Where Should This Teen Attend College?


I’ve been getting a lot of questions from parents this month and I’ll share some of them with you in posts this summer.

I’m starting with an email from a mom from North Carolina whose son has his heart set on the sort of schools that top students tend to dream about. If you have some suggestions for this teenager, please comment in the box below. Lynn O’Shaughnessy

A Mom’s Email

university of michigan xx

University of Michigan

I have a question for you for my youngest son who is a rising senior in high school.  We are at odds with him on what type of school he should be looking for.  He seems to think only the best will get him where he wants to go in life.  Here is a little about my son:

He is first in his class, current GPA is a 4.99 out of a 4.0.  He has taken 3 SAT Subject Tests, Math 2 (720), Physics (750), and Chemistry (800), he has a 32 ACT and a 34 ACT SuperScored.  He has taken all the math and science classes available to him in his high school.

He will graduate with 10 AP classes and AP honors.  He completed AP Calculus during his sophomore year.  He is attending the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics online program.  He finished up Calculus 3 just this past May from that program and he will be taking 4 classes from them during his senior year.

He is interested in biomedical genetic engineering and he already plans multiple PhD’s.  How do you select an undergrad school with a big picture goal?  So far we have looked at Duke, Georgetown and his favorite, UVA.  We will also look at Carnegie Mellon, Columbia and MIT.

His father and I want to do what is right for him and right now, we have no idea what that may be.  Kyle thinks he knows what he wants, but it may not be what he needs.  We have no travel restrictions on him for schools, we just want him to be where he needs to be.

My Thoughts

This overachiever enjoys a huge number of options. That’s why it’s unfortunate that he appears to want to limit his search to the schools that the brightest students assume that they must attend. Schools like MIT, Columbia, and the most prestigious state institutions like University of Virginia and University of Michigan.

I’d suggest that this teenager broaden the list of  schools that he is considering for a variety of reasons. Here are some of them:

1. Even if elite research universities are the best option for him, the odds of getting into some of  the private universities — even for valedictorians — is remote. Here are some acceptance rates for schools on the teenager’s wish list:

  • Columbia 7%
  • MIT 9%
  • Georgetown 17%
MIT image


2. This teenager shouldn’t expect an admission advantage even if he is the valedictorian. The most competitive schools aren’t going to be impressed with the designation as more and more students earn the distinction. In a New York Times article in 2010, William Fitzsimmons, the admission dean at Harvard, noted that some schools now have 100 valedictorians!

In the article, Fitzsimmons had this to say about the valedictorian designation:  “I think, honestly, it’s a bit of an anachronism. This has been a long tradition, but in the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”

3. While it should be easier to get into the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia for this stellar student, the price could be sky high.

Michigan, like other public flagships schools, love smart nonresidents but the reason is because they can slam them with high out-of-state tuition.

As you can see from the chart below, the most expensive state universities for nonresidents are the nine University of California campuses, but trailing right behind are the University of Michigan and University of Virginia.


The University of Michigan gives out lots of modest  scholarships ($6,800 is the average), but that won’t go far. Even though this teenager has high financial need (I discovered this in a different email), his family could only expect a modest scholarship. Flagships universities have positioned themselves to be attractive options for rich families, who will pay any price for their children to attend prestige universities.

As for the private schools on this child’s preliminary list, Carnegie Mellon would also likely be expensive. The Pittsburgh school is on the list of the 5% of schools that charge the highest net price after typical scholarships are deducted.

Washington U. St. Louis

Washington University, St. Louis

4. Too many students treat elite schools that are huddled at the top of the college rankings as if they are all alike. They aren’t. They all have their own distinct personalities.

UVA, for instance, is quite different from Columbia, which requires all undergrads to complete its renowned core curriculum.  It’s important that students explore what kind of academic environment they would experience at each school.What’s the student body like? What access do undergrads have to the professors? Is there a cut-throat environment at the school or a collaborative one among students.

Not long ago, I was talking to an elite SAT prep tutor who told me that one of this students, who attended MIT, ended up leaving because the institution’s competitive environment. Study-group options were limited because students did not want other students to enjoy an advantage. The tutor said that some wealthy students at MIT were hiring their own tutors so they wouldn’t have to study with any of their peers.

The MIT student ended up transferring to Washington University in St. Louis where he didn’t encounter the same fierce competitiveness.

5. If this student limits his list to schools with impossible admission odds, he could end up with unsatisfactory choices.

This happened to a bright girl I know from Pennsylvania. She applied to several Ivy League schools – thinking wrongly that if you apply to many, you’re more likely to get into one of them. She also applied to the University of California Berkeley and Chapman University in Southern California where her dad lived. She only got into Berkeley (which she couldn’t afford) and Chapman.

She is attending Chapman. She could end up getting a good education at Chapman, but would that be the school that anyone would have suggested as a first choice for this teenager? Hardly.


I have a bit more to say on this subject, but this post is already long. I’d like to write another post later in the week and I’d love to include some of your comments.

If you want to give advice to this family, please use the comment box below.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution (2nd edition) and her workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College.


Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. The depiction of MIT as competitive is just bizarre. Naturally every one has different experiences and I can think of tons of reasons not to like MIT-stress being one of them. But a story about a student transferring out of MIT because students there are too competitive would be like hearing somebody moved from Florida to Connecticut because Florida was too cold. Just does not ring true.

  2. Hi Lynn, thank you for this article, it opened my eyes in terms of what I have to know before enrolling into any PhD program. As a graduate student from outside the US, I can’t choose one University and then change my mind because the environment is too competitive.

    I have some questions for you though: How can I know how the student body is, or how they behave towards international students? How can I know if the environment will be awful for me? I’m not used to a “cut-throat environment”, as you said. I’m also used to professors knowing who I am, because I come from a University where the Biotechnology career I graduate from was very new when I started, so we were about 25 sudents in each classroom.

    I’m also interested in the Biomedical Engineering program at Carnegie Mellon, that’s how I found this article. I don’t know where to look for that kind of information. I won’t certainly find it in the University’s web page.

    Once again, thank you for all the information you wrote in this post

    1. Hi Natalia,

      You need to communicate with professors and graduate students in whatever programs you are looking at. You can’t just depend on brand names. Also talk to people in whatever department oversees international students. Also talk to international students who are graduate students too. Communicating through Skype would be great, but there is obviously also email.

      Lynn O’Shaughensy

  3. In all these plans, make room for a school taking wind out of your child’s sail. My outgoing, intellectually curious daughter loved St. Olaf and recently applied for Early Decision. ACT 31, National Merit Scholar-Commendable 202, plays piano and trumpet well, also plays three other instruments and participates in all the music programs offered in school for band and choir, plus is captain for her cross-country, basketball and track teams. Twice she’s gone to state and shows strong leadership skills athletically and also in mentoring younger team members. She’s traveled out of the country for leadership programs, is in upper 10-5% of her class in unweighted 3.85 submitted ED GPA. She works a summer part-time job and is a voracious reader, scoring 35 in ACT for this section. The classes she takes in high school are AP. Accumulated awaards in a math contest and also honored for S.W.E. (Society of Women Engineering) She loves people, loves to learn, and is focused, energetic. She shows a proven track record of success. We couldn’t be prouder or ever ask more of her. St. Olaf did not accept her for ED 2019. We are astonished. You couldn’t get a better student and one who has high character traits. Yet, it’s not enough for St. Olaf to admit her to their class of 2019.

    1. That is shocking that St. Olaf did not take her early decision. From what you told me, it makes no sense. St. Olaf would appear to be an ideal school for your gifted, musical daughter. I think it would be worth asking St. Olaf what happened and if her application could be reconsidered! Did the school defer a decision for her to regular decision?

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Hi Lynn,

    While I’m sure you have the best intentions in advising parents and students on where to go to college, I really hope you also give them context. Your one example of a student transferring from MIT to WashU really does surprise me. I went to MIT for undergrad and graduated recently in an engineering field. I can tell you that the common “fiber” that makes MIT IS its collaborative environment. If that did not exist most of the research that is being published there would not exist either. This collaborative culture extends to the undergrads as well. As an undergrad we were encouraged to go to Office Hours and ask upperclassmen for help.. I don’t recall a situation where I could not find anyone to work with or ask a question. Now the quality of hte students is superior, some do have parents that are college professors elsewhere, thus they do have some advantages. But, this story that you’re saying of the WashU transfer sounds like a complete outlier from my experience and those of my class..Parents, students, I encourage you to go to college confidential website, or the MIT blog website, and you’ll find that one of the most surprising and encouraging things of MIT, is that it IS collaborative and they do encourage students to work together, and in fact I’ve made many of my friends by going to office hours and working on a pset… Don’t take a single case as an example.. especially when there’s tons of voices saying the opposite.

    Sorry, I know you had a bigger message to say in this post.. but I couldn’t just stand idly by, while you tell of one story that paints a picture of my school that is completely at odds with the experience of the majority..

    Now, with the Boston Marathon shooting of the police officer, maybe you can see the community’s reactoin to that, and maybe you can see if this really does feel like a non-caring environment.. Listen to President Reif’s words..

    Had I not had such a positive experience and seen people care for one another, I wouldn’t write such a passionate message.. sorry Lynn, your information came from an outlier.

  5. Keep in mind that UVA is extremely difficult to get into if you are not from the state of VA. Their state law requires them to have 70% in-state students in each entering class, leaving only 30% of the spots available to out-of-state students. Figure that a good % of those spots are going to go to Varsity athletes recruited from out-of-state and National Merit Scholars, so that might mean a very small % of spots are truly available to out-of-state applicants, maybe even single digits. I know many kids with stellar academic records who were got rejection letters from UVA, including my son. (he was admitted to his first choice, so no skin off his back…).

    I don’t think it’s unrealistic for this particular student to try for UVA at all, just saying that he should have at least one or two other favorites lined up.

    1. Hi Pam,

      I agree with you. I talked not long ago with someone connected with the University of Virginia admissions office and was told that the nonresidents who are accepted are primarily affluent students who can afford the steep sticker price. This teenager from North Carolina needs significant financial aid which will be a potential strike against him.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  6. Swarthmore has an engineering school and is strong in the liberal arts. Harvey Mudd is science-tech + liberal arts and an impressive curriculum. Both would stretch the student’s intellectual curiosity and are part of a consortium, offering lots of classes.
    All in all, this student should look for the place that first and foremost will challenge him the most for the cost. The ability to take graduate-level classes (whether they’re just “regular” senior classes if the college has a lot of advanced classes, or Master’s classes in universities) would probably make a difference, too.

  7. Jennifer, isn’t he getting a lot of unsolicited mail from colleges? With his resume, I would guess he will receive numerous recruiting pitches, many of which include financial aid. You might want to look through those for a good school that also is offering a good aid package.

  8. Just want to add that I would not recommend the 3+2 or 4+1 engineering options for this student. Since a master’s degree is a pre-requisite for most bio/biomed eng research positions, it would make little sense to spend five years getting an undergraduate degree. Instead, in addition to ABET accredited bioeng programs, I’d suggest looking at some of the stronger undergraduate bio/biochem programs and then going directly into a master’s program after undergrad.

  9. There are 79 undegraduate programs in bioengineering/biomedical engineering accredited by ABET. The strongest of these programs are at universities with affilated medical research centers, so I would suggest making those a priority in the college search. http://main.abet.org/aps/Accreditedprogramsearch.aspx In particular, if the young many is interested in genetic and tissue engineering, he should focus on universities where research is being done in those fields, and where participating in that research is open to undergraduates.

    The young man is correct in thinking that he’ll need a graduate degree in order to do research in this field. Mechanical engineers can find entry level jobs with just an undergraduate degree, and in their case, there may indeed be little difference between programs. However, jobs in “bioengineering” almost invariably require at least a master’s degree plus research experience, so there are often very real differences in the programs in terms of offering the types of medical/genetics/biochem research opportunities that graduate schools will value.

    There is another important difference for students interested in bioengineering/biomed eng. If you want a masters in mechanical engineering, or electrical engineering, or aerospace engineering, it is almost impossible to do without an undergraduate engineering degree. This is not the case with biomed/bioeng. master’s programs. The strongest masters programs will typically consider students from STRONG undergrad life sciences (i.e., biology, biochemistry, etc.) programs, as long as they have completed additional coursework in advanced calculus and certain physics courses. However, the preference is also that these students have strong undergrad research experience, so again, the quality and quantity of undergrad research opportunities is important.

    So, the bottomline is the 79 ABET approved undergrad programs are a starting point, but not the end point for a student interested in doing medical research in genetics some day. A strong undergrad biochem program offering outstanding undergrad research opportunities in medicine/genetics and related fields could serve just as well.

    That opens up great schools for intellectuals like Reed College, the University of Chicago, , Williams, Carleton, and Oberlin in addition to schools with engineering undergrad degrees. Swarthmore would also be a good option. Since it sounds like this student is looking for intellectual challenge – and lots of it – these schools would be worth looking at, although they are very different in character and feel than UVA.

  10. Off the top of my head ideas: University of Minnesota Twin Cities, University of Wisconsin (Madison), Pomona College, Claremont McKenna, Colorado State University (Biomedical Engineering Dual Bachelors Degree program), Florida A&M University-Florida State University, Arizona State University, University of Arizona, Rutgers, University of Washington (Seattle campus).
    I concur with Mike and agree with Michelle.
    Good luck.

  11. Hi everyone, I am the mom of the boy Lynn is talking about. I would like to thank you all for your advice, I will be showing him your responses. To clarify some things, we absolutely do not have unlimited funds for his education. In fact, quite the opposite! He will be taking out student loans to pay for school minus the help from filling out FAFSA and CSS Profile. He is the third to be in college in as many years. His two older siblings will be a junior and sophomore in college when he is a freshman. We will help them all out with their loans when they become due as much as we financially can.

    He has a passion for learning, absolutely loves it and he has not studied a day in his life until he started Calculus 3 this past academic year. I guess you can say looking at notes is studying. He absolutely knows what it will take to reach his first PhD, and he would like to pursue them in many fields. He loves chemistry, math, physics, politics and enjoys solving all types of problems.

    He needs to be challenged, and he has not been challenged in school. He is 1st in his class with no ties, he has held this since freshman year. This kid took honors geometry the summer before 9th grade so he would not be bored and he has taken classes every summer since. He takes classes from the North Carolina Virtual Public High School if they are not offered at his home school. He will have 4 additional classes this upcoming academic year with his classes from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. He signed up for Applied Finite Math because he has finished math at his school. He is also taking International Relations, Biotechnology and Genetics, and Computational Biology from the online program.

    With regards to his social skills, all of his friends are in college. He gravitates towards those older than him. He has no problem hanging with friends his age, but the majority of his peers are 2-4 years older than him and he just turned 17. He is an athlete as he plays varsity tennis.

    He really sees himself at UVA for many reasons. He felt at home at the campus, he liked the engineering options offered there, he likes that the hospital and research park are close by. He absolutely fell in love with the traditions at Virgina and how the students and professors talk as if Thomas Jefferson is still there today. He visited the school back in April and he has not stopped talking about it. He cannot wait to go visit it again. He wants to be around great minds in all subjects, not just science and math.

    We prefer him to wait on big city schools until graduate school but if he gets an affordable financial aid package from a big city school, we will not deter him from going. He is comparing everything to UVA, that is the school for him as of right now. He will apply to NCSU as our in state safety net, and he has no interest at all in Chapel Hill.

    Right now, the net price estimate for us for UVA is $4000 a year, which is very affordable considering their out of state tuition price. We do not look at US News and World Report rankings to find schools. He knows what he wants and UVA has everything he is asking for.

    Thank you for all of your comments and keep them coming! This upcoming year will be a wild ride.

    1. I have a son applying this year. He is nowhere near a 4.99 – closer to 3.6 – and has s 32 on his ACT without any prep courses – he watched TV the night before the test. 🙂
      I WISH he had a 4.99 You should be proud.

      Now the fun news. You have an INTELLIGENT athlete. Does he want to continue sports? Find out. Not that it’s his first interest, but If he is near the top of his tennis team, then many of the schools that have an interest in him as a math major, may want him also as an athlete. Nothing beats a good GPA for the sports programs – including the big name and small colleges. It looks like he absorbs all that is put before him. Your biggest challenge is to find a program that has a real mentor which he will look up to, and keep his interest up. Go right to the college departments he is interested in(whether it be Math, Sciences, etc), and bypass the usual course- talk to the heads of the departments, or senior tenures. Yes, you can get meetings if you try. If he truly has the skills, they will want to see it in some way or another.

      I know that this sounds ‘off the wall, but UVA might be just that. I just had a conversation with a personal friend of mine. He was a tenured law professor at one very prestigious Ivy. His daughter is same age as my son. We talk about college. What does he say about where he thinks his daughter will end up….wherever she applies and gets accepted. He thinks that we all end up where we were supposed to in the end (maybe not in the beginning). Let your son take the lead, and be there as a mom. Don’t push too hard, or raise his expectations above reality. Too many parents do, and their kids get crushed in the end, when they don’t get in. We had a high school student 2 years ago that got turned down by EVERY UC and Stanford. He was admitted to Harvard, his last choice. Funny, isn’t it?

    2. Dear Jennifer,

      I don’t know if this will reach you as this is an old thread. My son is from rural NC with very similar stats and interests to yours. He applied early admission to UVa in March 2014 and was accepted to the college of engineering. We also had a similar financial determination as you describe. Did your son attend UVa? If not, where did he enroll. If so, what does he think of the school now?

      Thanks for your help.



  12. First of all, Lynn, why the diss on Chapman? “Hardly” the right choice for the girl you described at the end of your blog post? What’s wrong with Chapman? I have several friends whose kids are there and they love it, and Chapman has been very generous with financial aid. And it is always on the lists of “up and coming” schools and “schools to watch”.

    A friend of my son’s had a very similar academic background and was also a National Merit Scholar. He was rejected from “big names” including Stanford and UNC Chapel Hill. He then focused in on schools with good engineering programs that also offered full tuition scholarships to National Merit Scholars. Ultimately he chose to go to University of Arizona where he has a FULL RIDE for 4 years. He just finished his first year with a 4.0 and loved it.

    With “no travel restrictions” it sounds like money is not an issue for this family and if that is the case, and with his academic record, then why not look at some “big name” schools? If he has the extracurriculars to go along with his academics and test scores then he might have great success with his applications – some kids do!

    My one warning for this family would be to realistically assess the campus and social setting that would be best for him. If he’s been a book worm for all of high school and not engaged in his school community through extracurricular activities, clubs, sports, etc… then maybe he needs a particular kind of environment and won’t find that at the big names he is pining for. Is his high school a small private school, or a big public school? Are they from a big city or small town?

    My sons attends the Naval Academy and I know for a fact that their admissions process is very tough on kids who come from small private schools – the Navy feels like maybe they have been too coddled, too sheltered, and won’t be able to handle the pressure cooker of the Academy. Those that do make it in have difficulty coping with the unique environment – although it is a relatively small student population the environment is unique. He has one friend there who was home schooled for 2 years of high school, then went to a small private boarding school, and really, really, really struggled in academic and other ways this year. This kid is a Varsity athlete so has been accorded some leeway because of that… ugh, don’t get me started ….!

    What I am getting at is the environment he comes from should play a role in the discernment process – the MIT kid who transferred to Washington U St. Louis is the perfect example.

  13. UNC Chapel Hill sounds perfect for this kid, excellent biology department with access to research triangle park for research. $23,000 per year net price versus $50,000 plus. They have an excellent graduate clinical genetics program as well. Don’t sell your own state flagship short. I went UMass undergrad then UMass Med school and got an excellent education. And if the rankings are important to you UNC is #30 overall and #5 among public university’s.

  14. SUNY-Geneseo is a great value and it has 3-2 BS/Engineering programs with Case Western and Columbia. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County has some very generous undergraduate fellowships, offering a Chemical Engineering program with a Biotechnology and Bioengineering Track. The university has a very progressive president and a great location for science and technology in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor. The school resembles private universities such as Brown and Tufts.

  15. This is a tough one. We’re having similar discussions with our daughter. I realize most on here tend to lean toward the LAC as the solution, but in this case that may not be the best option. While we haven’t been told much about his personality, we have to make some assumptions. He sounds like a scientifically oriented, highly self motivated individual. The kind of kid who is the outlier and doesn’t fit well with the normal solution.

    For a kid like this, the best value may not be the lowest price. Many people with his background need the intellectual stimulation of being among like minded individuals. With our daughter we’ve been able to visit several universities, from very large to small. She’s also had the chance to visit several LACs. It became very obvious that she just wouldn’t fit socially or intellectually at the LAC, but slipped right into the research university mindset. That’s a key thing he and his parents must figure out — what educational environment will he fit in.

    At this point his critical decision is to find an undergraduate school that will prepare him for grad school. It doesn’t need to be a tier one school so long as it has a research program in the field he is interested in (though I wouldn’t recommend a tier three school either). Fortunately in NC, he has several good state U’s to pick from, and then save the top pick schools for graduate school.

  16. I have an acquaintance who is a NASA retiree. When he was employed, he was a VERY high level project manager. He has PhDs in math and physics and while working at NASA, JPL, and Cal Tech, hired MANY engineers. I told him that my son was interested in engineering and he offered some semi-surprising advice. He said that it does not matter one bit where students go for their undergraduate engineering. He said what separated great engineers from average ones was their passion for problem solving and that it had no correlation to where they went to school. He went even further and said that engineers from no name schools tended to be the best at solving problems no one had ever encountered before because they tended to be more resourceful. His most strident advice was not to go into deep debt for a name. This is one man’s opinion, but one I value highly. He was able to hand pick his teams, BS, MS and PhDs from the best in the world, not just out of training, but well established names in their sub-areas of the field and they jumped at the opportunity.

    1. I totally agree with above. I have been a CTO and VP of engineering with many companies in Silicon Valley, Boston, NJ and NY. Students may care all these rankings, but no employer really cares for those.

      Your first job may depend on your location because many employers only recruits from certain local schools. However, after your first job, it does not matter where you went for your undergraduate degree in the engineering field.

      Therefore, my advise is not to take a big debt for a college degree.

  17. Once he is a scientist, no one will care where he was an undergrad. I am a physician who has trained and worked at Hopkins, Harvard, and Vanderbilt. I know top scientists who were undergrads at Ole Miss, Oberlin, U of Mich, and U of TN. I went to the U of TX when just about any Texan could be admitted. Go to a place you can afford and excel which has a track record of getting its students into grad school. Then go to a top PhD program which may pay you (as a TA) to attend.

  18. I agree with where Denise was going. It seems he is focusing too much on top academic reputations and not enough on what he wants overall in a school environment. I think he needs a place that will help him grow as a person and challenge him beyond just math and science. It sounds like some work on soft skills would be really good for him so that he can become a well-rounded person and be more marketable after college.

    Also, am I correct in assuming that the parents have unlimited funds to send him wherever he wants to go since they didn’t indicate otherwise?

  19. I would suggest this good student look at Harvey Mudd, excellent for small undergrad engineering training and top prospects for graduate school. It is, in any event, in grad school he should be looking for NAMES like Univ San Diego, Duke, Johns Hopkins, MIT, U of Illinois. Biomed engineering is changing fast; keep up on departments’ research to see where interests lead. Also, this kid should look at Cal Tech, consider some of the excellent LACs that have coop agreements for dual degree engineering programs at places like Dartmouth, Columbia–e.g., Middlebury; and Rose Hulman in Indiana is a very good engineering undergrad program altho certainly not the most glamorous.

    My son attended BU for biomed engrg., a great program, and one which allowed a semester study abroad//unusual for engineering; and graduated summa; he had no problem selecting among several top offers for his PhD, which he completed at Duke.

    1. @LindaD, yours seems like the most well-reasoned answer, and one coming from experience.

      While “best” is certainly subjective and often ranking is used as a criteria more than it should be, in a case like this where the student is likely going to have very high earnings potential coming out, we would argue that brand name of undergrad and the quality of the research institution and professors matters MUCH MORE than cost. In order to have the most choices in doctoral programs, this student needs to go for the undergrad program with the best reputation and esteem in its field. Cost should not be a factor in this case; this kid is going to be able to help his parents in later years if he keeps going with the determination he’s got now, and this investment will pay off for him in spades.

      These comments are offered from someone with extensive experience in MBA admissions, not undergrad, so we are speaking out of turn a bit. But still, to make this decision based on cost seems short-sighted. That’s definitely not always the case for everyone, but for this family it’s hard to see why that needs to take such a priority in decision-making.


  20. The in-state flagship school is almost certainly the best choice on a limited budget.

    With the high number of APs, he should be ready for upper level classes quickly. His goal should be trying to get into someone’s lab to get research experience for grad school, as early in his undergraduate years as possible. He really needs to make contact with individual professors to see who routinely takes undergrads into their labs.

    The “multiple PhD’s” is probably the kid not really knowing what getting a PhD is like, but it does indicate a diversity of interests. He might want to keep an eye out for multidisciplinary research teams.

    A few private schools where he has done due diligence with specific professors should stay on his list and see where the admissions and financial aid chips fall. Definitely make sure there’s an in-state school for a financial safety. Possibly add an out-of-state school as an admissions safety, if the family can afford it and if the out-of-state department is has something special that makes the high price tag worth it.

  21. What’s missing is any sense of who this boy is, aside from being an academic whiz or what he wants and needs in addition to academic challenge. Does he need social support with his peers? Does he care about having meaningful conversations/relationships with professors? Does he love learning or just reaching goals?

    It sounds like he is narrowly focused on very specific goals that he’s set for himself at an early age. That may limit him, but staying motivated or focused is not an issue — he’ll find the academic challenges wherever he goes. Maybe it’s time for him to waste a few hours looking at the stars or contemplating girls. From what I read, I think he needs to get personal and understand his own reactions to various types of campus environments. Finding the right fit takes some self-exploration.

    All of this, though, is after research that reveals where he’s likely to get a good package that makes college affordable for his family. I think his parents need to be straightforward about that. Since he is very bright and motivated, it might help if his parents assign him the task of researching universities to see what he’s likely to receive in a package, as well as learn more about campus cultures. Let him discover for himself.

  22. Before even suggesting other schools, I think the son needs some serious education about the difference between reputation and best and success. As long as he thinks he “needs” to go to the “best” schools to succeed, you aren’t going to convince him of the value of attending lessor known schools.

    I know that Lynn has written before of students who get into the most prestigious grad schools even though the schools they graduated from didn’t have the same stature. There are a number of resources to look at including Baccalaureate Origins of S&E Doctorate Recipients and lists of the colleges attended by Rhodes and Fulbright recipients. I have links in “What Happens to People Who Go To Colleges No One Has Ever Heard Of?” Only after the son realizes that success isn’t defined by the US News College Rankings can you even begin to look at some truly outstanding and significantly cheaper alternatives.

  23. What a coincidence! I have a student with similar goals and test data: PSAT 227, SAT 2210, ACT 33, 4 Subject Tests (Eng Lit 750; Math 1 780; Chem 750 and Math 2 760). She attends a math / science public school that has a set curriculum without AP courses. When she began working with me she presented with a familiar list of heavy hitters – Caltech, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, etc.

    Her ultimate goal is biomedical engineering (she has done summer programs in genetics), but In conversations it became clear that her “ideal” school would be one where she could fully indulge her music passion (she is a gifted musician and plays in several orchestras) as well as receive a strong math / science education. A more conservative environment where she would be nurtured academically and where the competition wasn’t cutthroat became the emerging goals.

    Initially resistant to the idea of a liberal arts college (the family was unaware of 3/2 engineering programs), she ultimately decided that you only get one shot at your undergraduate years and she wanted them to be rich and diverse academically and activity-wise. She looked at a LOT of schools and did her homework. The family poured over academic offerings and safety records. When she visited St Olaf, she found what she’d been looking for. She will apply ED and will be considered for generous academic and music merit scholarships as well as $7500 / year for being a National Merit Semi Finalist. Her plan is to avail herself of their engineering agreement with Washington University.

    Choosing a college is more than academics and name. While the above “solution” may not be appropriate for the young man referenced, he should determine what kind of environment he wants to live in for the next 4 years. What’s important to him? Some students say they want the intense competition that you’ll find at many of the elite schools, but most have no idea how intense that will be. They figure they were top of their high school class so they’ll be top of their college class too. There are many ways to achieve your goal. Find the one that works for you!

    1. I also know another student that is like the ones you mentioned Paula and Lynn. Early on she determined to look at 3-2 engineering dual degree programs where the student spends 3 years at a liberal arts college to get the distribution requirements out of the way and play sports and then 2 years at a prestigious engineering school. The student graduates with two bachelor degrees, one in science or math from the liberal arts school and the second in engineering from the second school. She is also planning to do graduate work in engineering.

      In essence, she determined the engineering school from which she wished to graduate and then looked for liberal arts schools with which they have a 3-2 agreement. She is now attending Maryville University in St. Louis on a full tuition scholarship and plans to go to Washington University in St. Louis for the engineering degree. In the meantime, she is playing sports (and could have received a sports scholarship from Maryville since it is a NCAA Division 2 school) and enjoying the cooperative atmosphere of small school.

      1. Doe acceptance into a LAC that has a 3-2 engineering program arrangement provide a guaranteed admission path into the participating engineering schools? E.g., take the required courses, get at least a certain GPA, and you’re in?

        If not, it seems a bit like going to a junior college and having to apply to colleges at which to finish your degree.

        If so, it seems like a back door into some prestigious engineering schools.

        1. It is true that for most 3-2 engineering programs, you must apply to the engineering school to get accepted for the final two years. And it is also true that many junior colleges are building relationships with local state schools to create 2-2 or 2-3 programs. But the advantages of a 3-2 program starting in a small, liberal arts school are many. One, most students are looking for a residential experience while in college that most junior colleges do not provide. Two, given the significant endowments of many private schools and lack of quality science students, private schools can provide large scholarships to these students. Three, many liberal arts colleges have an engineering counselor that will guide the student through the process (Maryville has a professor that serves this role.)

          On Maryville’s website, this statement is provided that comes from Washington University: “Last year, out of all students applying to transfer under the dual-degree engineering program with a variety of home institutions, only one student was rejected. Provided the above admissions requirements are met, it is “more than likely” that students will be admitted.”

          I believe that it is not only a back door into prestigious engineering schools but may be the preferred method to do so for many students.

        2. Here’s a list of LAC’s that have 3/2 engineering with Washington University in St Louis.


          Lots of other prestigious engineering programs (Caltech, Columbia, Dartmouth, etc) have similar affiliations with specific liberal arts colleges.

          These programs are not for everyone. Many have rigorous requirements for both coursework and GPA at the sending institution. And there are obvious drawbacks, e.g., you miss the fun and traditions of your would-be senior year. Addressing that issue, some schools now have 4/2 or 4/1 programs.