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February 3, 2010 9:02 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to finish second year of Software Engineering at my mid-tier Canadian university and have no intention of continuing any further. I'd like to transfer into one of the more prestigious colleges in the US, although getting in seems like a complete crapshoot given my current circumstances. What course of action can I take in the coming months that would greatly increase my chances of being accepted?

tl;dr Summarized Backstory:

I've wanted to get away for several years now. My immediate family is slowly driving me insane with all their nonsense and drama. I've been battling with depression since junior year of high school and that took a major toll on my academics. Freshman year and a slight change of scenery helped somewhat, but the feelings of inadequacy and uselessness came right back. This combined with new-found freedom and doing all the wrong drugs at all the wrong time ensured that I would quite stupidly fuck myself over and end up with a nice string of C's and failing Calc II (none of this was ever revealed to my family).

I did manage to pull myself together and stop dicking around by late fall last year and have been working steadily to fix my GPA and develop good work habits. I've basically cut myself off from everyone around me and my only focus now is my coursework, which I enjoy very much. However, I have little happiness in my life beyond that. As much as I love my family, I absolutely cannot continue living with them. Right now I have no friends and no major accomplishments. I feel stifled and cloistered in this environment and want to get far away from here as soon as I can and start over fresh on my own terms.

Current Situation:

Getting my degree is vital. No question about that. My current school is quite decent and I don't want to waste all this time and effort applying somewhere that isn't any more renowned or more academically enriching. Currently looking at some of the top engineering schools in the US [Caltech, MIT, Stanford, CMU, etc.]. Other suggestions are appreciated.

My current GPA, after an atrocious first year stands at around 2.6/4.0. I expect it to be around 3.0 by the end of this year. I scored 2030 on the SATs I took back in 2007, if that might be of any relevance.

Transfer applications to all the schools I'm considering are due soon but I'm probably not even going to bother to get in for Fall '10 (unless someone can convince me otherwise).

Instead, What I'm considering is taking a semester or a year off. This is where you guys come in:

- What can or should I do during this time to maximize my chances of being accepted to my desired college?

Community college courses to boost GPA? Summer courses at the institution I wish to attend? Cure cancer?

- Is this even a good plan? Is there something I should seriously consider or any alternate paths I should take?

This sort of thing would be best to know now.

I have accumulated a decent amount of savings, enough to support myself for a while, but would rather not dip into it at all, if possible. In fact the plan is to work or do a co-op/internship somewhere and pay off as much current and future student debt as possible.

Thanks in advance for all responses . Any and all input is welcome as this is rather huge.

(Anonymous as a few IRL people I know visit this site and I'd rather not have some of this information linked to my account.)
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total)
I have a friend who was in a similar situation -- undergrad majoring in sophomore engineering, hard family situation, not doing so well. For him, the solution was to transfer to a small liberal arts school in the US midwest and take a different approach to programming (he's now double majoring w/ anthropology). I'm not sure if this is inconsistent with your goals, but some people don't find the support or community they need in larger universities and burn out of the isolation of just taking classes taking classes. I'd think twice about attaching 'academic enrichment' to the prestige of a place - I mean, to do good work and connect with your passion, you have to be in a good place yourself. (he's doing far better now, spent an independent study making an iPhone app and playing shows with his ska/punk band.) what about software engineering is most exciting for you? who do you identify as 'like-minded,' and what sort of things have they done with their lives?

but, to answer your question more directly: I think an internship is a great idea, especially one that demonstrates your resolve and ability to adapt to new/complicated circumstances well (something that builds evidence for your future success as a transfer student. keep those transfer app essays in mind). maybe you could intern part time work part time.

I can definitely identify with this point of confusion. for me, it's helped to simplify and focus on things within my control -- throwing myself into an internship, reading a lot about something I want to understand better, just taking care of myself. that might be more possible in a semester off than in your current situation.
posted by elephantsvanish at 9:29 AM on February 3, 2010

I think you need to lower your expectations and be willing to consider lower ranked schools. Pick schools in the top 50 or 100, not the top 10. You might be able to get into some good US schools by fall of '10, which accomplishes the main goal of getting out of town. It is possible you wouldn't get into your list of top tier engineering schools even after working hard and improving your resume/GPA for another year or two, and then you'd be at the same place you are now.
posted by pseudonick at 9:42 AM on February 3, 2010

Wouldn't transferring to a different Canadian college be cheaper and easier? I don't see how transferring to a prestigious foreign university is too likely with a 3.0 GPA.

Besides that, what will getting a degree from MIT or Stanford do for you? What do you want to do when you graduate? If you want to learn specific technologies, do projects at your school. Any large enough university will have people begging for programmers to help them out. If you want to do research, look at specific schools that do the research you want to do.
posted by demiurge at 9:47 AM on February 3, 2010

Summer courses at the institution I wish to attend?

This isn't possible at at least some of those institutions. Plus, summer or continuing ed classes aren't necessarily taught by the same professors as the actual classes, and in many places don't carry the same weight (and won't really help you get in.) Probably not worth the effort.

Getting an A at your current "mid-tier" college will probably count for more than getting an A at a community college. Either way, you need to be consistently getting good grades, so that you can show that freshman year was a fluke and that you're capable of succeeding academically. You joke about curing cancer, but an internship or job in the field or a position in an academic research lab would certainly help your application, and make you stand out a little bit. Plus, a letter of recommendation from someone in the field who's worked with you will carry more weight than a letter from someone who just graded your tests for a class. These things rule out sending out apps now, but they'll really increase your chances of success.

I don't want to waste all this time and effort applying somewhere that isn't any more renowned or more academically enriching.

You may want to consider some schools that are good but not top 5. You're looking for two things: good academics and a good environment. If you've got the same sort of academic opportunities you have now, but an environment in which you feel comfortable and can succeed, that's still better than what you have now. You also need to be realistic: even people with crazy amounts of experience and incredible GPAs get rejected from places like MIT and Caltech. Pinning all of your hopes on a few of the most exclusive schools anywhere - particularly when you don't feel that you have a solid application - might be misdirecting your efforts, when you might have an easier time getting into a very good school in the US or Canada that is not top 5, and moving on with your life.

Additionally, places like MIT and Caltech are awesome in many ways, but they're very high-stress and can really exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and depression - particularly if you don't have anything else in your life to compensate for the academic stress. You're feeling stifled and cloistered and like you have very little happiness in your life right now, and you've had trouble with depression affecting your work in the past; can you really manage another 2-3 years like this, if it turns out you don't like the environment at CMU or Stanford? Make sure you're choosing a school where you think you can do good work and where you think you can be happy.
posted by ubersturm at 10:01 AM on February 3, 2010

Given the large price differential and the huge competition, you'd probably be better off trying for a higher-tier Canadian university. Also you don't need a visa, etc. Once you're a province away form your family you might as well be around the world. I'd suggest researching transfer procedures into a different school, especially one that has a co-op program like Waterloo since that way you can make some money to help defer costs.
posted by GuyZero at 10:15 AM on February 3, 2010

Ubersturm has it. Even if you could get into one of the big engineering schools, those places are super high stress and you'll never feel more than average there. It sounds like a smaller school would be a better approach.

It's a terrible idea to shop for schools based on where they are in national rankings. The really prestigious places don't offer a significantly better education, and in fact can be a lot worse for the average student. Faculty is focused on research and writing and often doesn't give a damn about students.

The top-tier universities offer better resources for truly exceptional people, it's true. However, any podunk research university has cutting edge shit going on. It's just that the best schools have MORE cutting edge shit is going on.

Transfer somewhere good but not prestigious (one of the big state research U's or a smaller school) and finish as strong as possible. Afterward, work for a couple years and accomplish something that'll pique the interest of a graduate program at a top-tier university. Once you've got your graduate degree, no one will care where your undergrad years were spent.
posted by paanta at 10:21 AM on February 3, 2010

Seriously consider transferring to another decent school elsewhere in Canada to finish your undergraduate degree. It will have the same effect of getting you away from your stifling home situation and it will be orders of magnitude cheaper and involve jumping through far fewer hoops.

One thing that is carefully hidden from undergraduate students is that nobody in the real world cares where you went to undergrad. If undergrad is going to be the end of your academic career, then one degree is basically as good as another. If you're planning to go to grad school, then a Bachelor's degree from UManitoba (or wherever) and a Master's from MIT is just as good as having gotten both sheepskins from MIT.

Focus on the issue at hand (moving to another town and keeping your GPA up) and save the worry about prestigious alma maters for later.
posted by 256 at 10:33 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're planning to go to grad school, then a Bachelor's degree from UManitoba (or wherever) and a Master's from MIT is just as good as having gotten both sheepskins from MIT.

This is true if you're a genius. If you want to get a job and/or into grad school as an average student then IMO the school does matter. Most of a top-tier school's student performance is selection bias (the best schools get the best students who tend to get the best jobs, etc). Regardless of whether the school actually has an effect on outcome I see it as a form of Pascal's wager where I'll take the better school just in case.
posted by GuyZero at 10:42 AM on February 3, 2010

I think you are going to have a very hard time transferring to a top-tier US school with your marks. Also, if you don't want debt, going to the US is probably a really bad idea.

Why not apply to transfer to a school you think you would be happier at in Canada? I'm sure you are aware that Waterloo is very well regarded for software engineering, but there are other good universities. If one of your main criteria is getting away from your family, well, Canada is a pretty big country. You don't need to go to the US to do that.

Finally, you need to plan for the eventuality that you don't get accepted to transfer to another school. Start making the changes in your life that will make you happier now (and move out of your parent's house, if you still live there). Moving away to some highly-ranked school is not going to solve all your problems and even if it could, you may not be able to make the move you want to.
posted by ssg at 10:48 AM on February 3, 2010

Nthing stay in Canada. Tuition in the US is exorbitant, housing is not cheap, and a lot of schools don't offer financial aid to international students. The endowments at US universities are dropping, too, so now's not the time. It's not worth it, especially since schools in Canada are awesome. Plus, you might run into problems with healthcare past what the campus health center can help you with, resulting in a large amount of money. Never mind that if you do get hired by an American company eventually, they might not hire you because of H1-B visa issues (not sure if it's true for Canada, but it is for other international students).
posted by anniecat at 10:57 AM on February 3, 2010

It is a lot easier to get into a Canadian school at this point. Waterloo, as well as all the big universities (McGill, Toronto, UBC) have good programming/engineering programs, where grads are hired into jobs in the US and in Canada both. (I know many Canadian grads working at companies like Google, Microsoft, as well as in Canadian firms.)

Figure out where you would like to live and what places have the kinds of jobs you would like to do while studying, then apply to the schools in that area.
posted by jeather at 11:05 AM on February 3, 2010

Nthing that you don't seem to have the grades to get into any of the top tier US schools. You *may* have the grades to get into a better Canadian School. I believe that University of Waterloo software engineering is still very highly regarded.

Not to mention that most of the schools that you mentioned are $20,000+/year tuition vs. the $6,000 ish/year tuition that a Canadian school will cost.
posted by saradarlin at 6:16 PM on February 3, 2010

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