Tour Review #1: University of Southern California

This is going to be an interesting one, primarily due to something we got after we returned home. USC was the 4th school we visited, and we all liked it. While I’ve been to LA several times, I’d never seen the USC campus or neighborhood. I’d heard all the “it’s in a horrible neighborhood” talk, so I think I was expecting worse than we saw. Like all of the other schools we visited, we got there early enough to drive around the area a little, and frankly, most of what we saw wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. Heck, it’s right next to the California Science Center, so it can’t be all bad, right? We did see areas on other sides that reflect what I think people were talking about, but still, I don’t feel like it’s in the crime-riddled ghetto that we were warned about. The tour did get in to security, as well as covering the hours they lock the gate each night and don’t allow visitors in, so obviously it’s been an issue in the past.

As far as the tour went, it was good. We started in a conference room, where someone came in and gave us the standard admissions presentation. Frankly, by tour 6, we probably could have recited this word for word, minus the actual school statistics themselves. Regardless, we’d done our homework on most of this, so none of it was all that new. There were some fairly good questions from the parents and kids in the room, and after that was all done (took around 30-45min if I recall), they split us up into groups to walk the campus.

Before I get to the walking tour, I want to address the admissions statistics. As someone who works in an MBA-heavy company, I know first-hand just how much stats get spun. I see stats presented in my group that I know for a fact are manipulated to make things look the way management wants them to. I have no doubt that this happens for admissions statistics as well. As the old saying goes: “73.6% of all statistics are made up”. There have been incidents in the past of colleges making up admissions stats, and knowing just how companies manipulate stuff like this, I don’t doubt that colleges have ways of keeping lower test scores and GPAs out of their averages so they can maintain higher numbers. Don’t believe me? Emory did it for over a decade.  Bottom line, when listening to the data presented, take it with a grain of salt.

Back to the review: We had roughly 15 people in our group for the walking portion of the tour, and our student guide did a great job covering the ins and outs of campus from a student’s view. We didn’t see as much of the campus as I would have liked to, including not getting to see a dorm room, but we got a good look at some of the key college buildings , such as the business school, film and music schools, and communications school.

The campus is big, but it’s not the biggest we saw (not even close), and it’s all flat. Take that last part in, it’s flat. That’s something we hadn’t even thought of before we started touring, but very early on realized that this isn’t a trivial factor, as I’ll mention when we get to other schools. USC itself has some beautiful buildings, with several of them adhering to the “collegiate Gothic” style we saw on a handful of our tours. The campus style brings up another point someone mentioned in passing that we should keep an eye out for: country-club campuses.

So what does that mean? Well, different things to different people honestly. The Blaze, for example, has a different definition than we were going by. We were keeping an eye out for the more “don’t walk on our pristine grass” type schools, as my daughter’s a fairly relaxed kid who very much prefers informal settings (which she gets from me 🙂 ). The collegiate Gothic architecture that we encountered at some of the schools can come off a bit stuffy, but honestly, none of them felt completely stifling. The only thing that gave me even a hint of this feeling at USC is that they lock their gates to visitors at night, but in the end, that just appears to be a security measure employed at a couple of the schools we visited. Outside of that, USC felt like a fairly relaxed school, and overall they have a beautiful campus (as mentioned earlier).

One of the downsides to USC is that there was a ton of construction going on this summer. Large projects that have no chance of being done by the time students arrive in the fall. The guide even joked about it, saying “there’s a running joke that USC actually stands for University of Summer Construction”. I don’t know how big of an issue this would be, depending on how much of it does end up remaining active in the fall, but it was a little bit of a distraction nonetheless.

Downside #2: The cost. Being a private school, USC has no in-state/out-of-state, it’s one price regardless of where you come from.  Unfortunately, USC is one of the most expensive schools in the country, at just over $59k for tuition, room, board and fees. Wow. We already knew that number going in, but it never ceases to shock me each time I hear/speak/write it.

Downside #3: The undergrad vs grad student count. This is something to pay attention to, as in some cases, this can mean that it’s harder to get in touch with certain professors if the undergrad needs to, as they may be more focused on their grad students for various reasons (research work, for example). In USC’s case, the student body count is weighted towards the grad student side, according to their stats (18,000 undergrads, 22,000 grad students). I’m sure the field the student wants to go in to matters here too, but it’s something to be aware of and do some research on when looking at a school with this balance. Take what you learn, and apply it to your child’s personality. Ours likes to be involved in discussion, and to be able to follow up with teachers during their office time when warranted. Having to fight with grad students for office hours may be an issue there.

Having said all of this, my daughter likes USC and it’s in her top-6 list, but her probability of getting in if she applies is likely low (being realistic here), as it’s a very, very, competitive school. Ironically enough, the thank-you letter we got in the mail would actually seem to dispute the whole “competitive school” thing. We got it in the mail the day we returned home, and in a word, unbelievable. Looking at the note itself, it’s barely legible. I get that they have a ton of people tour their school, and that means a lot of thank you letters, but this is absurd, there’s no excuse for it. I certainly hope this isn’t the case for others getting these cards. Being hand-written is a nice touch, but being in a customer-focused job, I can say unequivocally this is the type of thing that gets someone fired in the real world.

Note – I blurred personal data, with the exception of what they wrote as our last name. Not even close. Ours is much, much shorter (no hyphen in ours, either). They got the first name right (which is funny considering people generally misspell my daughter’s first name), not sure where the last name came from.

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Uhh, what?

Anyway, like I said, USC is in her final top-6 list, so we’ll see how things progress.

Here are a handful of pics from the tour:

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