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  • Beth & Tim Manners

The Hill: At the most prestigious public institutions, admission rates hover in the 10- to 20-percent range, a tier of selectivity once reserved for the Ivy League. University of California flagships in Los Angeles and Berkeley admitted 9 and 11 percent of applicants, respectively, to the 2022 fall class. UCLA fielded 149,813 applications, enough students to populate Jackson, Miss.

At the universities of North Carolina and Virginia, admission rates narrowed to 17 and 19 percent, respectively, for the new freshman class. Flagship campuses in Georgia, Illinois and Wisconsin all admitted less than half of their applicants this year. A decade ago, all three reported admit rates more than 60 percent.

Today’s middle-aged parents attended college in an era when only a few dozen elite universities, nearly all private, could boast truly daunting admission rates. Harvard, Princeton and Yale, the cream of the crop of the Ivy League, admitted roughly 15 to 20 percent of applicants in the late 1980s. This fall, Harvard’s admission rate reached an infinitesimal low of 3.19 percent.

Vegas-style odds are not the norm in higher education. The average collegiate admission rate stands at roughly 70 percent, according to U.S. News & World Report, publisher of the best-known college rankings.

  • Beth & Tim Manners

We could have been on any airport highway: Minneapolis, Denver, even Ft. Lauderdale minus the palm trees. It was all asphalt and road signs, with nondescript office buildings, big-box retailers and billboards filling in for actual scenery. This oddly familiar ride into Forest Park Parkway nearly had us lulled when, suddenly, to our right, the generic turned gothic. Ah, of course, that must be Wash U!

Through our Lyft’s backseat window, it appeared like the walls of a mighty fortress, all blocky and granite – local, red granite as we later learned. It went on and on and on and on. We had no idea the university was so big! With an undergraduate class of about 7,000, the expectation was that of a more compact campus, but its sprawling majesty instantly telegraphed the elite, major institution Washington University in St. Louis has become.

After this almost medieval introduction, it was a bit surprising to pull up to the Sumers Welcome Center, home to the Office of Admissions and starting point of our visit. Sumers stands almost in prismatic defiance against the signature Brookings Hall, which is complete with towers, turrets and flags flying, supervising from a nearby hilltop. In its own modest way, the effect almost recalls IM Pei’s famous stainless steel pyramid, which both disrupts and blends with the pavilion outside the Louvre.

Okay, maybe we’re overstating this, but it felt like a very deliberate message. At a minimum, WashU boasts perhaps one of the most memorable, if not beautiful, campuses we’ve visited.

The supremely bright and modern reception area was abuzz with activity, as dozens of prospective students checked in. We were greeted instantly and warmly, took a seat and watched as the room filled. By the time we entered the equally airy presentation room, the crowd had grown to about two hundred.

Admissions counselor Jackie Gao took a deep breath and for the next 45 minutes barely came up for air as he rattled off a stream of facts and fancy about anything and everything that makes WashU what it is.

This started with a tribute to the indigenous people who once occupied the land, and then weaved through the crannies of the campus, the mosaic of St. Louis’ 79 neighborhoods, the proximity of the 10-block Delmar Loop and its many attractive dining options, as well as the 500-acre Forest Park, complete with a zoo, museums and outdoor theater – all free – right next door.

Jackie then mentioned the “diverse and collaborative” spirit of WashU’s 54% female, 46% male student body, which hails from all 50 states and 50 countries to boot. Each student gets an academic advisor for all four years, a major advisor beginning year two, as well as a future studies advisor as graduation nears. He ran through the five undergraduate divisions (arts & sciences, architecture, art, business and engineering) and placed special emphasis on WashU’s interdisciplinary “Beyond Boundaries” program, which is designed to address global challenges across multiple divisions and even grade levels.

That WashU undergrads have opportunities to take certain graduate-level classes in law and public policy, for example, speaks volumes about its omnivorous approach to higher education. In another innovative twist, a total of 11 professors live on campus. Jackie joked that these “Faculty Fellows” aren’t forced into this as punishment but in fact there is a 10-year waiting list for the honor. Among other things, they host special events in their apartments and organize field trips into downtown St. Louis, about seven miles away. (Metro cards are free to students, by the way.)

Every major offers at least one study-abroad program, and undergraduate research opportunities can be just a matter of asking a professor. Students can design their own major. The entrepreneurship program at WashU features the opportunity to start a real, live business, complete with retail space. This has spawned on-campus enterprises including a bike-rental service and ice-cream parlor. Participants can compete in a “Shark Tank” style presentation that might award up to $50,000 in start-up funding.

Other fun-and-games include 19 varsity sports and some 450 student organizations backed by a $4 million budget. A traditional annual event called WILD (Walk in, Lay Down) has featured artists from hometown hero Chuck Berry to the Grateful Dead to the Black Eyed Peas and Carly “Call Me Maybe” Rae Jepsen.

In terms of getting in, WashU’s admit rate, as of 2022, is about 10%. Approximately 6,800 of its applications are “Early Decision 1” and 2,000 are ED2. The balance of about 30,000 applicants are “Regular Decision.” Neither SAT nor ACT is required, and 40% of its most recent accepted students did not submit scores. The school is need blind, meaning that it does not factor one’s ability to pay in its admissions deliberations and provides 100% of demonstrated need.

After a robust Q&A, tour guides burst into the room, with one of them, Violet, striking a Beyonce-style pose as the electronic curtain behind them slowly ascended. It’s worth mentioning only because she captured the playful side of a decidedly serious university. Our tour guide Maxwell, a double major in American Studies and Political Science, was not so theatrical but more than compensated with his energy, and relentless enthusiasm.

Maxwell mostly built on Jackie’s presentation, as he took us past the Danforth University Center, or DUC, the student union if you will, making sure to mention its monthly “Duc & Donuts” events when students can enjoy free pastries, while also mentioning that the building houses both the main dining hall and a formal, special-occasion dining room where steak and oysters are on the menu. He let drop that various sources have rated WashU’s dining program among the nation’s Top 10 and that “Tikka Masala Tuesday” is a personal favorite of his, along with the salad vending machine. During a visit to a mock dorm room he noted that all mattresses are TempurPedic. Funny, but not a joke.

Maxwell was sure to point out the relatively quaint field that was the site of the 1904 Olympic Games. As we walked past a cluster of sawed-off trees between which hammocks swing during the school year, he talked about the John M. Olin Business School, where students engage in research and apply real-world strategies via case-study competitions in which they offer consulting advice to companies like Target and Disney.

WashU’s central library, also named for Mr. Olin, is home to special collections including pieces of the first computer built outside of IBM, a 250-year-old edition of Paradise Lost, and one of seven original copies of the Declaration of Independence. Olin is one of 12 libraries on campus.

No visit would be complete without a stroll through the archway at Brookings Hall, where everyone was careful to avoid stepping on the plaque honoring William Greenleaf Eliot, both the school’s founder and grandfather of poet T.S. Eliot. The legend is that if you step on the plaque you will not graduate, a prospect with which even the prospective students on our tour did not want to trifle. At the tour's end, Maxwell said it was WashU’s collaborative, interdisciplinary atmosphere, its supportive and not competitive culture, a place where the people are nice and accepting, that made it his choice.

Afterwards, we spent a half-hour or so with Nakeyah Bradford, the newly-minted Connecticut-region admissions counselor, who emphasized the connections between students and professors across disciplines and commitment to addressing community and global issues at WashU. She said she looks for a clear and compelling story from applicants and a sense of what they imagine accomplishing as undergraduates. She said WashU has its “own brand of nerd,” who is serious but also enjoys having fun as part of a close-knit community, as partners who root for each other.

Nakeyah then pointed us in the general direction of Delmar Loop, about a 10-minute walk away. We found lunch at Fitz’s, which sits next to a statue of Chuck Berry and specializes in the most fantastical ice-cream sodas imaginable. We quaffed a simple bottle of their famous house-brewed root beer, made from a vintage recipe using a refurbished 1940s-era bottling line harvested from an old barn in Wisconsin.

Maybe it was the root beer, but we left feeling sweet on WashU.

  • Beth & Tim Manners

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

Somehow, high-flying Colorado College manages to stay below the radar of a good chunk of exceptional students who just might find it to be the perfect academic environment. With an admit rate of about 14 percent, it certainly should catch the interest of those seeking a school for the most inquisitive of intellects. Given the wild popularity of nearby CU Boulder, one might think CC would at least bask in some reflected energy from that Colorado cool.

Its relatively obscurity, despite its exacting standards, might have something to do with its small size: just 2,000 undergraduates in total. Yet other top schools of similar size and selectivity -- Williams, Vassar, Middlebury, for instance -- seem to enjoy a relatively higher profile. It could be intentional on CC’s part; there’s a certain appeal to be in-the-know. Or, maybe it has something to do with CC’s purposefully original and distinctive academic framework.

If you’ve never heard of Colorado College then you almost certainly are unfamiliar with the “Block System.” The idea is that you study just one subject at a time, intensively, for three-and-a-half weeks. Classes run from nine until noon, with the rest of the day left open for anything else you need or would like to do. You take your final or submit your paper, get four-and-a-half days off, and then it’s onto a new subject. The pattern repeats four times per semester, over two semesters per year. Thirty-two classes are required to graduate, half from outside one’s major.

It’s definitely not for blockheads.

The idea is both to immerse yourself in a sole focus for a defined period of time while also enjoying the flexibility to pursue other interests during the course and the approximately four days of free time that follow it. The Block Plan may or may not align with your learning style, but clearly Colorado College is onto something meaningful and very different for those who dare to be different. It is one of about a half-dozen North American colleges playing with blocks (Cornell College in Iowa, not to be confused with the ivy-league university, is one of the others).

One of the most common complaints we hear from students after touring multiple schools is that one seems pretty much like all the rest. It’s true: Many schools tend to say many of the same things. Sometimes their campuses look alike. Not to be outdone, CC’s campus is among the most beautiful we’ve seen; as green as the eye can see with that amazing mountain range on the horizon. It’s in Colorado Springs -- what’s not to love about that? Yet its physical attributes, the thing that we tend to notice first, is a small matter in CC’s scheme of things.

When visiting schools, we always urge our students to listen for the quirks. There’s almost always something, although many, if not most schools, do not do a great job of highlighting what sets them apart. Whatever you conclude about Colorado College’s iconoclastic theory of excellence in education, you must admit that it and its students cut a path less traveled.

Another major refrain we hear from students is that they won’t consider a small school because “it’s not much bigger than my high school.” This is a deeply flawed premise that most small colleges, and especially Colorado College, blow to smithereens.

The student population at any small college is the only thing that might be similar to your high school and especially an innovative school like CC. Your college experience will be nothing like high school, regardless of its size. Whether it’s CC’s Block Plan or something more conventional your personal growth will know few boundaries, if any. In other words, you’re on your own and that is life-changing.

The thing about smaller schools, and Colorado College especially, is that you can’t hide. Classes are small and camaraderie is big. Come prepared for a CC seminar style that demands your full engagement with professors and 16-18 fellow students. That’s certainly challenging for introverts especially, but it’s hard to imagine a higher-quality setting if you are going to college not just to earn a degree but to stretch, challenge and explore the world outside your safe space. No question but that it is an intense, but high potential, environment.

Colorado College extends its Block philosophy to its study-abroad program to spectacular effect. If you elect to study in Greece, for instance, you might board a sailboat and follow the path of Odysseus while analyzing Homer’s epic poem. Can you imagine? An odyssey within The Odyssey. Field study is also a major feature at CC, with 100% of students participating, and 70% within their first year.

Our tour guide, Will, who identified with gender-neutral “they/them” pronouns and asked each student to state identities similarly, may personify or be a metaphor for CC’s odyssey of individuality. Will began the tour by pointing out that part of the campus was built on Native-American land, made a brief pitch for reparations, and did not shy away from mentioning the political tensions between the largely progressive student body and its rightward-leaning neighborhood.

A sociology and theater major, Will immediately underscored the strong arts presence on campus. Our very first stop, albeit from a distance, was Packard Hall, which houses the music and arts department, and features classrooms tricked out with the latest audio/visual equipment, lesson and practice rooms as well as recording studios, a music library and performance hall.

Will also highlighted a thematic minor called The Book, which explores printed volumes as text, art, history and media. Other thematic minors are a "thing" at CC. Will cited CC’s biennial Dance Workshop as a favorite event because nearly everyone on campus gets involved in producing it, regardless of dancing ability. The creative streak ran through other aspects of our tour in ways big and small, even including a grand piano in dormitory common space. Other unusual CC assets are a fully-working cadaver lab (!) and a rock-climbing room.

It’s become standard fare for guides to explain why they chose the school at tour’s end. Will didn’t do this and seemed stumped when someone in our group asked the question. Perhaps it’s because the reasons to choose CC (or not) are so plainly self-evident and internalized in the campus philosophy and culture that it doesn’t require further explanation.

After the tour we met for about an hour with CC’s newly arrived dean of admissions, Karen Kristof, who spent the previous three decades in admissions at the venerable Smith College. While munching on Jimmy John subs she so thoughtfully provided, we rolled through a wide range of admissions-related topics.

Karen happens to be the admissions counselor for Connecticut, is very familiar with our high schools and is nothing but eager to hear from students intrigued by CC’s nearly unique format. While acknowledging that it is not for everyone, she was emphatic that those who connect with it, drop-dead love it.

Beyond academic fit, also consider the financial aspects (100% of calculated need is met but merit aid is limited; the school is not “need blind”) and the social, given CC’s intimate ecosystem. Culturally, the school sees itself as open-hearted, non status-quo, committed both to questioning authority and making the world a better place.

As with most smaller and highly-selective schools, CC’s process is holistic and places a premium on grades and rigor, since obviously you’ve got to be able to hack it academically. Test optional since 2019, the prevailing sentiment is that test scores are not a great predictor of CC success. Rather than putting time into taking the boards multiple times, Karen advises investing in personal growth activities instead, something you enjoy, even if it seems unimportant, like, say, mushroom hunting.

CC prizes “something different” in your background, perhaps best expressed in your personal statement. Just as important, Karen expects something meaningful in the “Why CC” essay; not just that you are intrigued by the Block Plan, but rather why you think it’s right for you and how you plan to apply it. As with most highly-selective schools, your best chance is to apply Early Decision because the admit rate drops into low single-digits by the time Regular Decision applications are on the table.

As we left the admissions office, we noticed something we don’t see at many, if any, schools. A vertical video monitor, with a beauty shot of the campus in the background, listed the first names and hometowns of each prospective student visiting campus that day. A small thing at a small school, that says something big, if you’re open to hearing about it.

(Editor’s Note: Compared to our average post about a college tour, it took about twice as many words to describe this “small” school adequately).

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