Top of the Class

#10 College Tips - Got a Dream School? Here's What You Should Have Instead

April 07, 2021 Crimson Education Season 2 Episode 10
Top of the Class
#10 College Tips - Got a Dream School? Here's What You Should Have Instead
Top of the Class
#10 College Tips - Got a Dream School? Here's What You Should Have Instead
Apr 07, 2021 Season 2 Episode 10
Crimson Education

Mason Hill has a long history in education after being an Admissions Officer, a teacher and now a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education while also being a senior strategist for Crimson.

As students around the world learn of their admission results from Ivy League schools, Mason reflects on why having a "dream school" may do more harm than good and what students can do instead.

Show Notes Transcript

Mason Hill has a long history in education after being an Admissions Officer, a teacher and now a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education while also being a senior strategist for Crimson.

As students around the world learn of their admission results from Ivy League schools, Mason reflects on why having a "dream school" may do more harm than good and what students can do instead.

Podcast Host  00:00

Hello, and welcome to college tips. I'm your host, Alex Cork. And today I chat with Crimson Education strategist and Harvard Graduate School of Education student, Mason Hill, as today is Ivy day, Mason chats about the danger of having the one dream school and what students can do to come away from the unit application process. With a positive mindset, no matter the results. Let's chat with Mason Hill. Hi, Mason, welcome to the college tips podcast. It's awesome to have you on the show. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Mason  00:51

Great. Well, thank you so much for having me. My name is Mason and I'm originally from Los Angeles, California. I went to undergrad at UC Santa Barbara where I studied communication in psychology as a double major and minor in music. I got to know the university really well through my academic departments. But I was also really involved. In extracurriculars, I was part of orientation programs for two cycles, I was a Resident Assistant, the president of the multicultural drama company, I studied abroad, I did research in the Communication Department. So I knew a lot of different avenues of the institution so that when I graduated, it was a really good fit to become an admissions officer. So I did admissions, the whole recruiting situation and reading applications from 1000s and 1000s of students all over the world, serving on boards, committees, all of those types of things, and did that for a total of three years before I left the states in 2017, settled in 2018 in Vietnam, and then was teaching English as a foreign language specializing in IELTS which is a English language proficiency exam that students need for universities in English speaking countries, and then found Crimson in 2018, and has been working as a strategist ever since. With crimson, I have had students get admitted to top schools. And so I'm very familiar with what looks good on applications. And then most recently, kind of the silver lining of COVID was that a lot of universities went virtual. And so I took advantage of an opportunity for Harvard's Graduate School of Education, who reopened their applications for students in different time zones. So in addition to working with crimson, I am also a part time grad student at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Podcast Host  02:29

Yeah, busy busy. I'm sure that is a fantastic opportunity. Actually, funnily enough, I was looking at applying to the Harvard Graduate School of Education as well when I saw that they were going online. But it is quite an application process. And you got to be really committed to do it. And is it a weird timezone for you? Or do they make the classes available no matter where you are in the world?

Mason  02:49

That's a great question. So we used the term synchronous and asynchronous more times than I want to count Yes, synchronous being that you have to be like in person in front of your computer logged on via zoom or any other type of virtual meeting space platform. And then offline components, which have been a lot easier I guess, for students in different time zones. Luckily for me, I'm based in Brisbane at the moment. Luckily for me, the timezone is quite convenient for me to take evening classes that are Boston time, which for me becomes morning, the next day. For other colleagues and peers that are in different time zones. It's way more challenging for them, particularly students that are in the Middle East. They have classes that are at like two 3am 4am. So that tends to get a little bit rough for them, but pretty much lucked out with where I'm currently based at the moment.

Podcast Host  03:40

Yeah, I guess that kind of tests your commitment, but you definitely lucked out, but being the Brisbane timezone there. But yeah, let's get into today's topic. Obviously, it's IV day to day, it's a day filled with a lot of excitement, a lot of probably equal amounts of disappointment around the world. But what topic Do you particularly want to chat about today?

Mason  03:59

Yeah, so it's kind of indirect reference to Ivy Day. And it's this whole concept or notion of dream schools. This is a term that gets thrown out all the time in the world of higher education, and especially in the world of admissions. For students having just one particular school, that is the best school for them that ticks all of their boxes, so on and so forth. Now, it's really good that students do a lot of research on so many different universities. And ultimately, if you do enough research on institutions, you'll be able to find the school that ticks the most boxes for you. But at least in my personal opinion, and based on my professional experience, the number of boxes that are ticked, it doesn't necessarily stay, the end all be all for if that's going to be the actual best scenario for you for your undergrad experience. Oftentimes, the best school for a student is rooted in a lot of the unseen factors of the student experience. Whereas when students are doing research that makes it a dream school, it gets a little bit more bogged down by rankings and family members and people outside of the person who's going to actually be experiencing the university, which is the student.

Podcast Host  05:15

Yeah. Okay. Well, I'm really interested to dive into these factors that you say that makes up the boxes. And then the unseen ones that students perhaps don't quite see as the boxes initially, but then obviously contribute to having a great experience. So let's start with is the the boxes that most students are looking to have ticked? First, in your experience as a strategist, what have you seen that most students are looking for when they're going through their research process,

Mason  05:39

the very, very first thing is going to be rankings. That's where everyone kind of starts in terms of university research, there'll be with rankings, and a lot of people will rely on their personal experience with who has mentioned that university to them. So a lot of it is just word of mouth, and just the reputation that everyone has of that institution. And they just think that Oh, because I've heard the name Stanford so many times in so many different places. And I know that that's the most competitive school, that must be the best. And they're only going off of a certain small set of criteria for Stanford being the most competitive typically, for the percentages of admitted students of quality of programs overall, and they're going off of that reputation. And in reality, the undergraduate experience might not necessarily be directly related to that overall university rankings, because a lot of factors of these rankings are grounded in factors that don't affect the undergrad experience. So for example, for US News and World Report, one of the criteria for these rankings is how much money do alumni give back to the university once they graduate, that has almost no effect on the undergraduate experience, because there might be some stipulations of what that money can actually be used for whether there's going to be creating a new building that's completely across campus from where students are studying. So things like that influence these rankings quite dramatically. And for me, in my personal experience, I mean, I went to UC Santa Barbara as an undergrad at the time, it was number 30 in the nation for national universities. And now I go to Harvard. And to be honest with you, the actual academic difference in the classroom is not that different. Like, yes, there's a different set of people and a different network that I'm tapping into in terms of the actual people and the network. But in terms of academic rigor and academic caliber, there's really not that much difference. So it's just quite interesting that the Ivy's are really put on a pedestal and for for good reason. But in terms of the actual classroom and academic experience, it's not as different from personal experience. Yeah, I

Podcast Host  07:50

mean, the I guess the the major box that a lot of students are getting kicked in that instance is reputational prestige, career advancement, being able to say, Hey, I'm an Ivy League student, where I understand for an MIT student or an Oxford, Cambridge, these types of things. It's like wearing branded clothes, I guess, in a way, it's like wearing a fancy branded label, when in actual fact, you probably get something quite a bit cheaper, that is going to be just as comfortable, but just not fancily branded in a way. So in terms of that, understanding that students are looking for that kind of branded prestige a lot of the time, how do you shake students out of that head and be like, hey, look, there's more to your undergrad experience than just being able to say that you went to an Ivy League school?

Mason  08:35

Yeah, that is a great question. And it's more of a process than one conversation. And a lot of it is just starting to debunk this systemic idea of what these schools are like. And so I always have to talk about rankings for starters, and then just saying, well, these are the factors that actually go into the rankings. Does that matter to you? And when students and families start to understand that there's a big difference in rankings and the actual undergrad experience, that's when we can start to untangle some of these conceptions and misconceptions of what life is like at those institutions. So the process starts with talking about the rankings in a very direct kind of way. When it comes to other factors for students, parents will always think of the concept of what's best for their student, but they would just say, what's the best school? I always turn around at that question, well, what are the criteria that make it the best school for you? So some great examples are a student who really really really wants to study film and wants to go to NYU Tisch for their their film program. It's an amazing program, but they need a lot of financial aid. NYU is not going to give them the financial aid that they need, is that the best school for them without then incur 1000s of dollars worth of debt, and then be maybe needing a part time job that may be related to the film industry or just maybe means for them to have something to have a little bit more financial security is that going to be the best experience for you? it very well might be. But there might be another school that might be lower on the rankings that might be out of New York City where the cost of living is way more affordable. And you still get a similar degree that will open up bounds of opportunities, but it's just going to make your life a little bit more comfortable so that you can really succeed given the context. Another question that I always ask students is, do you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? And the the conversation always comes down to? Okay, if you're thinking about going to one of the best institutions in the world? Are you ready to look someone across the table from you across the classroom? And know that they are better than you when you've been the best at everything you've done in school? And would you be comfortable with being challenged to compete with the best and brightest people in the world? And for some people, they're actually like, ooh, I've never actually thought of it that way.

Podcast Host  11:06

Yeah, it's pretty crazy man. And I think like a lot of students need to have that that kind of laser beam focus on that reputation. Ivy League's have been shaken up a little bit and understand the reality of what it might actually mean to study there, not just to have the name attached to their CV for the rest of their life, but what it actually means to be at that university for three or four years. In terms of the other factors that make a good undergrad experience. You said UC Santa Barbara, gave me that experience in terms of like classroom, academic, etc. What are some of the ways that students could figure out what these factors might be when there's not something like hard and fast data, like the rankings provide? And I think that's why people gravitate to them, right? Because it's there in front of them, that don't have to speak to any alumni that have to go to an open day. It's like they're whenever they want to look at it. Whereas like, the experiential stuff, that's kind of intangible and quite difficult to understand when you're outside of the University at that point, and I kind of a high school researcher,

Mason  12:05

yeah, you ask a great question. The rankings are really easy to look at. I mean, they're formatted in a way that's really easy to decide which one is the best based on some third party's criteria for the rankings, to disentangle that it's all part of the university research process. And getting as many points of contact as you can with the institution that are from the institution themselves. It takes a lot of time and research and especially for international students, it's really hard to make a trip, especially in the current situation that we find ourselves in globally. So a lot of it really comes down to a lot of that self reflection work of well, what actually is important to me, in my experience that I want from university, in truth, a lot of schools in the top 50 are going to have a lot more similarities than dissimilarities in terms of what's available, what the opportunities are. And it's just a matter of how you navigate those particular opportunities within the context of those institutions that will make your experience what it is. So in sort of thinking about the university research process, it goes back to criteria. Well, what is your criteria to make up your dream school? Is it solely based on these rankings? Or is it availability of certain campus clubs and organizations, the opportunities within the city that you might live in thinking about things a little bit more on that holistic level, I think can kind of make students realize that there are heaps of universities in the states that can take a lot of these different boxes. It just is a different perspective on how you look at them.

Podcast Host  13:44

Right? So in the case where a student might come to you and say, Hey, Mason, really keen to study in the US my dream school is Stanford or Harvard or whatever. What do you do next? You say, okay, latest submission rounds, just as of today, like Princeton is below 4% admission rate and a lot of the ivy League's are kind of in that ballpark. Stanford and MIT included, it must be a kind of, as you said, like that lengthy conversation. So okay, like, let's not get too hung up on the dream school, let's just say what else is out there. And, you know, trying to help the parents as well as the student, I guess, understand that, like a, you know, a lesser ranked school, one that doesn't have the best age, maybe the better fit, then even the dream school? That must be like a, that's a long conversation. I'm glad you know, that's a process as you say, that's like months of training to help people understand what kind of experience they want to get and how the other universities might be the better solution in some cases.

Mason  14:46

Yeah. It's a whole process, that the prestige and the international reputation will always come into conversations when you're choosing the school based on the offers that you have. As a student, that is something that will always come back into the conversation is the rankings. My advice is, forget the rankings, when you're deciding based on your offers, because it then becomes personal choice of what actually matters to you, in your experience. And in terms of the academics, yes, the rankings are there for whatever the rankings are. There's their, whatever criteria factors into them, they're going to be there. But your life as a student is more than just in the classroom. You're in the class, maybe for 15 to 22 hours a week, on average, like there's a lot of more hours in the week that you're going to be outside of the classroom. And so what is your life going to look like? Then what do you want your life to look like outside of the classroom, in terms of thinking about how students can kind of navigate IV day, or navigate, maybe getting a rejection or a waitlist offer, I always tell students that your worth and your value that you contribute to the world is never tied to an admissions result. The reality of the situation is that honestly, for the majority of students who are applying to these top institutions, like you could go there and do well and set yourself up for success. But it's just so competitive, I mean, Harvard 3.4% 3.4%, that's so difficult to get an offer of admission to, even if you really are the best of the best at 3.4%, admitting three people out of 100. Like there's so many good people who are going to go off to do amazing things that did not get an offer. So like trying to think about dream schools, and having all of your hopes and ambition locked into one institution, I think kind of sets you up for a bit of heartbreak down the road, with this concept of a dream school, I would say instead of thinking of it in terms of this is my dream, I think this is a good option that if I were to get in, it would be a good factor to consider, it would be a good option to consider. And then in doing so setting yourself up for multiple options. So applying to a lot of different institutions in the like, reach match and safety categories is a good way to kind of navigate rejection offers.

Podcast Host  17:26

Yeah, I was going to say like if it was up to you what lexicon or what vocabulary would you delete from the admissions process. And you know, that idea that dream schools should be seen as options rather than necessarily like a broken dream, if you don't get admitted, right? You don't want to have students being 1718 years old, and emotionally suffering, just because they didn't get into a place that only accepts three out of 100 people like that's crazy, right? You know, to have that much on the line for something that is that hard to achieve? So if you were to, I guess, change the vocabulary, because I think that's such a powerful thing, the language people use around admissions, and you know, dream school often gets thrown around, more so than options are more so than reach. But if there was up to you what other things or what would you change around the language people use throughout the admissions process?

Mason  18:18

That's a really good question. To be quite frank, I haven't actually thought about an alternative term for it. And I think part of it is because I don't necessarily think of schools in the terms of being my personal dream. And so I never had like a traditional dream school, when I was applying to undergrad, um, to be quite honest with you, I didn't even like Harvard was never even really on my radar for grad schools. It just kind of happened, given the circumstances. And so even my own perception of this concept of university, I always think of them as options, and using your your options to the best of your ability to maximize your opportunities thereafter. So if I'm thinking of it in terms of in terms of an alternative way to think of a quote unquote, dream school, I would say, to think of these in the framework of just once again, an option. Yeah, they're highly competitive institutions. And it would be a fantastic option to consider. But I wouldn't, I would advise students to start thinking about shying away from making it their their one big hope and dream. I feel like it just sets you up too much in terms of risk for having a really big heartbreak if it doesn't work out. And it's like I said, it's no indicator of the worth and value that you bring to the world. If a school just doesn't have enough seats for you. Like truth be told, you could probably do amazing things. If you got an offer there. It's just the applicant pool grows so dramatically, but the seat numbers stay the same. More or less.

Podcast Host  19:59

Yeah. Well, Mason, do you have any other final advice for students who, I guess are looking forward to next admissions round the admissions round? Obviously, this being IV day today, for those people who don't know, by the way, IV day is the day that Ivy League acceptances come out, or like the regular decision acceptances coming out. So if you hear that being thrown around, and you from different parts of the world not familiar with the term, that's generally what it means. But what would you be advising for students who are perhaps, you know, 1516, listening to the podcast, and having had their heart set on the IVs, and going forward over the next six to 12 to 24 months, particularly in conversations with people like their classmates and their parents, because oftentimes, you know, as much as we want, might want to make it, that mindset of an option. Oftentimes, it's the pressure that other people put on you. And the importance that other people put on an acceptance to these places, that kind of, you know, makes it hard to just kind of calmly look at the admissions email when it comes through. Right. So yeah, what would be your advice for students 1516 years old, looking ahead to their future admissions?

Mason  21:07

Yeah, that's a really good question. I would say it's okay to have a dream school to have a school that ticks all the boxes, but also know that another school will tick the same number of boxes or a different number of boxes, and that there's always options. There's always options. And if that truly is your dream school? What is the criteria that makes it the dream school? Is it the rankings? Or is it that you really want to be on that campus, you think that the city itself is beautiful, and you want to live there? Well, there's other options, go live there for a summer, if you don't go to that particular school, go go and stay there, or try to see if you can do a summer course there. You can always go there for grad school or PhD, there's so many different options to kind of think about what it is that you want, and what makes your criteria and just know that there's a bunch of different institutions that will satisfy a lot of that criteria, whatever it is, yeah, I'm within my my grad program, we talk a lot about the rankings and how they're, they're a bit misleading in a lot of senses. And so it's okay to look at them, but just know that there's way more to the story and way more to what your experience is going to be like at that institution, if you do get admitted, that will be completely and totally outside of the criteria that make up that ranking.

Podcast Host  22:28

Yeah, I would also throw in there that and please correct me if I'm wrong here, because I often AM. But for students to question the criteria that they're using, and to actually try and figure out is this a really flimsy reason to go to university because I think some students say, Oh, you know, I want to go to Stanford because Google was founded there. And like, it's got not much to do with you, I would have thought or people you know, Elon Musk, or you went to UPN, or you know, Wharton School, and they're like, Ah, you know, Elon Musk is my hero, therefore, I must go to Wharton School up in flames flimsy reason. Just because he went there, like doesn't mean you have to just because Google was founded, they I think a lot of people use these historical references in a way to say, Well, my heroes went there, therefore, I must follow in their footsteps. And and really, when it comes down to when you analyze the psychology of that reasoning, you know, that is fairly flimsy ground that they're using to kind of decide the next three to four years of their life, right?

Mason  23:27

Yeah, when I was an admissions officer, and I would give those admissions office presentations, and would have a bunch of colleagues who would do that themselves. But for their various institutions, we would always joke that we were basically just really good salespeople, because that's, that's what all of that is, like, all the things that you just mentioned, our sales and marketing of the institution to feed into, like the reputation that they have both domestically and internationally. And so it's really hard to like disentangle all of those things. Because the truth is, there are many amazing alumni who have done amazing things from every institution out there. That's just kind of the nature of universities. And so just going back to like the whole dream school concept, is it really your dream to be the next Elon Musk? It's not very Ilan musk to follow somebody else's path. Yep. So if you're really going to be Ilan musk say, Hey, you know what, I'm actually going to go to this other school and do my amazing things here and pave your own way. But it's okay to follow somebody else's footsteps. That's fine. But it goes back to what's your criteria?

Podcast Host  24:37

Yeah, yeah. And making sure that criteria is probably a good way to inform the next three to four years of your life rather than like, what is otherwise pretty shaky ground. But I think it's such a relevant topic and such a great day to chat about this kind of stuff. Obviously IV Day is a crazy day for a lot of students and one filled with so much excitement and joy and On the flip side, it can be filled with so much disappointment and self reflect But I think it's a really timely episode particularly for both sides of those students really like for the students who get into Ivy's. Congratulations, we, you know, support you and celebrate you. But at the same time, don't get complacent. It's going to be a tough four years and it doesn't mean that you're set for the rest of your life. And conversely, if you didn't get that offer, don't be heartbroken. don't see it as a broken dream see it as an opportunity to swim with perhaps slightly different fish in a slightly different pond. Right.

Mason  25:28

100% supportive on that one. Yeah, that's a really good way to just sum up everything we chatted about. I love it.

Podcast Host  25:35

I love it. I love it. Well, thank you so much Mason, I look forward to sharing the episode far and wide.