Sunday, August 9, 2015

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to the University of Virginia


In early August I visited the University of Virginia, the flagship university in the Commonwealth, and a perennial presence on "top public universities" ratings lists.  I attended an information session with about 100 people in attendance, and then took part in a student-led tour. The University is quite old, having been founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 (only a few years after Lycoming College--which I've previously featured--opened its doors) and boasts a sprawling campus (or "Grounds", as they say at UVA) with red-brick buildings and abundant, ancient looking trees. For many people, it is probably the consummate college campus. As I noted previously, I've recently moved to Virginia and since then I have been struck by the respect accorded to UVA; it is the most desirable college destination for the majority of the prep school audience I've met, even more than well-known private universities. Among many anecdotes that have been related to me, I heard a story about a student who was admitted to UVA and Princeton, whose friends and family could not understand why the choice of UVA wasn't automatic!  Despite temperatures near 100ยบ, and a tour and info session that left a lot to be desired, I enjoyed my visit to the University and as I've learned more about it, I agree that it is an extremely impressive place. Any student with excellent grades and test scores interested in a university with great traditions and campus culture (as well as great weather) should give UVA a serious look. 

University of Virginia At A Glance

Size:
A little over 15,000 undergraduates (approximately 54% men/ 46% women).
Programs of Study:
84 majors across one College (Arts & Sciences) and six Schools (Architecture, Leadership & Public Policy, Commerce, Education, Engineering & Applied Science, Nursing). Bachelor, Master and Doctorate degrees awarded--approximately 6,400 graduate students attend UVA.
Sports:
NCAA Division I; 23 varsity teams (11 women's, 12 men's); numerous intramural sports.The baseball team was the NCAA Division I National Champion in 2015.
Campus Life:
Over 900 clubs and organizations on campus. 30 fraternities and 16 sororities; about one-third of the campus participates in Greek life. All first-year students live on campus and housing is guaranteed for all four years. Downtown Charlottesville, a quintessential college town, is a short walk away.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $56,500 for out of state students ($27,000 for Virginians). UVA is, remarkably, need-blind in admission for American citizens. Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS PROFILE. UVA will meet 100% of demonstrated need, and the average aid package for first-year students is just about $25,000.
Deadlines:
UVA has Early Action and Regular Decision options. EA has a deadline of November 1, and the RD deadline is January 1. Students use the Common App with supplemental essays.
Tests:
SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of the old scale SAT are 1870-2180 (CR+M+ W) and 28-33 for the ACT. ACT takers should make sure to choose the ACT with writing option, and scores from TWO SAT Subject Tests are "strongly recommended", including the Math II test for anyone planning a major in the sciences.


Amphitheater near The Lawn at UVA
The University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is about 70 miles west of Richmond and 120 miles south of Washington, D.C. Charlottesville is a small city (c. 45,000) in the central part of the commonwealth. Charlottesville has a thriving shopping, dining and arts culture and with a third of the population made up of University students, it is a major college town. Like many college towns, there is a good music scene; unfortunately we also have Charlottesville to blame for the Dave Matthews Band, but no place is perfect.   

UVA is a truly venerable institution; not only was it founded by Thomas Jefferson nearly two hundred years ago, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its cultural and historical importance. The campus definitely feels old, but it is extremely well-maintained. I saw signs of maintenance and renovation all around me. Some of the most desired student rooms, for instance, were part of Jefferson's "Academical Village" design and centuries later, the single rooms with fireplaces and ancient wood floors are still in use. As befits an old, established institution, there are many customs and traditions that must be adhered to, as well as nomenclature unique to the University. This video gives a good overview--learn the lingo and impress the locals if you visit!
The Rotunda-Jefferson's original library-is undergoing a
two-year renovation. It should reopen in 2017.

Despite its size, UVA prides itself on "feeling like a smaller, private college", as we were told during the information session. The admissions dean also noted that the majority of students studied in the College of Arts and Sciences, which is "the quintessential liberal arts experience", with over 2000 different courses to choose from. UVA claims the highest four year graduation rate among state universities. 

One way to help make this a reality is that professors are relatively accessible; some hold office hours in the library cafe spaces and all first-year students take a seminar with 20 or fewer students taught by a tenured faculty member.  While there are definitely many large lecture courses (with smaller discussion sections led by teaching assistants), 84% of undergraduate classes have 50 or fewer students and 55% have fewer than 20. My tour guide just finished her second year at UVA, and she had a class this past semester with six students.

Virginia has 23 varsity sports, all of which compete at the NCAA Division I level (football is a Division I-A program). One very odd feature of my info session and tour was the utter lack of information about sports or recreational athletics. This was the only college I've ever visited that did not show me a gym, or a student work-out facility and the information session didn't mention sports at all, which considering that the baseball team are national champions, seemed like low-hanging fruit.

This was also the only tour I've ever been on that didn't go to either a dining facility or a dorm. Many colleges omit the dorms for security reasons, but I've never not been to a dining area. Despite the recent trend against it, I find it surpassingly strange that admissions offices won't try to take people through a freshman dorm, and security concerns are a bad excuse. It can't be hard to give tour guides a swipe card to get them into a building, and I can't imagine that it is very disruptive to campus life to provide these tours. To a certain degree all dormitories look alike (and having worked at three boarding schools, and visited about 50 colleges and universities, I know what I'm talking about) but for students and parents who are considering a life-changing decision, every bit of information is important. That said, UVA does have photographic tours of all of their dorms on their website.

According to my tour guide, there are three dormitory areas for first years: "Old", "New" and "Gooch-Dillard". The first two are traditional hall-style dorms, and the latter is a suite-style arrangement. "Old" was build in the 1950's and lacks air-conditioning. This sounds like a nightmare to me (having visited on an incredibly hot day), but my tour guide insisted that her third floor room was perfectly comfortable with just a box fan in the window.  Students who are sensitive to heat may want to investigate this further. As far as dining options go, we were told that the food "isn't bad, but enjoy your mother's cooking while you can".

Montage of images from demonstrations
following Rolling Stone story. Marshall Bronfin
In 2015, another thing that must come to mind when people think of UVA is the story about "rape culture" at the University published in Rolling Stone in 2014. The story made specific allegations of gang rape, but was eventually retracted by the magazine after numerous journalistic failings (most notably, relying on a single source without fact-checking) were made public. When the article came out, however, there was uproar on campus, with a mass gathering in the Amphitheater drawing over 1,000 people, acts of vandalism against frat houses, and the temporary suspension of all Greek life at UVA.

I was disappointed that this was not mentioned in the info session. I have visited other universities that have been more outgoing about scandals and controversies. My tour guide broached the topic of fraternities and sororities in a way that made it sound like it was not very central to life at UVA. She told us that "30 percent of students are involved in Greek life, so if you like that, you will have 30 percent of students with you. But 70 percent of students are not in Greek life, and if you don't want to be, 70 percent of students will have your back." I asked her what it was like to be there during the controversy, and she indicated that it was hardly noticeable, because it happened so close to final exams, though she did acknowledge that Greek life (including her sorority) was temporarily suspended. She did go on to say that "even thought the story was falsified" it was productive because it led to the University adopting the "Green Dot" program of bystander training; she said that all faculty have been trained, and that all students will be trained over the next two years. She also noted that UVA was a safe campus, with escorts and blue light phones widely available and that the campus just got a grant to increase lighting by 50%. I was also impressed by a service that would provide vans "driven by off-duty policemen" within 2 miles of the center of the campus from midnight to seven in the morning, as well as one where students walking late at night could call a switchboard and talk to someone while walking home for an extra measure of security.

Circulation Desk in the Brown Science & Engineering Library
The University has numerous libraries on campus, all of which are open nearly around the clock. Typically they feature social areas (including cafe spaces) on the main floors and get progressively quieter as you descend to lower floors. Besides being places to research, sometimes libraries are sites for exams. UVA has one of the oldest student-run honor codes in the country. Students pledge not to lie, cheat or steal in Charlottesville, Albemarle County, or anyplace where they represent themselves as UVA students. Violators are expelled. Our tour guide described picking up a final exam at her professor's office and taking it to the library cafe to finish.

Outside Peabody Hall, home of the Admission Office
Students interested in applying to the University of Virginia should use the Common Application. Despite receiving over 30,000 applicants each year, we were assured in the info session that admission to UVA "is not numbers based" and that it is "holistic within reason".  According to the admissions dean who gave the presentation (and confirmed by multiple publications) the most important part of a student's portfolio is the high school transcript. Further, we were told that "grades and rigor" trump test scores. As an example, a B in a hard course would look better than an A+ in a lesser course. We were also told that "a B- on your transcript is nothing to worry about", though nothing was said about a C.

With my new job at Method Test Prep, I am particularly interested in the role of standardized tests in college admissions. All we were told about standardized tests was that "the stronger your score is, the better", which reminded me of the John Madden quote about football ("usually, the team that scores the most points wins the game"). Students need to submit either the SAT or the ACT with Writing, and are "strongly encouraged" to submit two SAT Subject Tests (with one being Math II if they are interested in majoring in science). The published test scores of admitted students are remarkably high: the SAT ranged from 1870-2180 and the ACT from 28-33. These eclipse the national averages by a considerable margin; the national average SAT score was 1497 in 2014, and the average composite ACT score was 21.

from https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/college-university-search/
university-of-virginia
I believed the dean when she said that student applications are read closely, and I even believed her when she said that essays might be read "by up to 45 people". But I have trouble believing that numbers play no role in UVA admissions. According to their own numbers, UVA admitted 8,990 out of 31,028 of applicants for the class that entered in 2014. That is just about 29%, which puts UVA on the list of top 100 most selective institutions in America. They also say that 92% of their students were in the top 10% of their high school classes. It looks to me like students who are merely average would be better suited applying to other schools.

That said, UVA can claim some very impressive statistics, including a 97% retention rate, which indicates that the students who are admitted to the University really like it, and doubtless helps account for a 94% six-year graduation rate (tops among public universities) and the highest African-American graduation rate among public universities (for 20 straight years).

Like most state universities, there are two tiers of pricing for tuition, with non-Virginians paying more. All students (in-state or out of state) interested in applying to UVA must submit the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE. It is unusual for a state school to require the CSS PROFILE (which costs money to complete), but UVA's financial aid policies are also unusual: they are "need-blind" in admissions and pledge to meet 100% of demonstrated need for all admitted students. This is truly amazing; the number of "need-blind" institutions has shrunk dramatically over the last decade, and state universities (which often depend on state revenue for part of their funding) are often quite parsimonious with financial aid. Outstanding students from families with middle income or lower should definitely consider the University of Virginia when compiling their college lists.

The University of Virginia has a great reputation in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and based on what I was able to see, it seems to be well-deserved. I think it is definitely worth a visit. That said, I would encourage prospective students and their families to visit during the school year, preferably over a day or so to be able to see the Grounds filled with students, to be able to check out the surrounding area, and to be able to ask to see dormitories, dining facilities, and maybe to sit in on a class. The late-summer tour was a little too much "tell" and not enough "show" for my tastes. Please let me know your thoughts about the University of Virginia in the comments below, and check out the other articles in this series.

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