Written by Great Books on Monday, December 29, 2014
Our monthly post of college advice, dished out by our brilliant Program Assistants. We know the college search is on your mind, so we interviewed Program Assistants, Spencer Lenfield and Christina Lamoureux to reveal what went into their decision-making.
Name : Spencer Lenfield
Attended: Harvard University
Currently studying: History and Literature, Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University
How many schools did you look at during your college search? Too few! I didn't know what I was doing, and should have looked at more. I looked seriously at maybe 8 schools, and only applied to 5.
When did you start looking? I started thinking about colleges seriously near the beginning of my junior year, and took the classic "road trip" to visit a bunch with my dad in the summer between junior and senior year.
Was location an important factor in your school selection? No; I hadn't lived in enough places to have any kind of preference, though in the end, Harvard's position in a small city next to a large city was perfect, since I grew up in a small town.
Was the size of the school important? No—I looked at little liberal arts colleges and big state universities both, without a strong preference. In the end, Harvard's size was great. It's a research university, but its undergraduate program is small compared to most—there are only 1,700 students or so in every class year.
What were three key qualities you looked for in your college? I wanted someplace where intelligence was highly valued. (Ideally, every college would, but unfortunately that's not necessarily the case.) I also wanted a college with opportunities to play and listen to a lot of music. Last, I was hoping for a university with good food. Fortunately, Harvard had all three of those things!
"High school students also almost never ask about the quality of medical care on-campus—physical, mental, dental, and otherwise—but in practice, this can matter a ton."
What questions should you ask your college tour guide? High school students rarely think to ask about what housing costs are like—both for freshmen and upperclassmen. (At many universities—though not my own—upperclassmen tend to live off campus, as opposed to freshmen, who usually live in dorms.) But this is actually one of the most important things you can ask about, as much if not more than tuition. High school students also almost never ask about the quality of medical care on-campus—physical, mental, dental, and otherwise—but in practice, this can matter a ton. Lastly, most people never ask about the availability of travel and research funding (which is quite different from the availability of opportunities ) or about the quality of on-campus job fairs and employer recruitment. If you ask about all these things, you're ahead of 90% of 17-year-olds when it comes to thinking about where to go for college.
What did you love most about Harvard? The faculty attention is remarkable, the advising extensive, and the teaching is excellent. If you put a little bit of effort into going to office hours and speaking to your professors, even the most world-famous faculty members are completely willing not just to talk to you, but to take your ideas seriously and treat you like an adult. Moreover, the advising system really does keep track of people as individuals and worry not just about their grades, but their well-being. It's not a university where people get lost in the mix.
Are sports a huge part of the social scene? Do you spectate? Harvard has a ton of student athletes, many of whom have lively social lives built around their sports. But sports events are rarely a huge draw, except for the Harvard-Yale game, when everyone sits down in freezing weather and pretends to know the rules for offsides.
What about the food? Excellent, and I miss it most days, even though it's easy to take for granted when you're there. Harvard doesn't make you pay for food per item—it's all in one big meal plan—so you never have to worry about running out of money in the cafeteria.
How are the people? Extremely human, and generally self-aware, modest, and vulnerable. Contrary to stereotype, most Harvard/Ivy League students are keenly aware that they are no better than anyone else. That said, they're also quite energetic and ambitious. They're also normal people: it's not a place full of classical music and cravats—people walk around in t-shirts and listen to Arcade Fire albums.
What were your top three favorite classes during your time at Harvard? I took a great class in my freshman year on the 19th-century European novel with two wonderful professors, Leah Price and Louis Menand. A seminar on Keats with the reverend poetry critic Helen Vendler changed the way I read poetry forever. And a brilliant lecture course on the history of photography under the funny, charming art historian Robin Kelsey taught me how to understand and even love and art form I'd previously found baffling and difficult.
What were your top three favorite classes ? In Search of the Enlightenment (History), The Making of the Modern World Order (History) , and Hidden Worlds (cross listed Anthropology/English).
Name: Christina Lamoureux
Currently attending: Georgetown University (junior)
Studying: English and Government, minor in French
When you were choosing schools, how many did you consider? I looked at about 10 seriously, and ended up applying to about 12.
When did you start looking? The beginning of my junior year of high school.
Was the size of the school a factor in your search and selection? Yes – I ultimately turned down two schools I loved because the student body size was so small, but I knew from the start I didn’t want a school with a huge student body. Georgetown’s size is perfect for me, since it feels big enough that you’re always meeting new people, but small enough that you’re able to recognize and get to know a good amount of the student body.
What were three key qualities you looked for in your college? I knew I wanted a school that was in a college town or near a city. I also wanted a school with a strong English program that had a variety of electives and a good faculty to student ratio, as well as a strong overall focus on the humanities.
What questions should you ask your college tour guide? Ask what their favorite classes are this semester – it can be a good way to see the diversity of classes offered. It’s also a good idea to ask what people generally do in their free time and what the party/nightlife scene is like on campus.
"People are surprisingly friendly to one another, and it’s not uncommon to strike up a conversation with a total stranger."
What do you love most about Georgetown? My favorite thing about Georgetown is the wealth of opportunities that being near DC allows students. I’ve been lucky enough to attend a vast variety of events within DC, from poetry readings to concerts to contemporary plays, because it’s so easy to get on the Metro and be anywhere in DC in under half an hour. Georgetown also brings some fantastic speakers to campus – one of my favorite experiences at Georgetown has been seeing both Bill and Hillary Clinton! Additionally, it’s easy for students to get great internships in Georgetown and DC.
What about the food? Decent, but not outstanding. However, the on-campus food scene has improved since I was a freshman – there are a lot of new vendors and items available at our stores on campus. Georgetown and DC also have infinite possibilities for awesome food offerings if you have the time to get off campus.
How are the people? The student body is one of my favorite aspects of life at Georgetown. Everyone at Georgetown seems incredibly happy to be there, and genuinely loves being a Hoya. People are surprisingly friendly to one another, and it’s not uncommon to strike up a conversation with a total stranger. The student body at Georgetown is also incredibly involved on-campus – people are generally involved in at least two or three clubs or organizations, and most of the time even more than that.
What were your top three favorite classes during your time in college so far? American Expatriate Writers, Roman Sexuality, and an advanced contemporary poetry-writing seminar (honorable mention: Constitutional Law). Do you have questions about college that you want answered? Submit them to us! Email Program Coordinator, Melody Kasulis: firstname.lastname@example.org