind". I talked to professors, studied their programs, and pondered their probable availability for one-on-one dinners and their ability to awaken a classroom. I considered the location and weather of the college. Having lived in San Francisco my whole life, I haven’t seen snow for more than a few days at a time. I like moderate-to-warm weather. Finally, I considered the college’s alumni network – its vibrancy and distribution of careers.

In my application I had 500 words to tell the college about myself. My personal "character" is where I had to shine, given my poor grades. I wrote an essay about "life entrepreneurship," using a Joan Didion quote as a jumping off point. I had immense difficulty crafting an essay that would communicate my four crazy years of high school / Silicon Valley. My (private) attitude was, "Some college admissions people will get it, some won’t, and that’s how it goes."

Some schools, especially small colleges, still do personal interviews. At every school but one where I interviewed, I got in. Given my experience a) interviewing candidates at my own company, b) interacting with adults, c) communicating a sales pitch, I always kicked butt in my interviews.

Throughout all this I talked to adult friends and school peers. I learned early on that books and articles about higher education were fairly useful while the random anecdote by an bachelor-toting adult was usually not. This, of course, is the fascinating influence: everyone who’s gone to college (about 27% of America) seems to have an opinion about colleges and admissions. The problem is the world’s changed. Also, as time passes, cognitive dissonance does wonders. College grads think about those four, long, incredibly expensive years in a way that’s kind on the brain. Sometimes they repeat nice-sounding catch phrases like, "College is all about learning how to think" or "It’s not about the college you go to, it’s about what you get out of it." (There’s some truth in both.) But – but! – all this being said, several adult friends really illuminated this time in my life with characteristic wit, hindsight, and humor, and I appreciate that.

On January 1st I submitted my applications online to a dozen schools and hoped for the best!

8 Responses to College Admissions Decision Part IV: Visiting Colleges and Writing My Application

  1. Travis says:

    Ben what was that Joan Didion quote that you used as your jumping off point in your essay to the admissions committee?

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    “I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package, I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.” – Joan Didion, Commencement Address at U.C. Riverside

  3. Alex says:

    What I’m guessing everyone who reads this blog is going to fail to comment on is that going to college is also enormously about the social life. Meeting friends for life, making contacts, meeting people you network with for many years down the line. Going to parties, going to bars, having yoga parties. Hopefully people won’t forget this when they all comment on this academic mumbo jumbo. Academics is what you’re there for, but what you’ll probably remember most is the people you met, the phenomenal memories you made, and maybe even a girl you met one night, that you might one day marry.

  4. Jason says:

    I hear you Alex. Having just returned from a meeting with the PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) I definitely know first hand the social aspect is , in my opinion, just as important as the academic aspect.

    Meeting complete strangers and having them tell you their first impressions of you down the road has always been one of my favorite experiences… sometimes we need a fresh pair of eyes to see things in ourselves that those close to us might have missed.

    Though I still don’t understand how anyone could ever say I’m intimidating. It’s not like I’m a giant like Ben.

  5. Alex says:

    I mean, all I was really talking about was going out drinking with your buddies on weekends, doing stupid/hilarious things. It just seems like not a single person who reads this blog had an unbelievable time in college in large part thanks to the weekends, sports games, drinking, and socializing. If someone asked me about my college experience I’d say “I had an unbelievable time” and the first thing that would come to my head would be all the friends I made and all the times we shared. Secondly, I’d say the professors were great and the classes small and very thought provoking. Third the campus was beautiful as well. But first would def. be the people and friends, and NOT the academics.

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    I agree that the people are important. I have not judged a college based on his course catalog. But it’s very hard to “measure” the quality of the people in brief visits. You’ll only interact with a very slim percentage. So when choosing a college, my sense is that you should just assume that your social life can be as active as you want it to be. That you’ll find a crowd that you mesh with.

    I’m sure there area also people who would say “I had an unbelievable time in college, because of amazing class XYZ which sparked an interest I didn’t know I had and now i”m doing that for my career.”

    That’s why other factors — quality and location of the campus, liberal arts vs. big university, faculty, etc — are important.

  7. Jason says:

    Well I survived another day in Physical Geography… though now that I found a group of attractive ladies to sit next to perhaps I’ll be more enthusiastic in the future.

    Sports is definitely a big part of life down here at UMiami, even if our team is lagging a bit (and people are wondering if Larry Coker is going to get the boot)

    My roomate and I are tight which is always good, and have similar interests. I’ve met some good people and have been challenged in some repsects too, seeing how I’ve found that “A” work back at community college translates more into “B” or “B+” work here.

    I’ll have to push myself a bit harder, though I’m not complaining–it’ll make me stronger I hope.

    Other than that, the city of Miami itself is AMAZING. Coconut Grove, South Beach, the downtown areas (which just unveiled a new opera/ballet house) are all amazing. And if anyone here wants to practice their Spanish, just come to the city and explore. Believe me, you’re going to need it!

  8. J Nicholson says:

    I was quite glad to see that you are not a 4.0 uber geek. This gives me hope that you are a well rounded individual with real life social skills. College is about socialization and individual growth. Please don’t use it to learn how to become a super competative asshole telling yourself how much smarter you are than everyone else. You are miles ahead of most 18 year olds- but there is always someone smarter out there. Nothing is worse in the real world than working with a former nerd with no social skills or a feeling of superiority. Relax, enjoy the moment and good luck!

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