ON THE ROAD REVIEWS
Each summer, veteran Dean of College Counseling Lew Stival travels across the United States to visit colleges and meet with admission representatives with whom he works to match Blair students to colleges that best fit them in terms of programmatic offerings and culture.
In the reports that follow, he recaps his summer travels (taken with his wife, Lois, Blair's day student coordinator) and gives insight into the pros and cons of various schools.
It was lazy afternoon in early August when we paid a visit to Dartmouth and, given that quite a few employees were off on vacation, we were not surprised to find a skeletal staff holding down the admission “fort.” Even so, that didn’t keep the many prospective students and families visiting for the afternoon from posing questions and seeking attention. It was busy. Throughout my time in the office, those staff members present were doing their best to cover every base, talking to students and families and reaching out to make sure each and every visitor felt welcome. Given its lofty place in the uber-selective hierarchy, Dartmouth College could certainly afford not to be so accommodating…goodness knows that applications will continue to pour into the office each year. What I experienced that day was, well, unusual. Over the years, I have felt the awkwardness of being a visitor in an admission office that appeared much busier than it had reason to be. Not the case at Dartmouth, not for one minute! True to its name, Dartmouth College remains just that—a college. It is the smallest and most isolated school in the Ivy League, where people remain at the forefront and where customer service is the order of the day. The little things still matter, certainly in the admission office on that Friday afternoon at Dartmouth!
Despite its quaint New England location, there is certainly nothing quaint about Dartmouth when it comes to resources and facilities—in every sense of the word, Dartmouth is a powerhouse! The best part…these resources and facilities are actually accessible to undergrads in ways that most of its Ivy brethren struggle to match. Even on a Saturday morning in August on a quiet and fairly desolate campus, many of the buildings—including the Baker Library, with its very cool Dr. Seuss Room (named for Theodor Seuss Geisel, Dartmouth class of 1925…a fitting tribute to an immensely influential writer/poet)—were open to anyone who strolled by. The athletic facilities? They were open as well. I was able to walk into the football stadium, the hockey arena and the indoor tennis center by simply opening a door or a gate. And, for a nominal fee, I could have used the Dartmouth fitness room or the swimming pool or the tennis courts. I can assure you that unfettered access is not the norm at most schools I’ve visited over the years. On top of that, the students on campus were a friendly and welcoming lot. I ran into a varsity tennis player helping run a kids’ clinic who had attended one of our rival schools. We recognized each other (I’m the former Blair tennis coach) and he immediately came over to say hello. We chatted while he fed balls to the toddlers on the courts, and it was evident that he was excited to be a Dartmouth student.
Perhaps the most telling comment about Dartmouth, though, is reflected in what I found during my weekend stay at the Hanover Inn, the grand old hotel that anchors one corner of the famous Dartmouth Green. Hanging conspicuously across from the elevator was a large wooden plaque, on which was written across the top in Dartmouth green: “Dartmouth in Town.” Turns out this rather extravagant message board listed the names and classes of those Dartmouth alums staying at the hotel or in town that weekend. Not surprisingly, there were quite few alums staying at the hotel, so it was a crowded board. As a conversation piece for those waiting for the elevator, “Dartmouth in Town” helped to bring alums together and reflected the spirit of community that remains tight-knit and very connected. In the truest sense, Dartmouth College has simply not outgrown its name…after all these years, it remains near the top of my “Top 10 Most Beautiful Schools” list!
To say that Lois and I are “foodies” is an understatement…we love good food! As such, Providence, Rhode Island, is one of our favorite restaurant destinations. With so many outstanding places from which to choose, Providence is a veritable cornucopia of fine dining options. Brown University, with its beautiful campus situated atop one of the hills of the city, is a very special place for us to visit. Beyond the food, Providence is a city that is easily managed. There’s plenty to do…it’s easy to access Boston (just over an hour’s drive, traffic permitting), and it’s a short trek to such places as Cape Cod, Nantucket and Newport. As such, it’s pretty easy for Brown students to get away from campus should the need arise.
Okay, so the real reason for my visit to Providence was to visit Brown University (and RISD, as you’ll later read). Like any Ivy League member, Brown University pretty much has it all—great facilities, great professors and wonderful resources. That stuff pretty much goes unsaid. What needs to be said about Brown is that it is different— markedly different—in that the curriculum is free and open. Students are able to chart their own academic course of study in ways that can’t be done at most other colleges and universities. There are no required courses (at least none I know of!) and students can elect to take some of their classes pass/fail. As a result, there is a spirit of freedom and flexibility among the students…they tend to explore more, to try out courses in areas of interest without fear of wrecking their GPAs and, by extension, their futures. “What I like about being at Brown,” our tour guide said, “is that most of the students are pretty down-to-earth. They’re serious about their education, for sure, and they work hard, but because there’s so much freedom and responsibility put on the students, they seem to be focused in other directions beyond wearing their Brown sweatshirts around campus.” Speaking of “Ivy gear,” I’d say that, as the student tour guide suggested, there is a general absence of self-identification by way of apparel. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but at some schools, it seems that everywhere you look, you are reminded of where you are. There is a richness of purpose among the students I’ve met at Brown…they really seem to know where they are and why they are there.
Another feather in Brown’s cap? In the many years I’ve done college counseling at Blair, there’s never been a year when a Brown admission representative hasn’t paid us a visit. Among the uber-selective schools, those that really don’t need to visit high schools, Brown is committed to doing so, certainly when it comes to visiting us. Their visibility and presence on our campus are perhaps the biggest reasons why Brown has been so very popular among Blair students. That personal connection is why we have always felt that there was someone in the Brown admission office with whom we could connect, someone who knew our school well and would advocate for our students. From a counseling standpoint, that’s as good as it gets!
The worst part about Brown? Parking. While I’m sure there must be places to park that would be considered convenient, I still don’t know where they are. I typically take my chances trying to score a parking place along the tree-lined streets next to campus, where it seems like the entire city of Providence has decided to park! Other than that, it’s really pretty hard to find things I don’t like about Brown…or Providence and its crazy-good food options. Add to that the stately beauty of the Brown campus and the unpretentious community and you have one very special place to spend four years as an undergraduate.
Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
I love art and I deeply admire those who can do it. I also admire those who choose to pursue their passion as undergraduates. That said, I must admit that when it comes to understanding art and being able to offer counsel to students thirsty for knowledge, I feel a bit inadequate. Fortunately, we at Blair have some wonderful artist-teachers who are able to provide a level of expertise and perspective that we in the college counseling office simply can’t match. I was able to take a small step toward improving my art “IQ” during my visit to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, RISD for short. It’s vaunted reputation for attracting some of the most talented young artists in the world is well known, even among those like me who wouldn’t necessarily recognize a good work of art if they fell over it.
What I did come to know is that RISD is a serious academic place…of course, the kids there work very hard at their art, but they also receive a surprisingly well-rounded education. RISD’s affiliation with its next-door neighbor, Brown, allows for its students to take classes in all sorts of disciplines there. In that regard, RISD students literally do have “the best of both worlds” at their disposal!
In meeting with our admission representative, I came to understand more fully how RISD evaluates its applicants—with an eye toward talent in their field and an academic competency so as to survive the rigor of the academic experience. “Obviously, RISD students need to skilled and talented in their field of art and demonstrate a passion for it,” the admission rep pointed out, “but they also need to be motivated and capable students. The combination is critically important.” He went on to add that RISD also looks for signs that students could “accept some constructive yet often ‘pointed’ criticism" regarding their art. “It’s very important that students be able to ‘take a punch’ when it comes to the evaluation of their work. Our faculty are demanding because it’s important to their students’ development. Aspiring artists need to know what’s working and what’s not!” While there’s no check box on the application for having “thick skin,” the admission team actively seeks that out in its applicants. Without it, RISD students can find the going pretty tough!
I’ll be honest; I really didn’t tour all that much of the RISD campus…it’s literally built into the side of a hill and it’s a very tough walk. I’m sure that the facilities (galleries and work spaces) are cutting-edge and first-rate. I trusted our tour guide when she said that the RISD facilities were second to none…I likely wouldn’t know otherwise. With relatively unfettered access to the resources at Brown, RISD students really enjoy two very special places. For those students who have the artistic talent and the courage to follow their passion, RISD offers an amazing college experience.
The College Of Wooster
Located just over an hour’s drive southeast of Cleveland and nestled in the heart of Ohio’s expansive Amish country, the city of Wooster is about as American as mom’s apple pie (speaking of desserts, just a few miles from Wooster sits Orrville, Ohio, home of the JM Smucker Company, manufacturer of some of the most popular fruit spreads in the country!). It stands, then, that The College of Wooster and the town of Wooster present a Midwestern wholesomeness and charm that are the stuff of stereotypes. The Wooster campus and grounds are impeccable and attractive…campus planning and grounds deserve a medal! The facilities, especially for a liberal arts college of just over 2,000 undergrads, are sparkling and robust. Currently under construction is a new $40-million biology center, a facility that will mark the school’s commitment to STEM programs in a liberal-arts setting.
Loren Pope, in his critically acclaimed book, Colleges That Change Lives, mentions that Wooster is his “original best-kept secret in higher education.” He adds: “For 30 years, I’ve been telling clients that there is no better college in the country…its record is unmatched in turning out scholars, scientists and other kinds of achievers and contributors to society.” What distinguishes Wooster’s academic program is its independent study (better known as “I.S.” on campus) during both the junior and senior years of every undergraduate’s Wooster experience. Working in close concert with a faculty advisor, a student produces a significant research project—often upward of 100 pages—that needs to be defended. Wooster sets the bar high not just for its best students, but for all undergraduates, to create their own body of research as a fitting capstone to their college experience. Students at Wooster feel as though their undergraduate experience provided them with the skills and collaborative experience to be employed. Beyond the I.S., Wooster offers a first-rate liberal arts experience, one that is balanced and rich. The facilities are excellent, the campus is beautifully laid out and very manageable, and the range of opportunities is impressive.
While Wooster is selective, it’s not so much so as to be out of reach for many solid students at Blair. “We welcome thoughtful, engaged and responsible students, not just those who have earned the top grades and highest scores in their schools,” said Director of Admission Emeritus Ric Martinez. A wonderful school located in a surprising and interesting town—rich in tradition and deeply rooted in the liberal arts—the College of Wooster is certainly deserving of its reputation as a school that changes lives. How could I not fall for Wooster…with its own bowling lanes in the student center, I could always have something to do!
University of Pittsburgh
Arguably the single most impressive academic structure in this country—and perhaps the western hemisphere—is the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, a towering 46-story monument to higher education in the wonderfully diverse city of Pittsburgh. Inside the Cathedral, you’ll find classrooms that serve as lasting testaments to the immigrants who built the “steel city,” each room decorated so as to reflect their countries’ cultural identity. By all measures, Pitt is a most exciting and forward-thinking university.
Founded in 1787, Pitt is among the oldest institutions of higher learning in the country, and one that has garnered its fair share of academic acclaim. In 1955, Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine at Pitt…Vitamin C was isolated and identified there…and the CPR technique was developed at the medical school on campus. Add to that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, rated among the top 10 hospitals in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and the world’s leading transplant center with more than 17,000 such surgeries performed there. These and countless other examples have distinguished Pitt as a world-class academic institution. With an undergraduate enrollment of 25,000 (the majority of whom live on campus) and nationally recognized graduate programs in many fields, the Pitt campus is a whirlwind of activity. Despite being decidedly urban, Pitt has a distinct campus and community feel, one that separates it from many of its urban competitors like NYU and Boston University.
“While it’s easy to disappear into the city,” mentioned a student who toured us, “most Pitt students stay on campus because there’s so much to do.” Whether it’s watching the Pitt Panthers compete at the highest levels in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) or hitting the nearby museums and concert halls literally next to campus, there’s always something cool going on within walking distance. Beyond the impressive buildings and facilities and the surprisingly leafy campus setting, it’s the students who make Pitt special. “Pittsburgh’s not New York and it’s not LA,” one student told me, “so the kids here don’t see themselves as being in New York or LA and going to college. Students here aren’t going to college in Pittsburgh…they are going to Pitt, which happens to be in Pittsburgh!”
What strikes me about Pitt is the wide array of academic and extracurricular options for students to do most anything. “There is not really much of a sense of separation between the undergraduates and the graduates,” our tour guide told us. “Everyone seems to study and live together, which is different from many research universities.” Imagine pursuing the pre-healing arts with a world-class hospital on campus, where internships/research opportunities are available almost for the asking. Imagine every major media network literally a short bus ride from campus and an environment where landing meaningful internships in those areas is, again, very much the reality. “The chance to pursue your passions at Pitt is right there,” added an admission rep. “Students can get busy on their interests pretty much immediately without having to ‘wait in line’ to do so.”
Another observation: There is a palpable sense of community at Pitt…the students are a loyal and tight-knit group who are proud to be at Pitt. As a state-supported institution, Pitt is a bargain financially for Pennsylvania residents, especially for being in an urban location, and quite affordable even for out-of-staters. Bottom line: Pitt earns my highest marks for all it can offer its students; it is a rare and exciting confluence of opportunity, resources, academic excitement and community.
Case Western Reserve University
Case Western Reserve University in the great city of Cleveland, Ohio, rocks! Located right next door to the famed Cleveland Clinic, one of America’s most well-respected medical centers, Case provides extraordinary opportunities for its undergrads to land internships and meaningful work study, particularly in the health-related professions and in the sciences. Case students have the opportunity to work with some of the finest doctors and medical researchers in the country! The best part? Getting these internships and research opportunities is easy for Case students, as there are relatively few students in the greater Cleveland area with whom they need to compete …and they are available literally across the street!
A few interesting points about Case. Like the other University Athletic Association members (Wash U, NYU, Emory, Brandeis, U Rochester, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Chicago), Case is a very serious place—a midsize research university with outstanding academic offerings where undergrads are “front and center” in the minds of the faculty. What I found most interesting about Case is the flexibility of the academic programs…undergrads had a real hand in planning and charting their own academic course. “The best part about Case,” our tour guide explained, “is that it’s so easy to ‘move around’ academically and to craft your own special undergraduate program. Everybody’s so open to things new and innovative…it’s great!” Our tour guide also spoke about another of Case’s strengths—its inclusive campus community. “It’s amazing how well everyone gets along…the nerdy types, the jocks, the party kids…people are respectful and tolerant of others. There seem to be few social barriers, so people move from one social group to another easily.” Case is, as our admission rep mentioned, a place where “geek is chic.” I should think so!
“Cleveland Rocks!!” Ian Hunter’s 1979 rock n’ roll classic has become the de facto anthem for the city, and Clevelanders rally around it every chance they get. Remaining in the music vein, there are some extraordinary venues to check out: The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a must-see for any lover of modern music, and the Cleveland Orchestra, nationally recognized as one of the top in the nation, calls the spectacular Severance Hall home. And Cleveland’s theatre district puts on more plays than anywhere else in America beyond Broadway. Finally, be it the Indians or the Browns or the Cavaliers, Cleveland’s professional sports teams, there is always a “home team” to rally around. The friendly and welcoming Midwestern spirit is alive and well in Cleveland, as are many other things that make Case Western and the city of Cleveland a great match.
There was no joy in Mudville on the morning of my visit to Vanderbilt University. You see, the night before, the mighty Commodores baseball nine had fallen to the University of Virginia in the deciding game of the College World Series. There was a bit of a pall over the campus, the tours moved a little more slowly than usual and the tour guides seemed to lack their typical vibrancy and energy. While that might have been simply my sense, I can assure you that the entire Vanderbilt community was a little down after the loss, as it is not often that such a decidedly academic and highly selective school, the smallest member of the powerful Southeastern Conference, gets to play for a Division I national championship.
So why dwell on baseball? One might think that, in the grand scheme of things, the loss of a baseball game would have relatively little impact within the larger Vanderbilt community. I beg to differ. Vanderbilt, a bustling mid-size university with exceptional resources, first-rate scholars and a beautiful campus, takes community very seriously. At many schools of Vanderbilt’s level of competitiveness and selectivity, the thought of having uber-elite athletes playing in the super-duper Southeast Conference and representing the university seems incongruous. It very much is not! Vandy’s location in the sports-crazy state of Tennessee and it underdog status as that “private school for the smart, rich kids” has had a galvanizing effect on everyone associated with the university. That impression is very much a part of the mindset of many Tennesseans. Case in point: Upon entering a Rite Aid drug store just across from the Vandy campus to pick up a few things, I saw a display of college swag…lots of University of Tennessee gear and plenty of the University of Memphis shirts and hats. Even the evil empire—the University of Alabama—had a fair representation of apparel prominently displayed. Conspicuously missing?Anything that said Vanderbilt…there was no black and gold to be seen anywhere. When I asked the woman behind the counter about the absence of Vandy merchandise, she indicated that I should walk over to the Vanderbilt bookstore just a few blocks away and went on with her business. Hmm…that sort of mindset might just have a galvanizing effect, I should think. And when I asked a few students whether Vanderbilt’s membership in the SEC tarnishes the school’s lofty academic reputation in any way, they all said without hesitation: “We don’t need to be in the Ivy League to be good; we’re happy who we are!”
It should come as no surprise that Vanderbilt literally has it all…great facilities, a verdant and sprawling campus and tremendous resources. The sky’s the limit for an ambitious student. Having chatted up a few faculty members, I gleaned that teaching undergraduates remains at the heart of what happens on campus. “We have the big graduate programs in medicine and business, among others,” said one professor, “but what we do with the undergrads remains at the forefront. That matters at Vanderbilt!” And then, of course, there’s Nashville, America’s Music City, home to country music and to many, many world-class musicians. Perhaps it was Blair’s own Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer, John Sebastian, class of 1962, who coined the phrase, “Nashville Cats,” from the song of the same name and written in honor of all the gifted musicians who call Nashville home (if he didn’t actually coin the phrase, he certainly brought it to life in song!). Be that as it may, know that Nashville is one of the coolest of college towns with a ton of things to do and see. Wonderfully situated, unusually well-resourced and striking in appearance, Vanderbilt should not be overlooked by those with the promise to access it.
The University of the South (Sewanee)
There are a select handful of large universities in this country that are often identified by the towns in which they are located…schools like Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina) or Berkeley (University of California) or Madison (University of Wisconsin) or Boulder (University of Colorado) come to mind. Everyone associates the town with the university. With small colleges, it doesn’t seem to hold true. People don’t necessarily connect Middlebury with the town of the same name, and the same is true with Amherst. Liberal arts colleges are simply not synonymous with their hometowns. The one noteworthy exception: The University of the South, usually referred to as Sewanee, a tiny speck of a town that sits on the top of a huge mountain in southeastern Tennessee overlooking Chattanooga. To the best of my knowledge, the University of the South is the only liberal arts college that is referred to as Sewanee…everything in the bookstore is labeled as such.
The more than 13,000 acres comprising the campus, aptly referred to as The Domain, is certainly the largest and most expansive small college I’ve ever visited! The grounds are simply spectacular…from the university farm to the “collegiate” gothic architecture to the golf course to the breath-taking vistas of southeast Tennessee from the mountain top, life on The Domain is simply idyllic. Students are deeply connected to the natural beauty of the Sewanee campus. Since its founding in 1857, the school had grand designs, the resources and every intention to become THE great university of the South, modeled on the University of Oxford in England. Unfortunately, the ravages of the Civil War took its toll on the school’s plans; the postwar University of the South was forced to scale back its ambitious plans and has since found its place as one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the country, which, as they say in Tennessee, is “pretty alright.” Sewanee is also a place of deeply rooted traditions…the faculty still teach dressed in academic regalia and many of the honors students attend their classes clad in academic robes as well. The guys still wear coats and ties to class and there is a vibrant honor code in place that helps bind the community. The academic programs are very strong and remain quite traditional in their scope. Something must be working…over the years, Sewanee has produced 26 Rhodes Scholars, placing it among the top four liberal arts colleges in that category. Suffice it to say that Sewanee is an academically elite institution…walking around campus and seeing professors and students “robed-out” and looking very professional, it’s pretty easy to think you are somewhere else besides on a mountaintop in southeastern Tennessee!
A little-known fact: Sewanee was a charter member of the powerful Southeastern Conference, arguably the nation’s most competitive athletic conference. One better…in 1899, the Sewanee football 11 achieved the impossible: a perfect 12-0 record and a national championship. As unlikely as that sounds, there’s more. In the span of six days, the team defeated the likes of Texas, Texas A & M, Tulane, LSU and Ole Miss…and, on the seventh day, they rested. Yes, you read that correctly…five victories in six days! Now that is the stuff of legends. Of course, that was long ago and now Sewanee athletics compete in Division III with schools of their ilk. Still, that’s one heck of a story on which to end. Rich in tradition beyond most anything I’ve seen in this country and steeped in academic excellence, Sewanee is not your run-of-mill liberal arts college. For those students who love nature, who look to be a part of its rich history, and who love the experience of “being there,” Sewanee is well worth a look.
Read past "On the Road Reviews" of other colleges and universities in the southeastern United States.
In planning my trip to the U.K. and Ireland to visit universities, I fondly remembered my semester abroad experience studying at the University of London back in…well…a long time ago.
The trains. I loved riding the trains, gazing out the windows at the changing countryside of England and Ireland, working on International Herald Tribune crossword puzzles, and generally enjoying mastering the train and underground schedules.
So my wife, Lois, and I decided to “train” our way around the U.K…carrying our baggage from one stop to the next in crowded cars, lugging our belongings from the station to the hotels and generally making a mess of the London Underground! At any rate, we both slept well and thoroughly enjoyed our visits with our British Golf Exchange brethren, who live and work at comparable boarding schools in England and who were kind enough to let us stay with them.
Our weekend stay in London resulted in taking two former Blair students to dinner. Ian Patterson ’93 who just finished medical school in England, and Will Scott ’04, who just completed his master's degree at Oxford, were wonderful company and great sources of information about their respective universities. As well, from our hotel room that bordered London’s famous Hyde Park, we enjoyed live music from the likes of Kings of Leon, Bon Jovi, Ray Davies of the Kinks, The Killers and others blasting all weekend long!
And, finally, I must add that during our more than two weeks in the U.K., we endured but a few hours of rain, thanks in large measure to Lois, who seems to bring good weather with her whenever we visit schools together. So on to the colleges…
The University of Oxford
The University of Oxford: the granddaddy of them all, Oxford is arguably the most well-known and prestigious university in the world. Oxford is more a collection of loosely affiliated colleges—38 of them to be exact—each with its own personality and character and admission standards. All of the colleges are neatly tucked away within the city of Oxford, a vibrant and exciting community of approximately 160,000 people, of which nearly 20,000 are undergraduate and graduate students. The colleges of Oxford, those that were open to the public, were surprisingly small (300 to 500 students), mostly very old, architecturally stunning and meticulously kept. The famous quadrangles of Christ Church College (founded in the early 1500s) and the magnificence of the Bodleian Library have been burned into our collective minds as to what college is supposed to look like.
The architecture aside, trying to understand how admission to Oxford, or more accurately, admission to the individual colleges within Oxford, works is not easy for most American students and their families. In brief, here’s what happens: A senior must complete the UCAS application, the generic equivalent to our Common Application, indicating precisely what he or she intends to study (yes, one must declare a preference for biology or Slavic languages or economics), by October 15. If a student’s academic record (just the grades and numbers and a pointed essay about an intended area of study) is deemed strong enough to be considered for Oxford, the application then moves from the UCAS “clearinghouse“ to the appropriate colleges at Oxford.
So what are the qualifications for Oxford? That would include mostly As in the best courses, 700s on all parts of the SAT I and SAT IIs, and at least a few 4s and 5s on APs. It’s then onto the interview stage of the process, which is handled by the Oxford professors, or dons, who determine whether they find the student worthy of a place at their particular colleges. That’s right…the interviews are handled outside the admission office, and they are important. If a don finds the student interesting, and that would typically occur by the end of November, then the student is required to interview with that don…yes, face-to-face, either in Oxford or via Skype or by way of an interview here in the States. If the don decides he or she wants to work with that student, then the student will likely hear good news by Christmas. If, on the other hand, the don doesn’t want to work with the student, he or she will surely hear bad news from Oxford by the end of December.
My general overview of the admission process may raise more questions than it answers. Applying to Oxford is a bit more textured than I’ve outlined. Still, the basic framework of the process put forth, I should offer a few things for those who might find studying at Oxford interesting. First off, the tutorial system is truly a special opportunity at Oxford. Each student works closely with a tutor, or don, with whom he or she works to develop an educational program. The tutorial system allows a student to “chart his or her own course” academically. Managing that type of an education requires confidence, independence and a willingness to take a fair amount of “constructive” criticism. For those driven, highly motivated and independent learners who are passionate—really passionate—about their area of academic interest, studying at Oxford can be an extraordinary experience. Another reason to consider Oxford? Cost. The total cost of attendance is probably $10,000 per year, less per than comparable schools (Harvard, Columbia or Stanford) in this country.
As well, the majority of undergraduate programs of study, particularly in the humanities/social science areas, can be completed in three years, which also represents a considerable savings. And, finally, let’s face it…it’s Oxford, replete with traditions and scholarship that are second to none.
The University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge: Unlike its more urban rival, the city of Cambridge is located in the midlands region of England, about an hour-and-a-half northeast of London. Surrounded by the lush, fertile fields of Cambridge, as well as the colleges comprising the university, it has a distinct genteel calmness, marked by the expansive greens amid the quadrangles and the peaceful river splitting the city center. Hopping on a flat boat called a punt and “punting” down the River Cam is a grand way to view many of Cambridge’s most well-known and recognizable colleges.
From the extraordinary architecture of King’s College, with its massive gothic chapel designed by Sir Christopher Wren, arguably England’s most famous architect, to the expansive grounds of Trinity College, among the most well-endowed of all the colleges at Cambridge, the boat ride provides an unparalleled view of many of the colleges making up the university. Like Oxford, Cambridge is a collection of 31 small colleges, all loosely affiliated but all clutching tightly to their individual characters and personalities. In terms of small, I mean to say that most of the colleges comprising Cambridge have somewhere between 300 to 600 undergrads, most of whom live within the confines of their campuses. Again, like Oxford, most students take the majority of their classes at their colleges while working closely with their tutors and live their lives within the quadrangles of their colleges.
The way that Cambridge—and Oxford—students get to know students at the other colleges is through sport or clubs or other outside interests. So if you are a great rower, you might row for the university with other rowers from other colleges and represent Cambridge. The same is true for students involved with the arts and other clubs. I don’t mean to suggest that undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge rarely interact with others from different colleges; obviously they do. It’s just that their strongest and closest friends and affiliations are typically within their respective colleges. The admission process at Cambridge, or more accurately at any one of the colleges within the university, is very much in keeping with Oxford’s. Students must apply by October 15 and will hear back by the end of December. Their academic records need to be just as competitive as Oxford’s, and interviews with individual professors are a part of the process as well.
In brief, only the top tier students, those with a directed and measurable academic interest, are admitted to Oxford and Cambridge. Both demand independence and initiative from their students, and both attract some extraordinary young men and women from around the world. In summary, both Cambridge and Oxford need to be discussed in the same light…they are strikingly similar in terms of their lofty place among the great universities in the world, in their tutorial models, and in their unusual admission processes. For the right students—those who are unusually capable, highly driven and intellectually independent—university doesn’t get any better than at Cambridge and Oxford!
The American International University in London
The American International University in London: Located in London, one of the world’s great cities and cultural centers, Richmond is a most interesting blend of the best of an international and multi-cultural educational experience within a private liberal arts setting. With students from more than 100 countries studying together on two campuses in different parts of London—one in Richmond and the other in Kensington—Richmond provides its students with an unusually varied and exciting undergraduate opportunity.
With its flexible liberal arts core curriculum and its global awareness, Richmond provides its students a diverse student body and a rich international flavor, thanks in great measure to the city of London. Most first-years find themselves studying and living on the Richmond campus, a small but lovely estate-like campus in the Richmond Hill section of London. A five-minute walk to Richmond Hill Park, a 2,500-acre piece of paradise in the city and long a retreat for Royalty and other British notables, Richmond is a grand place to spend the first two years of one’s undergraduate experience. Most students take their housing in the neighborhood surrounding the campus, living in attractive flats and converted homes. The final two years of a student’s Richmond experience are mostly spent on the Kensington campus, located in the heart of London. A thriving and exciting part of the city, Richmond/Kensington provides a distinctly urban experience. In a very real way, Richmond students experience two very different types of communities as undergraduates.
Admission to Richmond is considerably more “humane” than Cambridge and Oxford. Students are read holistically, standardized testing is optional, and there is room for students with more modest credentials (GPAs around 4.0 or better would do the trick). For those students looking for the attention of a small, private, four-year liberal arts college (small classes, effective academic support and a tight-knit community), but with the opportunities that living in London can provide, Richmond is a most interesting option.
University of Aberdeen
University of Aberdeen: Arriving in Aberdeen, a relatively small city along the northeast coast of Scotland, we were greeted by a familiar visitor to that region of the country—rain. Rumor has it that when the sun shines in Aberdeen, nicknamed the Granite City, the gray stone buildings glisten with a green hue that is reported to be spectacular. Sadly, the sun never found its way out during our visit.
Still, this important oil city (much of the oil from the North Sea comes through Aberdeen before heading all over the world) is a surprisingly diverse community despite its relatively isolated location. What I found appealing is that the university sits in the historic center of the city, where there is certainly enough to see and do. The restaurants offer a surprising variety of culinary fare…the cute shops are, if you must know, just a “bit less dear” than you might find in the larger cities, and the proud citizenry of Aberdeen live up to their reputation as some of the friendliest and welcoming in all of Scotland!
Founded in 1495, Aberdeen has been a leader in higher education in the U.K. on many fronts. Historic King’s College makes up the heart of the campus and is an exquisite example of Norman gothic architecture, replete with a stunning chapel and quadrangle. The rest of the university spreads out around King’s College, making it a very “walkable” and compact campus. With 16,000 students and with more than 600 degree programs, virtually anything academic is possible there. Unlike the British universities, where students can often take their degrees in three years, the Scottish universities such as Aberdeen require four years to finish most courses of study. Programs of note include environmental science, engineering and psychology. As well, Aberdeen may be best known for its law program, which ranks among the best law programs in the U.K. Admission to Aberdeen is competitive, but not impossibly so. Students with solid transcripts in good courses (4.5 and above) and with SAT I scores over 600 on all sections are certainly within range.
Like many of the universities I visited, Aberdeen is actively seeking qualified American students from schools like Blair. The cost of attendance at Aberdeen is currently running about $40,000 per year for American students, which is a bit less than comparable universities in the states. While there is no such thing as need-based financial aid as we know it, Aberdeen does offer merit awards for high-achieving students from North America. Managing expenses in Aberdeen is quite easy, as the cost of living in this attractive small city is considerably less than the larger, more cosmopolitan cities of Glasgow or Edinburgh. The skinny on Aberdeen…while a bit off the beaten path in terms of location, it’s beautiful school that offers pretty much everything “under the sun” in terms of academic opportunities.
University of St. Andrews
University of St. Andrews: The train ride from Aberdeen to Leuchars, a small town just outside the town of St. Andrews, known in the U.K. for its Royal Air Force air base where Prince William had been stationed, was nothing short of beautiful. The lush green fields that run up to the North Sea made for a picturesque journey to this mediaeval coastal town, perhaps more well known as the birthplace of golf than for being home to Scotland’s oldest university, the third oldest university in the English speaking world.
First off, St. Andrews is small by U.K. standards, with just 6,000 undergraduates. With a faculty-student ratio of 10:1, there is plenty of opportunity to forge strong and lasting relationships with students and professors. Another appealing statistic is that St. Andrews, by design, maintains a wonderful balance of students—approximately 30% are from Scotland, 30% are from other parts of the U.K., and the remaining nearly 40% are from all over the world. The result is that St. Andrews, despite its popularity and prestige, maintains a strong commitment to its home students while managing a vibrant and diverse student population. The town of St. Andrews, like the university, is relatively small, with a population of just under 20,000. The campus is beautifully kept, decidedly Gothic and attractive, and packed together so that it feels very much like some of the small colleges in college towns in this country.
Even more, St. Andrews is the only university in Scotland to provide “pastoral care” for its undergraduates. When our admission representative mentioned this to me, she quickly noticed my confusion and added. “It’s not what you know it to be in your country…students here dying all the time! Here, pastoral care means that we still have faculty living among the students in the dorms.” She also went on to say that she and her husband were “house advisors” for Prince William while he was a student at St. Andrews, which had to be pretty cool. But I digress.
Of all the schools I visited, St Andrews most closely resembles American colleges in the liberal arts tradition because it’s easy to navigate, there is a real “college town” feel with a community spirit and camaraderie that are palpable. Regarding admission, St. Andrews, due to its small size and popularity, is very selective, but not crazy hard to get into. Blair students with GPAs of 4.8 to 5.0 in good programs, along with SAT I scores of mid to high 600s are certainly competitive in the St. Andrew’s applicant pool. If you are looking for a mid-sized university with exceptional resources, a great community feel, and a surprisingly wide array of academic/extracurricular offerings (for less than $300 dollars a year, a student can have unrestricted access to all seven golf courses in this golf-crazy town), St. Andrews is the place to be in the U.K.!
The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh: It’s just an hour’s train ride from St. Andrews to Edinburgh, a welcoming and vibrant city with a diverse population and so much history that there is something important to see or visit pretty much around every corner. Walking the Royal Mile from the historic Edinburgh Castle to the Royal Palace is simply breathtaking (not to mention exhausting!). With so much to see and do in the city, it’s no wonder that students at Edinburgh love being at the university.
A bit about Edinburgh’s campus…it’s not the concentrated campus of St. Andrew’s. Rather, the campus spreads itself around the city. The result is that Edinburgh feels much more urban than its Scottish counterparts, but the university lacks for nothing in terms of top-rate facilities and resources. What makes the campus seem “smaller” is the excellent public transportation in Edinburgh…it’s really easy to get from one place to another (despite the hills) and very reasonable as well. For a student interested in a university interspersed throughout the city, then Edinburgh is a wonderful destination.
Most assuredly, you can study almost anything at Edinburgh. The largest of the Scottish universities I visited, with nearly 30,000 students, Edinburgh is busy, bustling and very exciting. Diversity is everywhere you look…there are more than 8,000 students from 145 countries studying at Edinburgh, so you really can’t help but to be exposed to global perspectives. There are lots of innovative exchange programs with such universities as Penn, Yale, Virginia and Cal Tech; students at Edinburgh can access very different learning communities quite easily. Like St. Andrews, Edinburgh is not an easy admit… Blair students need to be very well prepared academically (4.8 and above) and present strong standardized testing (mid- to high-600s on the SAT I) to be competitive. As is the case with most of the U.K. schools, there is no need-based financial aid and very little merit funding available, but the cost of attendance at Edinburgh will be a savings as compared to comparable universities in the states. Bottom line: Edinburgh is a world-class educational opportunity as beautiful as it is historic. Literally, Edinburgh is impressive at every turn!
The University of Glasgow
The University of Glasgow: Like the city of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest and most eclectic, the University of Glasgow is an exciting combination of all the universities we had seen throughout the U.K. Glasgow is energized by the juxtaposition of things ancient and new…an awesome music and arts scene, great restaurants, crazed soccer fans, and all this mixed in with a grit and funk that are palpable.
The university, with its extraordinary Gothic quadrangles and compact campus, sits in the midst of the hippest part of town. Scotland’s national art gallery is a stone’s throw from campus and the clubs and restaurants are a short walk from the university. In a word, the school and the city are cool…very cool! In terms of enrollment, Glasgow is a bit smaller than Edinburgh, but with such a compact and self-contained campus, one that that feels more like St. Andrew’s and Aberdeen, Glasgow is not overwhelming at any level. And just as there is so much to do and see in Glasgow, so too is there much to study at the university. With well over 600 academic offerings and a tradition of outstanding teaching among its faculty, Glasgow offers so very much for its students to access. Traditionally Glasgow has not been as active—or perhaps a better word is visible—in recruiting students from Blair and in the US as St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh have, though I suspect that this will change in the next few years.
From where I sit, Glasgow is a most attractive destination and a great place to spend four years of university. Admission to Glasgow is well within reach for our strong students, those presenting GPAs of 4.5-4.8 and with SAT I scores over 600 in each area. The cost of attendance is reasonable and comparable to Edinburgh, as is the cost of living in the city of Glasgow. From my perspective, the fit and feel of Glasgow is an easy one…students identify with the university and benefit greatly from the wealth of opportunities of one of the most interesting cities in the world.
Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin: Founded in 1592, Trinity College is Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious university. To say that Trinity is located in the heart of Dublin is an understatement…the spectacular limestone buildings that make up the Trinity campus sit at the confluence of Grafton and College Streets, two of city’s busiest, to form its own academic enclave. The stir of people coming and going—business types, street musicians and artists and entertainers as well as tourists everywhere—bring Trinity to life with an energy and excitement that are unique among the schools we visited. One can literally feel the pulse of Dublin while standing just outside the gates of Trinity!
Once on the campus, though, life gets quiet and serious very quickly. Trinity has a long history as a home for the literary and performing arts and for cutting-edge research and scholarship in most all academic fields. Trinity houses one of the largest library collections in all of Europe, its most famous holding being the Book of Kells, a 9th-century manuscript that is perhaps Ireland’s most important national treasure. Studying at Trinity is also “studying” in Dublin, Ireland’s largest and most cosmopolitan city and one of the most enjoyable and welcoming places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
Dublin provides an awesome educational “canvas” for Trinity students, as so much goes on outside its imposing campus walls. For a city its size, I found Dublin surprisingly easy to navigate…the public transportation is great and much of the sights of the city are all relatively close to one another, making for leisurely strolls from one attraction to another. The Trinity students we met were clearly serious-minded and highly capable, but with just a “little bit of the Irish in them.” They were at once welcoming, friendly, funny and quick to offer up opinions and perspectives with honesty and just a hint of Irish irreverence. They reported that Trinity had world-class facilities, that faculty were very accessible and were occasionally moved to hold classes in the local pubs, and that the manageable size of the college (just under 11,000 undergraduates) allowed for plenty of academic flexibility and shifting among majors, at least relative to many of the other U.K. universities I had visited.
A popular destination for highly charged students from all over the world, Trinity has highly selective admission profile. Students from Blair with strong academic records (4.8 and above), and with SAT I scores in the mid to high 600s are certainly competitive in the applicant pool there. Like the other schools I visited, the cost of attendance at Trinity is, all things considered, quite reasonable (approximately $40,000/year for everything), and the cost of living in Dublin relative to the other major metropolitan centers in England and Europe is surprisingly affordable, making Trinity College a very desirable destination. As the flagship university in all of Ireland, a country that takes education very seriously, Trinity College is an academic powerhouse and certainly worth a close look.