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  • Beth & Tim Manners

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Like a dream-school mirage, gazpacho-red rooftops poked through the tree-line as we hurtled down the final stretch of the not-so-lonesome highway into Boulder, Colorado. There it was … couldn’t miss it … could only be the mysterious university that captures the imaginations of so many of our students from across a spectrum of academic aptitudes and aspirations.

After we parked our silver-white rental Mazda and paid for its space (eight bucks!), we stepped into what might be the most consistently conceived campus on earth. If that’s an overstatement, it’s not by much. Other than a handful of the university’s earliest New England, Gothic-style structures, each and every building was rendered in matching rough-hewn red sandstone, punctuated with generous windows trimmed in a tasteful limestone and topped with undulating Iberian-inflected tiles.

The prevailing architectural style at CU Boulder is improbably known as Tuscan Vernacular Revival and the vision of its loveliness has been unfailingly sustained through the school’s expansion over more than 100 years. With a handy backdrop of a certain world-famous mountain range, the net effect is less that of a top-notch research university and more a first-rate resort.

Our tour guide, Coyle, a neuroscience-psychology major with a minor in leadership and who was as unpretentious as they come, lost no time joking about a brand-new dorm’s resemblance to a world-class auberge. We weren’t invited inside (hey, we’ve been thrown out of better places), and instead were ushered into a perfectly fine but honestly humdrum and very small sample dorm room. Points to CU for presenting a realistic impression of what a first-year student is most likely to experience.

The tiny quarters may have been intended as a metaphor for the image CU seemed intent on projecting: a very big school (about 30,000 undergrads) that does its best to render its impressive resources in bite-sized pieces.

This begins with living accommodations, and the option known as RAPS (Residential Academic Programs) to take small, 15-person classes in your residence hall with other students of the same major. Living Learning Communities (LLCs), meanwhile, offer the opportunity to “live and learn” with classmates based on a particular academic theme.

Each first-year student is also assigned an academic advisor who offers guidance on selecting classes and other helpful tips via zoom or phone before the school year starts. In year two, students get an advisor based on chosen major(s).

As CU is a big school, students will see their share of large, 350-person lecture halls, but as is often the case in such circumstances, learning assistants roam the aisles to answer questions or offer other help, while grad-school teaching assistants host breakout sessions to provide additional support. Coyle said that something like 80% of classes have fewer than 50 students and offered assurance that classes get smaller as the years go by.

CU ranks among the nation’s largest research universities and, according to Coyle, every professor conducts it, meaning every student has an ample chance to join in the fun. She, herself, did cancer research involving fruit flies and charmed us with her memory of removing spinal cords from cockroaches to study how stress affects sleep patterns. After emphasizing that research pursuits are voluntary, a tour-dad asked if the cockroaches were also volunteers. Dad-joke laughter ensued.

Speaking of dads, grandads and maybe even great-granddads, Coyle dropped that the Rolling Stones once played the annual WelcomeFest Concert for incoming freshmen. This was back in 1981 and not the Beatles, but still. She also made sure we saw the buffalo-shaped swimming pool outside CU’s recreation center. One of nearly 30 LEED-certified structures on campus, the center's pool and skating rink have a symbiotic heating-cooling relationship. The literally glistening basketball court there is punctuated by a prodigious wall of windows that allows an almost surreal view of the nearby mountain range.

Toward the end of the tour, we stopped at the gates of the 50,000-seat stadium where the CU Buffalos roam (and nobody ever sits down, Coyle said). It's also where Ralphie, the school’s live mascot -- a full-grown female buffalo -- runs. Before it ended, we paused at the Norlin Quad, where Coyle told us about the campus’ six libraries. She also mentioned that the school removed its blue-light system because 99% of calls proved to be pranks. CU instead doubled down on police patrols.

Coyle highlighted the Laughing Goat Café as a campus favorite and suggested having lunch at The Sink, a shabby-chic pizza joint in the nearby neighborhood known as The Hill. President Obama once ordered a pepperoni and sausage ‘za topped with black olives, green peppers, and red onions there and then proceeded to splash it all over himself, sending the Secret Service into a mad scramble to find a fresh shirt.

As we headed back to the parking lot, thinking about which pizza to order at The Sink (the Buddha Basil is amazing), the small mystery of this university’s magnetic hold on so many of our students resolved itself: It is impossible not to like CU Boulder.

  • Beth & Tim Manners

Nestled among the Rocky Mountains just outside its namesake metropolis, University of Denver certainly is a sight to behold when it is 93 degrees above zero outside and the campus is buried under ten feet of sunshine.

Dry heat, we kept telling ourselves. Dry heat. Not so bad. We’re told the winters are relatively pleasant, too, thanks to the humidity-challenged chill, and heavy snowfalls that sometimes appear out of a clear blue sky and then melt away just as suddenly. Allegedly.

Our first college tour since before the pandemic left much to the imagination. It was difficult to suppose what studying in Denver might be like when the Black-eyed Susans are not vibrating in the sun and the amber waves of grain (or just grass, perhaps) can't be seen rolling in gentle, warm breezes. The classrooms, too, were silenced by summer, the pathways and quadrangles equally empty.

We could only surmise what students might be like based on the potential DU Pioneers on our tour, who represented a surprisingly diverse array of geographic if not demographic roots -- from as close as the host city, down to Arizona, over to Hawaii and back to New Jersey.

Our bright and sunny guide, Brooke, an engineering major, hails from the Lone Star State, as we recall. Her energy and enthusiasm rode high, even for a college tour guide. Perhaps she is a representative sample of the student body, but even if she’s not, it’s not hard to see why she seemed almost Rocky Mountain high on the school.

Let’s start with the obvious: University of Denver (or DU in the inexplicably dyslexic shorthand which similarly asserts itself at the nearby University of Colorado-Boulder, aka CU) is a gorgeous green campus, framed by those mountains, that is easy to love. It embodies a perfect balance of just about everything. It is a relatively small school (about 6,000 undergraduates) yet it lives on a somewhat large stretch of campus. It dates back to 1864, although many of its buildings look like they were built yesterday … either because they were, or if not, thanks to state-of-the-art renovations.

Most striking was the nearly brand-spanking new Dimond Family Residential Hall, which just opened in 2020. We’ve visited so many buildings formerly known as dormitories that often we stay outside while the less initiated experience the typically dimly lighted hallways and cramped, cinder-block aesthetics. This new-fangled “residential hall” is nothing like that. If not quite evoking a five-star hotel, the thought entered our minds.

Dimond's sparkling interior was as full of light as our tour guide herself. The walls were decked in shades of retro-avocado, the floors in ersatz hardwood and the trim in gleaming maple. Brooke made sure we knew that the sunsets are spectacular at Dimond and the mountain view from the corner room where she lived freshman year was to die for.

As if that were not enough, she dropped that there’s a rooftop bar, for those 21 and up. The just-opened Community Commons, meanwhile, home of a cornucopia of a food court, was all omelet stations, alongside vegan specialties, pizza, pasta and whatnot. The Commons also houses event spaces and lounges for students and faculty alike. We then toured the Coors Fitness Center, saw the hockey arena (DU’s #1 D-1 sport) and a spectacular pool, set against a mural of the Rocky Mountains.

Brooke highlighted the freshman seminar groups designed to introduce incoming students to college studies and professors, but also to potential friends. Our first post-pandemic tour did not include an information session, however, which is probably why we didn’t hear as much about DU academics as we might have otherwise.

DU does offer an online info session, posted on YouTube, which describes the school as a research-based, liberal-arts institution that encourages a well-rounded academic experience that enables mixing and matching majors and minors and trying new things. It offers a trimester, or quarterly, system, in which students typically attend three out of the four quarters (most students do not take classes in the summer quarter).

The school year starts the day after Labor Day and runs through Thanksgiving, and then unfurls a whopping six-week break until after New Year’s Day. A roughly week-long spring break interrupts two, 10-week quarters that end in early June, quite a bit later than most other schools. Other fun facts: About 80% of DU students do an internship, 75% study abroad. Care to guess which club is DU’s most popular? No, not the Alpine Club. It’s Dungeons & Dragons.

Many of our students are quite definitely set on either a city school or a green campus. As we strolled through DU’s stereophonic universe, we could hear birds chirping through the left ear and trucks roaring down the avenue through the right. The Denver and mountain skylines competed for attention. Not much of a contest, but you get the idea. It's all in the blend.

The mountains beckon hikers and skiers, while a train ticket from campus to downtown shops, restaurants and parks is included with tuition. The University of Denver invites a college experience that spans the best of those worlds centered on a mountain range of academic opportunities to elevate just about anyone's aspirations.

  • Beth & Tim Manners

The first thing to understand about the college application essay is that it is unlike any other piece of writing a high school student has done before or likely will ever again. This is because it serves a highly specific purpose and has a unique audience.

That purpose is to provide an open window into the true personality and character of the writer. The audience is college admissions officers, who know exactly what a high school student sounds like. These parameters represent uncharted territory for the vast majority of high school students, not to mention their parents. More on that later.

Such unusual circumstances call for unprecedented strategies. Precisely because it is new and different, writing about oneself can be a little uncomfortable at first. That’s okay. Going off to college is nothing if not about stepping outside one’s comfort zone, and the essay is as good a place as any to start that journey.

This is not as hard as it may sound, and can be as much fun as one makes it. Indeed, the more a student enjoys writing the essay, the more the colleges will enjoy reading it. This can only build the chances of landing in the admitted pool.

Finding the topic can seem daunting at first. It may feel like there’s great pressure to share some amazing, earth-shaking story, however most 16- or 17-year-olds haven’t yet had that kind of experience.

Colleges understand this. They are not anticipating anything more than some unadulterated insight into personal qualities or values, or a way in which the student’s view of the world has been challenged, changed or grown since entering high school. They are not expecting a great work of literature; they just want to get a sense of what is meaningful to the student and why.

The essay topic itself matters far less than what the student brings to it. Truth is, the colleges have seen every topic under the sun many times over, and then some: sports, mission trips, art, music, camp, community service. What they haven’t necessarily seen is how a given student thinks and writes about a given topic.

Colleges want to hear a story about a journey, from point A to point Z, as only the student could tell it, in his or her “voice.” That means writing as closely to the spoken word as possible. Yes, the essay must be well-organized and grammatically polished, but it should also convey in high fidelity what the student wants to say, the way s/he would say it.

If the student is eloquent, it should be eloquent. If naturally funny, that should come through. Slang is okay, within reason. Nothing should ever feel forced. Sincerity is the word.

If any of the above sounds disconcerting, that’s because it often is, and doubly so for most parents. Just as it can be uncomfortable for teenagers to write a mini-autobiography, it is typically difficult for well-intentioned middle-agers to give them the latitude they need to tell the colleges whatever it is they want to express. What the colleges want to hear is whatever the student -- and the student alone -- wants to tell them.

Students who get it right inevitably learn something about themselves along the way. The essay is about a journey and is itself a journey. Our students often comment that they are both surprised and delighted by what they wrote. It’s hard to imagine a better result than that.

For parents, sending children off to college is a long and emotional process of letting go. Allowing your students to take the lead and call the shots with their college essay, in their own voice, is a relatively easy way to start that process. Best of all, giving them agency will make their college application that much stronger.

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