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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dear Mr. Bradshaw -- I'm applying to college, and one school in particular has me intimidated -- the University of Chicago. I hear all kinds of rumors that it is a hotbed of academic pressure and student competition.

I would like to go there, but I don't want to make a mistake if I get accepted and find out later that it is just too competitive. I have until Jan. 2 to apply. I'll put it off until I hear from you. -- UC

University of Chicago Competitive Pressure




Dear UC -- Hardly a year goes by that I don't get this kind of question about the University of Chicago. For some reason, it has earned a reputation for cutthroat competition. It seems to be a common perception among people. I decided to put your question to a former client, now a UC freshman.

Yes, she said, it is very competitive.

But, "the misconception that a lot of people have about UC is that this really is the place where 'fun comes to die' or 'where your grade-point average comes to die.' In reality, there is plenty of fun to be had at UC and, as long as you manage your time, most classes are manageable."

Admission data for 2008 indicated UC admitted only 28 percent of applicants. Average SAT scores were well over 700 in critical reading and math. ACT composites were 28-33 in the 25th-75th percentile. Clearly, students in this range did not get there by fainting in the face of competition.

This student also said she loves most of her classes, and the professors are great. And she likes her classmates most of all. She had several positive things to say, and nothing really negative -- no really bad experiences. Here is how she described being a freshmen.

"Let's see, I actually wouldn't classify UC students to be super competitive. I mean, of course they're all driven, but I don't think all of them are out there to be No. 1 in the class. I think most of the students want to learn and pass with the best score possible.

"This is what I've observed in my few months being there and interacting with the people. I really love the people at UC. You can have an intellectual conversation just about anywhere, but they're not arrogant about their intellectual capabilities. ... I'm not going to say it's not challenging, but the environment and the people here make it a great place to study while having fun."

She also stressed that students taking advanced-placement classes should review what UC accepts as credit and what it does not. This is good advice for other schools, too.

She suggested that students visit the campus, stay overnight and attend classes to find out how the system works there.

One more piece of advice is, applicants should realize UC operates on the quarter system. Time flies by, so students must be "on top of their game." If they fall behind in their reading or other homework, there is very little time to catch up.

Additionally, UC stresses small class sizes.

"You'll be expected to know what you've read and to participate (and teachers will know whether or not you participate)," she said. "Three-quarters of my classes have between 20 and 25 people, which is pretty impressive for freshman classes."

I enjoyed the quarter system when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley. That way, if you got stuck with a boring professor, you only had to put up with him or her for a few months, as opposed to an entire semester.

I hope this information -- especially coming from a UC freshman -- will help you make a decision. If students have other questions about UC, e-mail them to me and I will pass them along. She graciously has agreed to follow up.

Gerald M. Bradshaw of Crown Point consults with students on how to gain admission to selective universities and law schools.

Gerald M. Bradshaw of Crown Point consults with students on how to gain admission to selective colleges, universities and law schools. Contact him at 866-687-8129. His e-mail is gerald_bradshaw@post.harvard.edu.

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