Wednesday, July 12, 2017


College Tours, from the Other Side

This one is a shameless cry for help.

The Boy will start his junior year of high school this Fall.  He’s thinking about colleges.  He wants to be pre-med, and he wants a biggish or huge school at least a few hours from central Jersey.  (“I want to avoid the drop-in,” as he puts it.)  He has come up with a few frontrunners, though we both fully expect his list to change.

We’re thinking about doing first visits to a few of the early contenders this summer.  I’m thinking a smallish number of early visits will accomplish several things:

All of that said, he’s the oldest, and I haven’t been on college tours since I was in high school.  I imagine it’s a very different experience as a parent.  It can’t not be.  

Wise and worldly readers, I’m guessing that many of you have done the college tour as a parent.  Having been through it from this side, do you have any suggestions for what I should do?  Should I go on the tours with him, or leave him alone on them?  What did you find helpful?

My experience is wildly out of date, son, (slight exaggeration) but there are a few things that come to mind. But first, avoiding the "drop in" is as much about the parents as it is about distance. My parents were great about that.

I'm not sure what "biggish" means to you, or "relatively selective" in that context, but I do know "biggish" and "huge". He won't get a realistic perspective of any university in the summer. The bigger they are, the more parklike they are when empty of anyone but grad students. (This is personal experience.) Visiting Rutgers for a football game, as I believe you did, would give more perspective if he also saw the same campus in summer! If there is a place he likes within a few hours, you might take in a basketball game to see it full of students in the winter and also see how students get around a large campus in the winter.

Now something you didn't ask.

The best STEM advising I can give is to take a good physics class in HS. If he can't take both a second chemistry class and physics, take physics. It is a critical subject on the MCAT, and undergrad classes can be so poorly taught that HS prep can be essential. Ditto for math preparation. I've seen students who took extra bio in HS at the expense of math and the physical sciences and were behind in all of those areas but had AP credit that didn't count toward a biology major. Getting some solid advising THIS summer at one or two target schools could help him a lot. Have him go over with them "this is what I am taking as a junior, what are your suggestions about my options as a senior?"

Finally, has he done any volunteer work in the medical field? That is often expected by med schools, who can be rightfully concerned that they will lose students when they discover what it is like to work with really sick and dying people and children on a regular basis. He should ask at least one advisor about their recommendations about when and what kind of experiences are best.
+1 on everything that CCPhysicist said. The summer part was coming to mind even before I read the comment. I remember visiting some colleges during the summer before senior year, and now I really wonder what I was really seeing, given what I know now about summer campus populations. I agree about the physics course, and you know my love of applied chemistry.

Presumably TB will have a major other than "pre-med". Perhaps a pre-med advisor can put him in touch with students who are studying a variety of fields. Having one he likes will be good in case he decides that medicine is no longer for him.
In addition to the "normal" tour bits... Ask to talk to some kids that are pre-health. Try to find out the advising load of the pre-health professions advisors, ask if they write committee letters*. Ask about the percentage of applicants who are accepted, but, also ask about the retention-rate of intending applicants (e.g., how many kids arrive intending pre-health and end up something else). Ask about support from the pre-health advisors if he takes a year or two after college to work/research/whatever before the application cycle. Ask how many schools students typically apply to... Find out what kinds of on-campus opportunities there are to learn more about medicine--there's almost certainly a pre-health student group, but what kind of programming does the office put on or others on the academic side?

Like CCP wrote, medical experience is important--ask about opportunities. Rural locations make it more difficult to come by, unless the school also has a med school.

Somewhat less obvious--what's the opportunity to do undergrad research (and get his name on publications, not just lab-minion)?

More less obvious? Unsurprisingly, med schools want well-rounded people (who also have 3.9s and great MCAT score)--he needs to have one or two activities (preferably non-health) where he gets deeply involved and steps up to a leadership role at some point.

Finally, one of the better pre-health "to do" sections:

*Committee letters are generally a thing along the east coast, not so much a thing along the west coast. They're essentially a 2-page composite letter of rec written by the professional advising staff that also incorporates other stuff they've learned about the applicant through meetings and interviews. These are generally better when written by the professional advising staff rather than ghost-writers or part-timers because the staff should know him, while the part-timers read his file and write it up.
I agree with everyone that the summer is not necessarily a good time to get a feel for campus. Now I'm not a parent, but I did appreciate it when my dad went on tours with me. We were half way through a tour when we both realized there was an ice cube's chance in hell I was going through a particular school - his support (and just the practical part of having the transporter with me) made me feel it was okay to just ditch the rest of the tour and move on.
If he is serious about med school, there is a small (800- ish) men's college in Crawfordsville, IN, called Wabash. Regularly places 20 men in med school (out of a senior class less than 200); only Harvey Mudd college sends more grads to grad school. -- Jon Porter, '90.

I'll chime in on the "summer is a terrible idea" chorus.
A decade ago (cough), going along on the tour meant she could process the tour at me instead of having to describe it first. Your Kid May Vary. She was dismissive of the parents who asked more questions than the students did, FWIW.
One thing we found worked well was looking in the bookstore. She dropped a couple of schools out because the Freshman English equivalent was covering books she knew from High School. Oddly enough, those were also ones where I thought the texts in my area were a bit weak.
Lots of good advice here. I'd just add that if the school is close enough for a drive, perhaps you visit twice. There's nothing wrong with a summer visit to get the good advising that folks have mentioned (but, frankly, may be hard to get in the summer) and to see the other kinds of kids who are interested in the school. Then go back to the ones that "felt" good during the school year (not on Saturday!) to visit a class, meet with a professor, and stay overnight if possible. If you go along for the first trip, you may not need to on the second. +1 about the parents not asking more questions than the students. And if the advisor gives you the opportunity to NOT sit in on the meeting, take it. You can always call and ask your questions later.
Is Baltimore far enough? Hopkins is excellent at the pre-med thing, and solid elsewhere. Though I don't know how they treat their undergrads- you could always look where the Hopkins med school students went to undergrad- it'll give him a short list for "selective and will open doors".

He will want a place he can see himself volunteering with physicians, and it doesn't hurt to have research he can get into. For the former, I think it's ideal to try out physicians in a hospital *and* in other settings- I wrote off med school based on ideas about bubble tests in med school and ER surgery as a work life, and didn't realize what the courses in med school were actually like and that I could be a dermatologist in an outpatient setting (I would've done well in that kind of a role even if I'm totally unsuited for the ER).
As far as research- many PhDs can smell a box-checking med student a mile away, but genuine curiosity coupled with an open mind goes very far. If he can find himself an MD/PhD who is relatively young to work for, that'd give him the best possible mentor perspective (I say relatively young because the ancient ones often stacked med school and grad school instead of going through a medical scientist training program- if he's ambitious, make sure he knows he can get med school paid for in those programs. This is another way to winnow down the universe of schools into a manageable number- those that send students to MSTPs are going to be top tier).

If I were doing it in this day and age, I'd also consider looking for a school with a good Physician Assistant program (they are not super common and thus maybe harder to get into than Med school in terms of requiring patient contact time beforehand, but the ROI is better, and if what he really likes is patient care it's a better career path). Of course, if he does get bit by a research bug, than I'd recommend the MD. There's nothing you can do with a PhD you can't do with an MD as far as research, and you won't making a terrible life choice.
I did the college tours with my son about 4 years ago. I wrote up most of them for my blog:

Don't let him get too attached to one school—my son, though a great student, did not get in at any of the super-selective schools he applied to. Luckily, one of his "safeties" was also a good fit and he has been happy at UCSB.

Like everyone else, I recommend going when classes are in session—campuses are very different places in the summer. Try to get an meeting with a faculty member in the desired field—that can be much more informative than just a generic tour.

If he is pre-med, be aware that very few pre-med students end up going to med school (some lose interest, some find more exciting possibilities, and some just don't make it)—he should have a backup plan from the beginning.

Some schools will have an open house when the departments make an effort to reach out to students. At UC Davis, this happens in the Spring and it's a ton of fun (Picnic Day). Find those events at the schools he is interested in. Some advising centers will pair your student up with a student and let your student shadow them for the day. Find out if the schools have a different Spring Break than yours and go visit them while they are in session. Good luck!
I can't speak to the parent aspect, but if UMass Amherst is on the list and you want an insider's perspective, let me know!
Kudos to Becca for mentioning the PA option. More patient contact and less running the bureaucracy. It was the first choice of the child of a good friend of mine, and worked out well. And, speaking from the other side, I really like the PAs that I've met in a clinical setting. They take the time that the MD often does not have.
Another vote for the PA option. My sister had to decide between med school and PA school when she had young children; she opted for PA (2 years post-grad rather than 6+ years)and was very happy. It was not easy to get into PA grad school (probably there are more of them today), bu t she had experience as a volunteer EMT.
Ask what the Tenure Track/Adjunct faculty ratio is. Ask what percentage of undergraduate gen ed classes will be taught by adjuncts or grad students. Get an honest answer (the college kid leading the tours won't know; you'll have to ask department chairs, and they might not tell you the truth, either). Then ask yourself if it is worth paying FT tuition and receiving a PT teacher in return.
We are from a region with a relatively mild climate, my son wants to go to a school in the upper Midwest. I told him he had to visit in the winter.

Also, at each of the schools we visited, I had him contact professors in the field he wants to major in. We got far more out of talking to these professors than we did from the tours and recruiting sessions.
Hopkins is violently competitive for pre-meds as undergrads. Like, there are annual rumors of people leaving a set of classnotes unattended in the library for 5 minutes and having them vanish into the air.
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