Episode 171: Why the College’s Academics Matter–Obviously

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

Today’s episode is about Step 8 of your kid’s summer homework. That’s 8 out of 14 steps, all of which are explained in our series of episodes this summer and also, with more examples and details, in our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Workbooks are still available from Amazon if you want one for your son or daughter.

Step 8 is about the topic that most people think is most critical to choosing a college–that is, academics. Most people would say that it is what college is all about–or, at least, mainly about; or, at least, hopefully mainly about. Our College Profile Worksheet from the workbook has six questions in this section, which can be answered by reviewing each college’s website.

1. Schools and Colleges

First, let’s talk about the divisions that make up universities, in case your son or daughter has any on his or her Long List of College Options (that’s LLCO, for short). And, by the way, we hope that there are at least two or three. Here is what we explained to students in the workbook:

As you know by now, universities and large institutes (like Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are made up of schools and/or colleges that focus on different disciplines. Some of these institutions are composed of a small number of schools/colleges (say, four or five), but some are composed of quite a large number (as many as 15 or more). Some schools/colleges are only for graduate or professional students, who already have a bachelor’s degree; examples of these are law, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine. Some schools/colleges within a university or institute are only for undergraduate students. And some schools/colleges within a university or institute serve both undergraduate and graduate students. You have to do some careful reading when researching which are which, but you will find all of them listed in the Academics section of a college’s website.

By the time you answer this question for five or six institutions, you will see that lots of their colleges/schools have the same name, like Business, Management, Education, Health Care, Social Work, Journalism, Engineering, and Architecture. Some have quite similar names, like various versions of Arts and Sciences for the liberal arts and sciences school that virtually all large institutions have. But some have really novel and interesting names, too.

You will need to figure out which school/college you are most interested in applying to because many institutions will not let you apply to more than one school/college within the institution. Think hard about that right now, while you are taking the time to read about all of them.

Question 19 asks your kid to jot down the schools/colleges within each institution on his or her LLCO and, then, to check off the ones that serve undergraduate students and double check the one that he or she is most interested in.

2. Academic Departments and Majors

Next, your son or daughter will need to go two steps further: first, to look at the academic departments at each institution and, then, to look at possible majors. This is what we said in the workbook:

Universities obviously have more departments across all of its schools/colleges than smaller liberal arts colleges have. There is often an alphabetical listing of all of the departments in the Academics section of a college’s website.

You can’t possibly write them all down and don’t need to. Just start focusing on the ones that interest you most. Even if you are not sure what you want to study in college, you will need to narrow the field in order to complete most college applications.

We know that this will begin to seem like a lot of detail if you are not at all sure what you want to study. Unfortunately, many college applications will ask you to specify a major. Some applications will also ask you to specify a second choice and even a third choice for a major. We say “unfortunately” because we know that many high school students are not ready to make this decision yet. We also know that many college students change their minds after they choose a major–even after a couple of college semesters. All that is to be expected from college freshmen and sophomores.

Nonetheless, you are likely to have to make a tentative decision about a major in order to complete at least some of your college applications. So, now is the time to start that research.

Getting a head start on thinking about majors will also give you a chance to talk to your high school teachers about your choices. For example, those of you who imagine majoring in biology and going to medical school eventually will notice that large universities have many majors within the Biology Department. If you can’t figure out which exact major(s) would be right for you, you won’t make a convincing case for yourself in your application.

Question 20 asks your kid to jot down at least several academic departments that he or she is interested in, and Question 21 asks him or her to jot down at least several majors that he or she is interested in.

3. Core Curriculum

Now, let’s dig a little deeper into what, if any, core curriculum each institution offers. This is what we wrote:

For the purpose of this discussion, we will refer to this centuries-old curriculum concept as a “core curriculum,” though you might hear it referred to as a “general education curriculum” or as “distribution requirements.” What it means is that all students in a college or in a specific college/school within a larger university or institute are usually required to take one or two courses in each of a broad range of academic disciplines, such as mathematics, or in each of a broad range of groups of disciplines, such as natural sciences, languages and literature, social sciences, and so on. Each college seems to have its own unique way of defining core requirements, and some definitions are more understandable than others.

Some colleges have quite strict requirements, meaning that there are many different requirements that have to be met, which might add up to 10 or more courses before it’s all over. Some colleges have far fewer requirements for either the number of courses or the exact courses that have to be taken. And some colleges have no core curriculum at all.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the purpose of a core curriculum. The concept comes from the liberal arts tradition, where students are supposed to be well rounded in their studies and in their understanding of the intellectual content and issues raised in many fields. People in favor of this tradition would say that students do not know exactly where their careers and lives will take them and that the ability to solve problems and think critically across a range of academic subjects could make a difference in how well they succeed in their careers (likely in their multiple careers) and indeed in their lives. It is no surprise that many liberal arts colleges as well as the arts and sciences college/school within many large institutions would require and proudly support a core curriculum for its students. . . .

Another advantage of a core curriculum is that it causes students to look into academic fields that are rarely taught in high schools–like anthropology or sociology or art history or linguistics. Without require­ments in a variety of academic fields or groups of fields, many students would never take a look at some of these fields and would never know what they had missed.

Now, let’s talk about those colleges that go one step further and require certain courses of all students–the actual courses, not just a number of courses in certain academic fields. . . . When a college decides to require specific courses, it is because its professors feel that those courses are most critical to developing the foundation for more advanced college study and/or to developing a broad understanding of and ability to engage in the modern world. . . .

In our virtual college tour, we often talked about the core curriculum requirements of a college. We did that for two reasons. First, we were truly impressed with some of them, even though we could tell that they would be quite challenging for students. Second, we knew that some students would love the idea of a core curriculum, while other students would hate it.

Question 22 asks students to check off whether each college on their LLCO has a core curriculum and, if so, to jot down the exact requirements listed on the website.

4. Study Abroad Options

And now, one of my favorite topics and one that I feel quite strongly about! We wrote this to students:

When you were making your LLCO, we suggested that you put one college outside the U.S. on your list. We were serious about that. By the way, you are likely to find that the college you picked is actually cheaper to attend than a private college here in the U.S., and you will see that many colleges offer degree programs taught in English.

But, for those of you who don’t want to go to a college for four years in another country, take a close look at the study abroad options available at each college on your LLCO. These days, many colleges have fantastic study abroad programs, which make it logistically easy for you to study outside the U.S. These programs are already carefully set up, and they offer housing and other support while you are there. Some colleges have their own campuses in foreign countries, while others partner with a foreign university.

Some colleges strongly encourage their students to take a semester abroad. And a few colleges even require their students to study abroad. [See the workbook for examples.]

For future reference, if a college you love doesn’t have its own study abroad program, don’t forget about what the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) has to offer. Based in Stamford, Connecticut, AIFS operates a wide range of outstanding summer, semester-long, and year-long programs in over 20 countries on five continents. . . . All of our firsthand experiences with AIFS have been fantastic.

Question 23 on the College Profile Worksheet asks students to jot down the study abroad options that the college offers–both locations and programs, including any important details.

5. Grading Practices

And, finally, here is something we didn’t start thinking about ourselves till more recently, and I regret that. Here is what the workbook says:

We bet that grading practices are not something most students consider before choosing a college–perhaps because they assume that colleges are quite traditional when it comes to awarding final course grades. Most colleges do, in fact, use some kind of numerical scale (typically, with a 4.0 as an A) or letter scale (typically, from A though F). These traditional grading practices might seem just fine to you.

However, there are some colleges that are anything but traditional when it comes to evaluating student progress. For example, take Hampshire College (an excellent and innovative private college in Amherst, Massachusetts), where students receive written narrative evaluations from professors on their assignments and as their final course grades. No numbers and no letters. . . .

Colleges that use narrative evaluations instead of traditional grades praise their value in teaching their students more about their own strengths and weaknesses, in getting their students to focus on their learning instead of on their grades, and in building better and more stimulating relationships between their students and their professors.

Who knew this was an option? Question 24 asks students to check off whether the college has a traditional grading system and, if not, to jot down the way that student work is evaluated instead.

Well, that brings us to the end of six critical questions about what your kid’s academic life might be at college. And what could be more important than that?

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *