College Spotlight: The University of Southern California

The California dairy industry says that happy cows come from California. It’s also safe to say that happy college students come from USC. On my recent campus visit on a warm, sunny day, students swarmed the outdoor tables, couches and comfy chairs at USC Village, a new residential, eating, and shopping area next to campus that includes a Trader Joe’s and a Target. I ate with Rosie, a sophomore Jazz Vocal major from Anchorage, Alaska, at Greenleaf, one of the many small restaurants in the village, and enjoyed a very California-y salad at a shaded outdoor table overlooking the busy walkway to campus.  Rosie also considered many East Coast liberal arts colleges and music conservatories but ultimately choose USC for the location. She hasn’t regretted her choice socially or academically.

Students at USC, which is in the heart of Los Angeles, have easy access to city activities and the beach. For example, Rosie’s weekend plans included going indoor trampolining to celebrate a friend’s birthday, seeing another friend play saxophone at a large music festival, doing some studying, and maybe heading to the beach on the train, an easy trip that takes about 30 minutes. She does not have a car on campus but says she doesn’t really need it. Many students use Uber or Lyft.

While Greek life is popular among the 20,000 undergrads at USC, it’s not necessary to have a great social experience. Rosie is not involved with Greek life and says that her academic program in music provided her the smaller group atmosphere she needed for a strong sense of community. But she says that students in the larger academic programs, such as business, may not get that same sense of community and therefore Greek life often fills that need.

The campus vibe is “mixed but tends more liberal – about 70/30,” Rosie said. For example, when Ben Shapiro came to campus to speak recently, “there were a lot of protesters. But then there were also protestors protesting the protesters,” she said.

The buildings at USC are huge and beautiful. It almost feels like you’re on a Hollywood set, and several movies have actually filmed there, including Legally Blonde, The Princess Diaries 2, and The Social Network. Students interested in film, music, and theater rave about professors with the experience and contacts to help them begin careers in the industry right in LA. Rosie has a music professor who sings with Larry Goldings, a Grammy-nominated pianist, keyboardist, composer, and songwriter, and Rosie was recently invited to go to their album cover photo shoot in Malibu. She expects that being exposed to industry professionals will give her a leg up for her own music career. Performing regularly on campus has helped her hone her craft and Rosie says that collaboration within the music department on performances is another advantage of USC.

USC’s campus is big but walkable. Many students have bikes or skateboards, but neither is necessary. Rosie lost the key to her bike lock at the beginning of the semester but hasn’t yet had the motivation to find a way to unlock it. And why would she need to when she lives steps from Trader Joe’s and Target?

What Is The Holistic Review Process At UT Austin?


It’s hard to believe that a school as large of the University of Texas at Austin actually reviews every part of every student’s application. But it does: UT is deeply committed to the holistic review of its applicants. Even for students who qualify for automatic admission, the holistic review will help determine admission to specific colleges, schools, and majors.

Students and parents often wonder why does UT approach admissions in this way. They want to build well-rounded classes made up of specialists who can contribute to the Longhorn community in ways other than great academic performance. By evaluating an application from a holistic perspective, UT gets to know applicants as people, not as numbers.

Taking only the applicants with the top grades and test scores may not make for a diverse or well-rounded student body. This is why in addition to the “hard factors” (GPA, grades, and test scores) of a student’s application, colleges also place great weight on the “soft factors” (essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and demonstrated interest) in order to gain a full picture of applicants.

Holistic review means that the Office of Admissions takes everything into account, from test scores to extracurricular interests to special accomplishments—and everything in between. That means each application item receives the same amount of attention as the rest. While students often think of the essay as the make-or-break piece, they should be putting just as much effort into their short answers, expanded resume, and choice of recommenders. The application should be cohesive, while still highlighting different aspects of the student’s background and accomplishments depending on the section.

According to the UT website, holistic review includes the review of all of the following items, and no one item is a make-or-break point for the application:

  • Class rank

  • Strength of academic background

  • SAT Reasoning Test or ACT scores

  • Record of achievements, honors, and awards

  • Special accomplishments, work, and service both in and out of school

  • Essays

  • Special circumstances that put the applicant’s academic achievements into context, including his or her socioeconomic status, experience in a single parent home, family responsibilities, experience overcoming adversity, cultural background, race and ethnicity, the language spoken in the applicant’s home, and other information in the applicant’s file

  • Recommendations (although not required)

  • Competitiveness of the major to which the student applies

A student’s first-choice major becomes the lens through which a file reviewer evaluates each item in an application. Demonstrated academic fit for major is one of the most important aspects of UT Austin’s holistic review, so each application item should provide evidence to support the student’s first-choice major selection. By selecting an appropriate first-choice major and putting equal effort into each part of the application, students will have a leg up in the application process.

5 Criteria To Consider When Building A College List

The first step in the college application process is deciding which schools to apply to. There are hundreds of schools that might fit the bill—and even more factors to consider when creating the list—so we urge parents and students alike to keep an open mind and not to be swayed by name recognition alone.

A college may be perfect for one student and completely wrong for another. That's where college match comes in. College match refers to how well a school fits with a student. We're talking about things like academic and social fit, a geographic location that suits the student, and a financial aid package that works for the family. Students should determine what's important to them and then start to develop their college list based on those criteria.

Of course, students aren't the only ones looking for a good match. While academic match continues to be a core criteria for colleges, admissions committees are increasingly taking a holistic approach. This means admissions officers place emphasis on the applicant as a whole person—not just his or her academic achievements—so "soft" factors may be given just as much consideration as the empirical data present in things like grades and test scores. When it comes down to it, colleges want to ensure that their entering first-year class consists of well-rounded students whose personalities, skills, and talents match the values of their institution.

Here are five important factors to consider when building a college list.

5 Criteria To Consider When Building A College List

1. Major & Academic Interest

One of the most exciting parts of college is deciding what you want to study or what your major will be. If you already know what you want to study, make sure the colleges on your list offer that major, and also be sure to research those specific programs at each school. If you're still relatively undecided—and that’s okay!—take some time to be sure the colleges on your list have a wide enough variety of offerings that you're not pigeonholed into a major you don't love.

2. Location

Where in the country—or world—do you want to be? Do you want to live close to home or far away? Do you want to be in the hustle and bustle of an urban setting, or do you prefer a more rural area? Just remember to distinguish between what you're used to and what you want for the next four years. While it's absolutely okay to stay within your comfort zone if you love the environment you grew up in, don't let that be the default—it should be an active decision.

3. Size

Do you want to be a large fish in a small pond? Or do you love big communities where you never stop meeting new people? There are advantages to both a large and a small campus, and what might be an advantage for some could be a disadvantage for others. For example, at a small college, you may know nearly all of the students in your graduating class. For some students, that's a great thing: a sense of community. For others, it might overwhelming. You need to think about what works best for you.

4. Off-Campus Community

The college experience doesn’t end at the edge of campus, and it's important to think about the surrounding community. For example, if you’re an aspiring artist or music producer, it makes sense to consider colleges in areas that are rich with the arts. If you’re interested in politics, perhaps expand your options in Washington, D.C. Not only will location affect your broader college experience, but it will also affect your opportunities to find internships or part-time jobs that are aligned with your academic major.

5. Cost & Affordability

Given the already high cost of a college education, families should consider the differences between the sticker price and the actual net price of any school. The sticker price is the advertised cost of attendance, whereas the net price is the final cost after scholarships, grants, and other financial aid sources have been deducted. As you make your college list, consider the historical data for financial aid to each school, and be sure you're only including schools that might offer what you need. Once you've been accepted, compare all financial aid packages to be sure you’re making an informed decision that fits with your family’s finances.

There are infinite factors to consider when building your college list, but these five criteria should at least help you begin the process of elimination. Take the time to identify other criteria that are important to you, and you'll be sure to end with a list of schools where you can thrive.

4 Steps To Help High School Students Land A Great Internship

Internships are a great way to develop skills, learn about industries you're interested in, and get some real-life experience while still in high school. But it doesn't end there: Internships also help strengthen a college application. They communicate a strong fit for major, show colleges that you have a solid sense of initiative, and offer an opportunity for impact that can make you stand out from the crowd.

Of course, internships vary in style. Some take place during the school year, in which case they're usually about 5-7 hours/week. Others might be over the summer, in which case they could be anywhere from 15-40 hours/week. The type of internship you select will also depend on your interests. If you know that you want to major in the sciences, you might try searching for openings with a scientific research department at a local start-up or a state environmental agency. If you're focused on marketing, you could look for a social media internship at a local small business.

But knowing what internship you want is just the beginning. You'll need to start the process several months before you hope to begin working because it will take time to do research, follow leads, and arrange interviews. Here are four steps to finding and landing a great internship:

4 Steps To Finding and Landing A Great Internship

  1. Look for opportunities that match your skills, aptitudes, and motivations. You'll be less likely to be hired for internships that don't match your profile. And even if you are hired, you probably won't enjoy the work very much if it doesn't match your skills and interests. Look at tools like YouScience to figure out where you shine, and be sure to build on areas of success you've had in the past.

  2. Ask family and friends for connections. The overwhelming majority of opportunities will come from a family or family friend's network. That doesn't mean you shouldn't also be cold emailing to put yourself out there, but networking is the easiest way to find an internship. Follow any lead you can get because you never know where it will take you.

  3. Know what your pitch is. You want to be sure you have a quick, 10-second elevator pitch about yourself, but you also need to be ready to talk for 10 minutes about what you want and what you have to offer. You never know what someone will ask you, so the more you have stored up, the better. And be sure to practice—sometimes what's in your head won't make as much sense when it comes out for the first time.

  4. Evaluate your options. Just because you're offered an internship, it doesn't mean you have to accept it. Ideally, you'll have multiple options. Have a family member help you determine whether a specific internship is a good fit for your skills, interests, and future plans before committing to it.

3 College Cost Topics To Discuss With Your Junior

There's no way around it: college is expensive. But there are things you and your student can do to prepare for that expense and temper it to a point that feels more comfortable for your family. Consumer Reports suggests "Having the College Money Talk" with your high schooler, and here, we'll reiterate the three tips we found most useful:

1. Encourage your student to graduate on time—from a college you can afford.

College is certainly a time for exploring, but too much exploring can end with extended college careers—and that costs money. You'll want to talk with your student ahead of time to be sure they know what they want to get out of college and how they're going to go about doing it. Consumer Reports points to an analysis from UT Austin that shows that students who take out students loans and graduate on time end up owing, on average, 40% less than those who take an extra two years to graduate. It's common sense, but it's easy to lose sight of.

Of course, it's crucial to select schools that will offer the kind of financial aid you need. If your student only applies to those "dream" schools that won't offer any scholarships, loans will pile up, and your student will be paying back their college tuition for their entire lives. By applying to a well-rounded list of schools with great scholarship options, your student will be able to pick a school that works for them, both personally and financially.

2. Be sure your student understands how much college will actually costs

Tuition + room + board = cost of college, right? Not so much. Because of both merit-based and need-based financial aid, you'll rarely play that full price. By estimating your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) or using a Net Price Calculator (NPC), you and your student will have a better sense of your options. Of course, a school won't offer you a scholarship until you've been expected, but being prepared in general terms will help your student build a realistic college list, based on those colleges' historical aid date

3. Talk with your student about how much debt they can handle.

Consumer Reports cites the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which says that the average starting salary for a student just out of college is $50,000. To keep debt to a manageable level, they suggest not taking out more loans than that (or whatever their actual salary will be, if they can estimate that better than the average). And when in doubt, err on the side of fewer loans. With interest, you can end up paying about 13% of your salary on loans. When you're also trying to make rent and live a life you're excited about, that can be quite daunting.

The money talk is never easy, but it's a great way to prepare your student for the real world.