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“Get Thee to a Nunnery . . .”: My Experience at a Women’s College

My college search, no doubt, resembled that of many of you reading this.  A couple “safeties”, a “reach”, and the ones where I had a fighting chance.  Good schools, with attractive campuses, dependable financial aid, etc.

Fast-forward a few months, and I’d been waitlisted at Georgetown, Dartmouth and Brown and accepted to three of my eight schools . . . all of them women’s colleges. All of them wonderful places, but I had applied in spite of the gender specifications.  Going past the obvious problems it could pose for dating, I had always enjoyed close friendships with boys and my brother, so four years in such a decidedly female environment was not something I was very excited about.  Thankfully, the past few years have changed my mind.

I’m trying to steer away from the words you’ll see on every seven-sisters website, but they really do apply.  Women’s colleges are liberating, empowering, and supportive, not because they’re free of some oppressive, patriarchal dark side of the force or anything, but because they’re intellectual environments where gender biases have little place.  Most of us, by the time we finish high school, have experienced some situation where a teacher dishes out extra credit more often to one sex or the other, or have been frustrated trying to get support for a women’s sports team, or some similar problem.  The “boys club” attitude that we can still encounter in various arenas simply doesn’t apply when there aren’t any boys.

Not that four years could pass without ever coming into contact with men, as if you were attending a collegiate nunnery.  Many women’s colleges are in consortiums, where it is possible to take classes at neighboring co-ed schools, and co-ed students can take classes on campus.  In an urban environment you could meet all sorts of interesting people off campus, and even the most rural women’s colleges have a large number of men around on the weekends when boyfriends and buddies come to visit.  Regardless of what any school-sponsored website tells you, “meeting men” is never going to be as easy as at a co-ed school, but in my time at Mount Holyoke I’ve dated and made male friends just fine.  (It goes without saying that if it’s not men you’re interested in, women’s colleges are perfect.)

Not having men around as much can lead to a certain amount of social-awareness as well.  After months at a women’s college, the first time someone treats you like a “chick” and not an adult with equal intellectual value, it smarts.  Sexism is all the more apparent when you’ve fallen out of the habit.  Not everyone will have the same reaction –I’ve seen women get furious at this treatment, and women who laugh it off.  For myself, I’m thankful that I’ve learned to recognize it as unusual and unfair.  I’ve become far pickier about the men I spend time with, and am happier because of it.

I can’t recommend women’s colleges to everyone.  What I can say is that, if you give it a chance like I did, you can come to really appreciate it.  Women’s colleges might not be the most empowering experience of your life –that could be getting your first big promotion at the job of your dreams, nailing an audition, or doing a solo trip around the world.  But women’s colleges will help you get there, and cheer you on along the way.  As far as I’ve been able to make out, the goal of every women’s college is to give you the self confidence and spine to succeed, and if they can provide a rugby team or lab facilities or an excellent library along the way, that’s even better.

Sydney Penny

Mount Holyoke ‘12

Promises and Pitfalls of a Gap Year

Most high school seniors pursuing a college education are now filling in roommate forms, sending off final transcripts to chosen institutions, and such.  But many others have chosen a different path that will lead not to college after the summer, but to a year of travel or work or service.  Taking a gap year between high school and university is long a common practice in Europe, but more American students are discovering it as well.

Students will take a gap year for many reasons.  Some are keen to break away from formal schooling and see more of the “real” world before entering the safe confines of college.  They want to see the world, get a better perspective on things to study in college, learn a new language.  From parents’ perspectives, a gap year may give their child chance to grow in emotional maturity and self-sufficiency, to work and save money for college, or simply gain a bit of seasoning.

These are all very good reasons for a gap year.  I want to focus on one group in particular, however – students who had an unsuccessful college application season and want to redo it, and those who did not apply at all but hope that an interesting gap year will strengthen their future applications.  A gap year can indeed improve a student’s college application in two ways.  Firstly, by virtue of working or traveling or doing community work, a young person may grow so much in maturity and focus that it will inevitably show to good effect, regardless of how they spend the year.  Secondly, an interesting year may make an application stand out from the norm, suggest the student has something out of the ordinary to offer, or even support a student’s interest in pursuing a particular course of study.

Whether a gap year will actually deliver on this promise will depend on what a student does and says about it.  Not all gap experiences are equal – it is after all meant to be a year of learning by different means.  Admission officers will ask themselves what the student has learnt from taking the time, and if the answer is ”not much,” they will decide accordingly.  Pursuing in desultory fashion a couple of week long activities that neither engage nor require commitment from you – mall-crawling in Long Island, lounging in LA, or sunning yourself in St. Barts – none will seem very interesting to educators (unless, of course, you have something interesting to say about it!).  On the other had, traveling to places that stretch your sense of the world and doing service work that challenges your sense of self, working to save money for college or to help your family survive, learning a new language, interning with a local scientist or teaching children, all would lead a reader to recognize your social commitment and your intellectual energy.

A final point involves timing, whether to apply to college before taking a gap year, or during that time.  The answer depends on your circumstances and prospective colleges.  Most, though not all, institutions allow admitted students to defer entrance for a year.  During your senior year, ask colleges whether they are open to such deferments and how their process works.  Applying to college during your senior year means that you still have easy access to teachers and the resources of your college guidance office.  Applying during your gap year allows you to add the weight of your new experiences to the application, though remember that you will be applying only a few short months into that year.

Many of the great things a gap year can do for students, can also be gained from studying abroad later or from teaching and traveling after graduation.  A growing number of students do not want to wait before embarking on such an adventure though, and they may have very good reasons for it.  But if improving your college application is one of those reasons, then keep in mind that not all adventures are equal in the minds of admission officers!

Congratulations, you have been accepted! Now what?

Many students who applied to regular decision programs now have a big envelope (or more likely these days, an email!) in hand telling them that they have been accepted to a school. Congratulations! Those who got good news from their dream school feel like they were handed the keys to the kingdom. For most, having at least one offer of admission is an enormous relief – let’s face it, one school is all it takes!

But as that good news keeps on streaming in, you may now find that you have difficult choices to make between those schools that looked good earlier on. So keep the following in mind:

***This is all wonderful. After being a supplicant at the mercy of admissions committees, the ball is now firmly in your court. Enjoy it – soon you will be a first year and at the bottom of the college totem pole again!

***Seek out the information you need to make your choice. Phone financial aid offices and talk to them about your aid package. They may not change their minds, but you won’t know unless you ask.

***Try to attend accepted student events, even if you had visited before. It changes the experience to know that college is yours if you wish! Also, if your earlier visit was over summer, a campus feels very different when it is in term.

***When you do visit, hone in on the things you care about – student organizations, research facilities, teaching faculty, or dorm rooms. Don’t confine yourself only to a few new friends or the set program, but rather explore the campus, talk to students, or attend a class.

***During your visit, have a good time but behave with propriety – schools would rather retract their offer of admission than end up with a freshman whose lack of good sense marks him or her for serious trouble.

***Don’t doubt the decisions of the admission officers and wonder if you have what it takes to succeed. If they had doubts, they would have informed you quite bluntly!

***But don’t harbor the illusion that you now have made it either – college is meant to challenge us because that is how we grow.

And then get back to senior year, relishing the last days of high school, preparing yourself academically for college, and enjoying what may be your last months living at home. Above all, stay safe!

The problem with senioritis

Senioritis is when second semester senior grades sag after college acceptance letters arrive. Talking about the problem “of senioritis” seems to lend this bad habit a legitimacy which I doubt it deserves – as if it is something unfortunate but expected. Rather like getting a cold in winter. Of course, having had my own kids go through that dreary last semester where they just want to have fun and move on with life and school seems so last year, I understand only too well how hard it is for students to stay motivated between admission and matriculation.

But I still believe it important for students to keep on with the good work that got them accepted in the first place. There are three reasons for it – philosophical, practical and political.

Firstly, we do not want to encourage students to think that high school is mostly about preparing for college application – as if you work hard, challenge yourself, and do community service all just to impress an admission office. Then you go on to college and start all over again, except this time the point is securing a good job or graduate admission another four years later. Perhaps we want to teach kids instead to extract value in the moment, develop a love of learning for its own intrinsic sake, and do good because the well-being of our communities require it.

Secondly, college courses assume a level of preparation on the part of incoming first year students. So high school is not simply about preparing to apply to college, but also about preparing to be successful long after the application process is done. Blowing off the remainder of senior year risks missing out on basic skills like good writing that may be crucial to success in college classrooms.

Finally, admission offices, especially more selective ones, do care about an accepted student’s grades after making an offer of admission, if only in preemptive self-defense. After all, an admitted student who gives up on his or her academics will likely show up a year later in committees that deal with students at risk of failing out of college. So admission offices not only request final grades, they actually look at them over the summer.

And when they do examine your final grades, they know well that most of them have craftily added a line to your offer of admission stating that they can withdraw that offer if your final performance nosedives! And sometimes, they do just that.

Along the road to college admission…

Watch where you’re going!

The college application process can have many unfortunate effects, and one happens when students run around madly padding their resumes with yet one more activity, one more shot at leadership, one more service moment.  The problem is not only that this kind of scattershot business does little to enhance their applications, but also that they seldom stop to ask the important questions: why am I doing this, what does it all mean, where is it taking me?

Watching this mad runaround brings to mind one of my most favorite college presentations, done by an esteemed colleague and good friend at Brown University.  She reminded prospective students that the journey matters, not just the arrival; that as a high school student moves towards college and the next phase in his or her life, thinking and engaging and playing around with ideas along the way is as important as ultimately getting accepted.  Being a classicist, she pointed out that even as we cheer for Odysseus to find his way home to Ithaca (not only those dreaming of Cornell!), we should remember the wondrous things he saw along the way. So she handed prospective students a copy of the beautiful poem Ithaca, by the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1911).  It is worth repeating here:

Ithaca


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,

pray that the road is long,

full of adventure, full of knowledge.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:

You will never find such as these on your path,

if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine

emotion touches your spirit and your body.

The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,

if you do not carry them within your soul,

if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.

That the summer mornings are many, when,

with such pleasure, with such joy

you will enter ports seen for the first time;

stop at Phoenician markets,

and purchase fine merchandise,

mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

and sensual perfumes of all kinds,

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

visit many Egyptian cities,

to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.

To arrive there is your ultimate goal.

But do not hurry the voyage at all.

It is better to let it last for many years;

and to anchor at the island when you are old,

rich with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

Without her you would have never set out on the road.

She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.

Wise as you have become, with so much experience,

you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.

Some Interesting College Application Stats

The Common Application posted an announcement to all college admissions counselors today with some statistics about this year’s application season.

Currently, there are 788,241 students who are registered to submit Common Applications – an increase of 15% over last year.

Together, they submitted 1,736,287 applications – an increase of 19% — and they expect to process about 1.9 million applications before the season ends, July 15th.

Teachers submitted 1,211,709 recommendations – an increase of 112%!

From the January edition of College Bound comes this information regarding the application pools at a few of the colleges:

Harvard’s applications are up 5%

Dartmouth’s applications are up 4%

Brown saw an increase from 24,000 to 28,000 this year

But the amazing statistic is U. Chicago . .  . up 42%!!!!  (Their admissions staff must be going wild)

The University of California system is up 6%

Despite the economy, nationwide, 49% of colleges attracted more applicants in 2009 than they did in 2008

A few really excellent colleges dropped in applicants, however, including Brandeis, Bucknell, Colgate, Dickinson, Elon, Harvey Mudd, Middlebury, St. Lawrence, Valparaiso.

57% of colleges accepted more students in 2009 than in 2008 (trying to avoid a drop in enrollment based on the economic crisis), and some had a higher enrollment than they were prepared for, meaning crowded dorms and classes .  .  .  don’t expect they will keep the high acceptance rates this year!

A wise college bound student says thank you often

I came across the article, below, recently and thought how appropriate it is for students — you can’t say ‘thank you’ too often!

Students sometimes forget how much effort others have put into their college search and application process.  Their parents, of course, have invested hours of time and no doubt hundreds or thousands of dollars on campus visits, counseling guidance, test preparation programs . . . so much!  Teachers and counselors support is also immeasurable.  Appreciation and expressions of thanks are always well-received!  There is a saying, ‘Gratitude greases the wheel of life’.

Remember, also, that there are ‘real people’ there at the colleges to whom you apply, and when you do receive your acceptances, and especially those Early Decision acceptances, it would be entirely appropriate for you to write or email a joyful, thankful message to any admissions officer you have met or with whom you have spoken or exchanged emails at ‘your ‘ college.  And when you arrive in the Fall, it is nice to follow-up and go to meet with that person who shepherded your application through the Admissions’ Committee.

Of course, if you were interviewed by an alum. of your school, or by a current undergraduate, be sure to let them know the results of your application and your appreciation for their time and support.  Generous, gracious words can only benefit you.  Someday, hopefully, you will be interviewing for your college!

Joyce Reed

by Julie Manhan, writer — from the Seattle College Bound Examiner, December 14,   4:44 AM

Most college bound students are in one of two places at this time of the year: finished with all applications and ready for some serious relaxation or gearing up for that final push to finish up those applications due in January. Whichever place you are in, there is one thing you need to do before you pack up your backpack for the holidays– you need to say thank you.

You need to say thank you to the counselor who has gotten your transcripts off to the colleges you are applying to, written recommendations for you, made sure you have enough credits to graduate, or even chased you down for things you forgot to turn in. You need to show some appreciation for the late nights and weekends they have spent composing a letter to help you get into college and for the days of their vacation they will spend making sure everything gets submitted on time. You need to acknowledge all the times they have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help you get into college.

While you’re considering whom you should thank, let’s not forget the teachers who added writing a fabulous letter of recommendation for you to their already huge list of things to do. There are also those teachers who may have proofread your essays or helped you review math concepts so you might be able to improve your SAT scores. How about those teachers who have challenged and inspired you to do your best?

I’m sure there are other people who have helped you, too. What I am asking you to do is to take a moment to remember who they are and to somehow express your gratitude for their efforts on your behalf. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; a simple thank you note would be fine. The important thing is to let them know that you are appreciative.

“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.” ~ Cynthia Ozick (writer)