Where Should This Teen Attend College? Part II


I was delighted with all the insightful comments that parents sent me this week after they read my last blog post entitled:

Where Should This Teen Attend College?

I’d urge you to read the post about a high-achieving, future valedictorian from North Carolina, who wants to attend the University of Virginia and has other elite public and private schools on his list including Columbia, MIT and the University of Michigan. And please read the two dozen comments!

Your child doesn’t have to be a braniac to benefit from the advice. As I promised previously, I wanted to weigh in more on this subject.

Attending a Research University

This teen, who wants to major in a STEM field, is focusing on intense research universities. These institutions could represent an excellent choice for him, but he needs to do further research before finalizing his list.

One reader (JimB) noted that I have a bias for liberal arts colleges for undergrads and that is true, but I think a research university can be a smart pick under certain circumstances.

The Mission of a Research University

The No. 1 mission of intensive research universities, such as the ones the teen is looking at, is professor research. Professors are evaluated on the research they produce and the grants they can attract. They don’t profget kudos or raises for being good teachers.  A professor who is a great researcher and a lousy teacher can get tenure. An awesome teacher and a so-so researcher won’t get tenure.

A professor at one of these universities summed up the reality succinctly when he once told me, “I don’t get paid to teach, I get paid to research.”

At research universities, it’s the graduate students who typically interact the most with the undergrads. The professor will give a lecture in front of hundreds of students and the grad students will serve as the mother hens and take over in the smaller discussion sections.

Some of these largely inaccessible professors can be great assets for ambitious and gifted undergrads who can make a meaningful connection.  Doing undergraduate research with a professor at a top research institution, who works in a cutting-edge lab pursuing exciting research, can open future doors and be an amazing experience.

Questions to Ponder

The questions that I think this brilliant child needs to ask include these:

  • Are you an extrovert?
  • Would you feel comfortable pursuing professors, who more than likely don’t want to be bothered by undergrads?


Last year I asked a friend’s son, who graduated from UCLA with an economics major, whether he had cultivated any relationships with his professors. He said it was extremely difficult to do.

He said that his goal was the same as his friends. They each tried to get a professor to know them well enough so that they could eventually elicit a recommendation from him/her.  It was a stressful experience and they felt extremely lucky if they got one professor to know their names.

I’ve heard similar stories from students who attend some of the other top University of California campuses. I am sure that engaging professors isn’t going to be such a difficult proposition at all research universities, but it is something that any student interested in a rich academic experience should investigate.

If a teen can be dogged in trying to develop a relationship with a professor(s) and has the academic acumen to be treated seriously, a research university could be great fit.

Investigate Undergrad Research Experiences

The other question that this teenager should ask is what kind of undergraduate research opportunities are available at potential schools.  The answer will vary by department.

A child who wants to advance to graduate school should try to get involved with undergraduate research. The teenager from North Carolina says he wants to pursue multiple PhDs, which does show his naivety.  Getting a single PhD is grueling process and typically takes seven years to earn one.  I’m going to write a post about the myths of graduate school soon.

I once asked the chairman of the social sciences departments at a leading research university how many undergrads get an opportunity to connect with the social science professors at his school, including doing undergrad research. He estimated 10%.

This is a school that is stuffed with bright students who needed stellar test scores and grades to get in and yet most of them have no chance of getting noticed.

Stay Tuned

In my next post, I’m going to talk more about 3-2 programs that some of the parents mentioned in their comments, as well as liberal arts colleges. I did some research on 3-2 programs when my son was contemplating this academic possibility and I’ll share what I learned next time.

And, as always, if you’d like to add anything, please use the comment box below.



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  1. Just a comment to add if I may. I see people refer over and over to “200 students in a class” as an example of the research universities. While this may be true of some classes at all universities, and maybe most classes at some universities, in reality most students, at least in STEM disciplines have very few of these auditorium classes. You may have a few of the common core in the first year or so, but once you’re in the discipline courses, the number of students per class drops significantly. Additionally, often those TAs make better instructors than PhDs because they are closer to remembering why the material was hard and can relate that.

    While no one path is the same for all students, I bring this up to help people understand that the fear of mega classes is somewhat over done and not to let viable options slide because of that. The best solution is to visit the university and specifically the department you’re interested in and check out the actual class sizes. STEM departments are often culturally more like you’d expect from a LAC hidden within the overall large university.

  2. Hi Lynn,

    I have followed your blog for years and used the first edition of your book to guide my oldest son when he was researching colleges five years ago. He received a $38,000 renewable grant from Skidmore College –a small liberal arts college in Saratoga, New York. We are now struggling to help our son research graduate schools that will be affordable for us. I was pleased to read today that you will cover that topic soon. We haven’t yet figured out the best way to research grants, scholarships and costs for grad school. There are very few books to guide us about financial aid in grad school. I have read conflicting statements, so I am even confused as to whether or not parental information needs to be included on the FAFSA for grad school.
    I continue to follow all your posts so I can share good information with my friends with high school age children. Thanks!


  3. Just one more comment for the mom of this talented young man: I would be careful of relying too much on “advice” from strangers on the internet who do not know your son personally or who cannot ask him questions directly. If your son has a good school counselor, he should make a beeline to his or her office as soon as school resumes to discuss his options. If he doesn’t have a strong counselor, then it might be worthwhile to invest in a few hours with an experienced independent educational consultant who can help him think through his needs and research his options.

    As a mom and counselor myself, I can attest that sometimes what a parent “sees” and “says” is important to their child is different than what the child, when asked the right questions, “sees” and “says” about what’s important to him/her. So, a few hours discussing his options with a professional who either knows him, or can get to know him, might be the best option of all.

  4. “The teenager from North Carolina says he wants to pursue multiple PhDs, which does show his naivety…..”

    I had the same thought in reading the initial article. This very talented young man (with an unlimited future) could stand a firm, but kind, reality check.

  5. Really think about your research opportunities. My daughter attends St. Mary’s College of Maryland and is majoring in bio/chem and psychology with a minor in neuroscience. She is also on the sailing team, so is very busy. Her classes are small. The summer after her sophomore year she and about 5 other students were invited by their professor to partake in a year long research project. This gave her the experience she needed for her summer internship which she learned about from her neuroscience professor this past spring. This summer she is an intern in the neurobiology lab at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Had she been in a class with 200 students it would have been very difficult to be noticed for her hard work and interest in the subject. Her experience her junior year and now this summer has given her insight to select a topic that interests her for her St. Mary’s project. All students are required their senior year to complete a year long research project working with one of his/her professors. I have to admit we were somewhat concerned she did not chose a “big name” school, however I now believe with the strong academics she has had and the personal attention she received she is better prepared to go onto graduate school and has a better understanding of what she wants to do with her graduate degree.

  6. I am interested in seeing your post about 3-2 programs. Because of the extra year and associated costs I have not been giving them much attention. Perhaps they deserve more attention than I have been giving them.