Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Daleks Hack MIT: tales from a college road trip

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.)

After years of living by a college campus, passing tours of engaged parents and bored teens, I have crossed the line. Over April break I became one of those parents. To minimize ennui, I let my 17-year-old son take the driver’s seat, both metaphorically and literally. We drove a thousand miles in a week. My son set the itinerary, mapped our route and split the driving. We visited only one college per day to allow for in-depth exploration. Our sample ranged from small liberal arts schools in the mountains to big, urban universities.

My favorite moment was on a tour of MIT: my son pointed up at a building and whispered, “Is that a Dalek up there?” Daleks are evil cyborgs from the British sci fi series, Dr. Who. A full size replica was indeed perched on a tower. It was hack week at MIT. Another year, the students constructed a replica of a police cruiser and installed it on the dome of the main building with a parking ticket. MIT offers a Pirate Certification if you take pistol, archery, fencing and sailing for the Phys Ed requirement. You’ve got to love geek humor.

Back when I was a graduate student at MIT, women were a small minority, but now the gender ratio is near even. Our tour guide was an attractive sorority sister from Dallas, majoring in material engineering. Diversity had improved too: there is no single majority race on campus. Daleks, however, are still under represented, but given their mission of universal conquest, that might not be a shortcoming. Without visiting, we wouldn’t have realized how much the campus atmosphere had changed. I’m using MIT as an example, but all of our campus visits produced surprises, both good and bad, and lots of helpful information. Fit is such a personal thing.

My son strongly recommends attending classes to get a flavor of both the teaching style and the student body. Some admission departments list classes prospective students can visit and others link to the course catalog and ask you to contact the professor. Your child (not you) should email professors 2 weeks in advance. My husband is always pleased to have prospective students attend his lectures at Bowdoin College. As much as I wanted to visit classes with our son, I foraged for food so he could blend in with the students and approach professors. We met up for lunch and the helpful tour/info session.

The road trip was worth it not just for college applications; it was also a good bonding experience. I still anticipate a stressful senior year ahead of us. Any tips from survivors?

14 comments:

Amanda said...

sarah, i love the way you let your son take the lead in the college application process. as a parent of two kids, one currently in college and one graduated and now working in the 'real world' i have very recent memories of this period. attending classes is one very important way to get a feel for schools and my kids even set up appointments with profs in advance to ask questions about certain departments (my son was also a fencing recruit so i love the pirate certification you mention at MIT) one method my husband used while touring schools in new england with our daughter was interesting. while she was off visiting a class (or sometimes when they were walking together), he would stand in a busy area, such as the school quadrangle, map in hand, looking lost. at some schools kids were very friendly and helpful, stopping right away to assist and at other schools the students were less inclined to want to help. it was a small way to 'take the temperature' of any given campus, but very revealing nonetheless.

best of luck to your son in this process.

Sarah Laurence said...

Amanda, I love your husband’s map trick! At MIT I met another mom of a prospective student that way. I was sitting on a bench with my map in hand, and she had one in her hand too. Our kids were off visiting classes. We ended up having a good chat about the process. Her daughter was already into several schools and making her choice. MIT has such a confusing campus (with nameless buildings numbered out of sequence and connected by underground tunnels) that even I needed a map. My son, however, had a fabulous time exploring the tunnels on his own. For amusement when I was at MIT, I used to ask students which building was the English building. No one ever knew. Still, MiT is amazing at science, tech stuff. I was very pleased with the political science department.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

He drove?!
Whoa boy.

Petra said...

Sarah, your story is very interesting as there is another routine in my country. It's not quite usual here to visit all the colleges/universities one is interested in, let alone its lessons and other students. Students here usually decide based on reputation of the colleges and various pieces of information they get. There may also be arranged "A day of open doors" when students can come to have a look at the college, its lecture rooms and can ask questions.

Charlotte Agell said...

Thanks for taking us along for the ride. And, oh, that Dalek!

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, the first time, it’s nearly as freaky as seeing a dog behind the wheel! Luckily my boy is a cautious driver and doesn’t chase squirrels.

Petra, thanks for sharing the Czech experience. Fascinating! We won’t be visiting every school he might apply to, just a sample. There is a lot of educational diversity here from small liberal arts schools in rural setting, which emphasize the humanities in a nurturing environment, to big urban universities that are more career focused and research oriented. Both options might have equal prestige. For us the process is a personal match. Hmm, now that I think about it, all this individualism is very American!

Charlotte, there might be a book out of this…

Donna said...

What a momentous thing to be looking at colleges with your oldest! That is so funny that MIT offers a Pirate Certification. I really do love geek humor.

Best of luck to him in the search! My advice is to not apply to too many schools. I wanted to apply to ten schools and my guidance counselor helped me to see the wisdom and practicality of narrowing it down to the schools I liked best and would be most likely to attend if I were accepted. I applied to four well-thought out schools instead and I got into them all, so I had four really good options available to me. And school visits are so important too, but you guys are already doing that!

Bee said...

Pirate Certification? Daleks on the roof? Geek humor is alive and well.

My daughter didn't let me visit ANY universities with her and I felt really left out. I'm glad that your son included you in this interesting journey. I feel confident that he will choose well.

A Cuban In London said...

I'm not there yet and doubt very much we'll embark on a similar journey. In GB the whole road trip experience is not as strong as in the US, I've noticed. I loved the fact that it brought you and your son closer.

Glad to hear that your head doesn't ache anymore. Wish you better.

Greetings from London.

troutbirder said...

Way to go mom. What a interesting "road trip" with you college bound son. I have memories of visiting MIT some 40 years ago and a wonderful museum where we spent the whole afternoon....

David Cranmer said...

It sounds like you have a very wise son who will make the right choice. Of course, the kid in me would pick the college with the Dalek on top. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Donna, unfortunately things have changed since when you and I applied to college. These days, kids apply to close to a dozen schools, but it’s easier with the Common App online. Acceptance rates are scarily low. If he’s lucky, he’ll get in to his first choice early and be done.

Bee, I only visited one college with my mom and did the rest solo or with friends. It’s easier to access public transport from NYC than from Maine. He did visit one college last fall alone, staying with a friend.

ACIL, the road is shorter in the UK. Thanks, I’m through the worst of this flu but it knocked me out for more than a week.

Troutbirder, we love the MIT museum too!

David, past hacks have included a TARDIS on the dome.

Booksnyc said...

I have great memories of traveling up and down the East Coast with my Dad (and sometimes my Mom) visiting colleges. It was a great experience and sounds like you and your son enjoyed yours too. Best of luck over the next 6 months as he applies!

cynthia newberry martin said...

Ha! Love the request going out to "survivors." Embrace your lack of control. And may the force be with you.

1000 miles in one week is mind-boggling.

Hope you're feeling better.