Has this question plagued philosophers for centuries?
December 21, 2009 2:50 PM   Subscribe

UndergraduateFilter: Tell me all I need to know, and more!

I know I've been asking a lot of "life questions" lately, but this one is relevant (I love how I will be able to map out all my rites of passage and life monuments later on).

So, I am going to a community college, I have about eight more classes to take, and I am trying for graduation next spring. Applications are going to start being due soon, so I'm thinking about where I want to go and how. And I have three weeks of vacation to think about all this, hence the forthcoming complexities (well, maybe not, we'll see).

I've been looking at William & Mary, Brown, Dartmouth, UPenn, Amherst, and Wellesley. The only ones out of this list which might actually happen are William & Mary and Brown. I'm planning on majoring in philosophy (Plan B: French), and since you can't do anything with a BA in Philosophy, I'm planning ahead. William & Mary pretty much has to accept me if I meet their "guaranteed admissions" requirements. Good thing I'm going to a Virginia community college. So...

1. Any college-specific things you could tell me? I know Brown won't accept writing samples from transfers, which is horrible! I have nothing else to set me apart...the best GPA I can get on my AS degree will be a 3.75, and that's if I get straight A's from now on (got all A's I think for this semester, it was dual-enrollment in high school that ruined my life). Do they want someone who has it all together or would I sound too arrogant to them if I tried? And...has anyone actually experienced the philosophy departments of these schools? Do they have good graduate-school placement records?

2. Do I HAVE to include ALL the colleges I've been to? I went to a really terrible college for one year of which I failed out due to sickness and pure hatred of the school and its methods....do they really need to see my F's there when I'm definitely not even going to try to keep those credits in my name?

3. OK, this is kind of a funny one to me. Is it weird for an undergraduate to mention faculty research? I did look at all Brown's philosophy faculty (and W&M's...and UPenn....blah blah), but should I tell them this? I know and they know I'm not going to be working with these people directly, but maybe it would equal commitment or something. Should I tell them I've developed interests in certain areas of philosophy or should I allude that I am totally open to all facets of everything (I wrote about "motive" and "intention" in utilitarianism, you know...an elementary subject, for sure—will that kind of thing backfire? I'm totally into all the philosophical things I wrote in my "Why This Subject?" essay...but I bet I sound a little pompous?) And...should I do this right after telling them I've only taken one semester and I really liked the teacher and the book....therefore possibly clouding my good judgment of philosophy to begin with?? I mean, how else could I show I think I could fit in with the department?

4. I got a 1940/2400 on the SAT. Should I retake it, or do transfers have different standards? (And ew, does this mean I'm not going to do so well on the GREs either, later on?)

I know I can get good recommendations...and I COULD have sent a good writing sample! But anyway, now that I know all Brown will have from me is my numbers, I don't feel so good about it. I don't know how to explain my high school performance either (3.1 overall, with a lovely 9th grade GPA of 1.3), so I just have the old "There's no use in explaining, just see by my current grades that I'm not rebellious anymore". The only thing I can really do is somehow set myself apart with the Transfer "Why Are You Changing Colleges" essay and the supplement essays "Why Brown? Why This Subject?"


OK, so if you want to stop there, I won't feel bad. The next section is more vague, and all I really need to know right now is advice on undergraduate applications.


1. Brown has a 5-year BA/MA program, which I like. I'm thinking about dollars here, so I ask: which would be the best way to go, considering not just dollars, but what would be best in the long run. Should I look for BA/MA programs (if others even exist!), terminal MA programs, or MA/PhD programs? I know I'm not going to be ready for a PhD right out of college.

2. The Philosophical Gourmet, admittedly, is my #1 source for starting out the search for BA, MA, and (if I'm not sick of philosophy by the end) PhD programs. I know that Name counts for a lot, at least in philosophy, and if I do decide to stick with it, I want my schooling to count! Old Leiter also has a lot to say about how I should think about the school's graduate programs when looking at the undergraduate program..."Don't go for undergrad at a Top 25 school, because the graduate students will get all the attention..." etc. It gets to be a little much. Advice about the Prestige Factor?

3. Although, if I went for a terminal MA, I could teach at a community college and see if I hated it, but do they look down on MA students who take a break then try to get a PhD? That question has been swimming around in my mind, not mandatory.


That's it, you guys!
Sorry about the superfluous graduate questions, even if I don't go, it's all so interesting and foreign to me. What I really want is undergraduate advice though. And remember, I have way too much time on my hands so not only can I think about issues that won't affect me for years....I like to do it!

PS As of now, I find graduate school highly desirable. The way I know this is...everyone I know is enjoying their winter vacation and complains about their research papers, but I was pretty maternal about my paper...and I can't wait to get back to school, already. I also don't think we do enough important work (like research...we do a lot of short-term assignments, I actually don't like those). And that's my reason.
posted by lhude sing cuccu to Education (22 answers total)
2. Yes, you have to include all of the colleges you have attended.
4. Can you break that down by subject? Most of us here probably took the SAT before the scale changed (i.e., back when it was out of 1600). What are your target schools percentiles for SAT?
posted by ishotjr at 3:06 PM on December 21, 2009

ishotjr: Verbal: 680, Math: 600, Writing: 660.
The averages are in the 700's, I'm sure. I just bet I can't get another SAT fee waiver.
Especially if they for-some-reason don't count as much for transfers.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 3:11 PM on December 21, 2009

It's pretty common for people to do an MA first, work for a while, and then get a PhD. You can't always count on your MA getting you out of coursework for the PhD, though (that is, after your 1-2 year MA program, you can still expect the same 5-8 year PhD program that someone fresh out of undergrad would take).

Most, if not all, of the philosophy majors I knew at my university (Tufts) are now either in law school or waiting to hear whether they've been accepted to any law schools. Many didn't consider law when they started. A JD might be something to think about.
posted by oinopaponton at 3:11 PM on December 21, 2009

Oh, and bottom line: if your numbers aren't competitive for the schools you want to go to, you probably won't get in unless you have a really compelling story to explain why your numbers aren't as high as what the school typically looks for. You should research whether the schools you are interested in do holistic grading for every single person, or if they put people into "yes" (people with numbers over a certain threshold), no (those with numbers below a certain threshold), and "maybe" piles, and then the maybes get in based on the "soft" criteria like writing samples, resume, etc.
You'll also find that some private schools are more apt to admit people who maybe aren't as strong numbers-wise, but then not offer them any scholarship money. So if those people can afford the very high tuition, by taking out the max of public loans and then private loans or by family support, then they can attend, but if not, no.
If your numbers are not competitive for the schools you desire most, you should definitely apply to some other schools as well as a backup in case you aren't accepted to your top choices.
posted by ishotjr at 3:15 PM on December 21, 2009

I didn't see your response when I previewed. Instead of guessing what the averages are, you can actually find out for sure from the schools themselves. I'm not going to go to the school's admissions websites myself, but they generally have the profile of the most recently admitted class, including GPA, SAT/ACT, where they're from, etc. Here is a chart I found of the Ivies.
posted by ishotjr at 3:18 PM on December 21, 2009

What I have always been told about getting a PhD in the humanities:

Don't go to any PhD program, at least in the humanities, without full funding.

Most of the people I know in PhD programs who came in with an MA did so because their undergrad work was in an entirely unrelated field, and they wanted to try out the field before making a commitment to a PhD. I also know a fair number of people who took a break before grad school, and it seemed to work out okay for them.

I have always been told that any good PhD program isn't going to count your MA coursework for their requirements, so you'll have to do the exact same coursework as any first-year with a BA. Generally people advise (or at least they advised *me*) not to bother with a MA in the middle. Of course, I was feeling underconfident about my acceptance chances, so I went and got one anyway.

And, mostly, the advice I wish I'd listened to: only go if the only thing you can ever see yourself doing is being a professor. Otherwise, it's not worth it. Grad school is very good at breaking people.
posted by sineala at 3:43 PM on December 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Should I tell them I've developed interests in certain areas of philosophy or should I allude that I am totally open to all facets of everything (I wrote about "motive" and "intention" in utilitarianism, you know...an elementary subject, for sure—will that kind of thing backfire?

You could say both; that you really enjoyed writing an essay on motive and intention in utilitarianism (because you found it a fascinating subject), but that it's too early for you to choose between topics you havn't yet studied in depth, and that you look forward to doing an undergraduate degree for the bredth as well as the depth of study that will be involved.

Brown has a 5-year BA/MA program, which I like. I'm thinking about dollars here, so I ask: which would be the best way to go, considering not just dollars, but what would be best in the long run.

One of my friends at university started out studying Politics and Philosophy; he was particularly keen to study philosophy because he had enjoyed studing it before university. Before the end of the first year, he had changed to a politics-only course, as he found the experience of studying philosophy at university to be radically different to studying it at high school.

So my suggestion is: Include in your plans provision for the unlikely event that you don't enjoy your undergraduate course.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:44 PM on December 21, 2009

Question, why are you not applying to Rutgers University, which has a very good philosophy department? Yes, it is a state school, but a good one, and if you want to pursue philosophy as a career the reputation of the department within the field is as important, if not more, than the overall reputation of the school or whether it is an ivy or not. (Full Disclosure, Mr. gudrun has a B.A. in Philosophy from Rutgers, but did not pursue a graduate degree.)
posted by gudrun at 3:48 PM on December 21, 2009

Gudrun: Honestly, because the website looked a little off to me (like Cambridge's website, weirdly). Maybe I should give it a second chance though (tuition grants are a big factor, too; I look at the funding first).
And it sounded like they would be better for graduate work.
I will, however, look into it.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 3:51 PM on December 21, 2009

I'm a bit confused - are you just starting applications now for January deadlines? Have you asked your recommenders yet? It's been over a decade since I applied to college (damn, I'm old!), but my memory is that most people applying to Ivies/Amherst-type schools tried to get their applications in before Thanksgiving. Although I guess maybe it takes less time now that everything's online. But still, it seems like you are cutting things very close. Especially if you still need to ask for recommendations.
posted by lunasol at 4:01 PM on December 21, 2009

I've been looking at William & Mary, Brown, Dartmouth, UPenn, Amherst, and Wellesley.
That's kind of an odd list. How did you come up with it?
2. Do I HAVE to include ALL the colleges I've been to?
Yes. But the nice thing about the kind of schools you're applying to is that they will actually read your application carefully, rather than just running numbers through a computer. What you need to do is to explain your educational history and life story in a way that will make sense to them. You need to convince them that you will enhance their community and contribute to the educational experiences of other students. If you can provide evidence that you're a kick-ass student and all-around fascinating individual now, a story about bouncing back from educational failure may not be the end of the world.
3. OK, this is kind of a funny one to me. Is it weird for an undergraduate to mention faculty research?
Not necessarily, but you need to be really careful that you don't treat undergrad as if it's grad school. You're going to be getting a broadly-based liberal arts education. They are not interested in people who only want to study the thing they're majoring in and will not be committed to their other classes.
The only thing I can really do is somehow set myself apart with the Transfer "Why Are You Changing Colleges" essay and the supplement essays "Why Brown? Why This Subject?"
Honestly? I think you should concentrate on those essays. They really care about the answers to them, because they show whether you're a good fit for their school. You are much more likely to get thrown into the automatic reject pile because your answer shows that you don't really know anything about Brown than because you got a D average in ninth grade.

I also think you need to come up with a more balanced list of prospective colleges, including some that are less selective than the ones you're looking at. There are lots of good liberal arts colleges that aren't quite so hard to get into.
posted by craichead at 4:04 PM on December 21, 2009

Speaking as someone with a humanities Ph.D.:

1) Ditto the funding--if they aren't paying, don't go.
2) That being said, terminal MAs are usually treated as cash cows, even if the school only has a terminal MA program.
3) Carry-over from your MA coursework will vary from program to program. You'll have additional doctoral-level classes, anyway. The more likely stumbling-block will come with foreign language requirements (terminal MAs often don't have them; Ph.D. programs definitely will--and, depending on the program, may require more than one language).
4) If you're doing a terminal MA in hopes of maybe going back for a Ph.D. later, then you need to pay very careful attention to where you go. An MA from a little-known institution is a much bigger problem than a BA from same.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:06 PM on December 21, 2009

I'm a bit confused by your list of schools. Some of them seem quite a stretch for you with your SAT scores.

One thing I did not realize until I got to graduate school is that there are schools that are less selective, but every bit as good, as the schools you have listed. I'm thinking of schools like Oberlin, Reed, Kenyon, Bard, Hampshire, etc. I knew people in grad school who went to these less selective, but still damn good schools (stealth prestige schools), and they were every bit as whip-smart and capable as Ivy League graduates ... usually more so. My experience has been that Ivy League students are often resume-obsessed, while people who attend stealth prestige schools are more genuinely brilliant.
posted by jayder at 4:12 PM on December 21, 2009

Lunasol: You're right! I'm going to ask for recommendations as soon as I get back to school. I just want to make sure I'm not making a glaring naive mistake in my Transfer Essays.

Good advice, thanks.
1. Philosophy departments, that's how. And I want to stay on the east coast. Oh...and their financial aid. All that put together. I'm really concerned about their reputation for sending their students to grad school, too. All that means the schools I'm looking at are going to be...especially selective.
2. I just don't want to turn my whole application into a big excuse for why I was such a bad student...I know it could slip into the old "I had a bad family life...no one told me college was important!...I didn't think I could ever afford college! (I did say that one though)" I have to do all this in the three essays I've got.
3. I did say I wanted to take Quantum Physics....and how much I love Brown's open curriculum.
4. I know; I'm trying to be as specific as I can. All I could think of was mentioning the faculty, though.
5. The way I'm doing this is: If I want to go to W&M more than this place, I won't apply. Because I'm quite likely to get into W&M (and believe me, I am very grateful for this).
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 4:15 PM on December 21, 2009

I went to W&M, I majored in philosophy. So, here's what I think:

You are thinking WAY too far ahead. You've had one philosophy class? That gives you a good idea of what the subject matter is like... But grad school for philosophy is a lot more than just the subject matter. I don't think you are yet prepared to decide if you want to get your MA (let alone your PhD!) in philosophy. You need to take more classes. You need to actually see what upper-level philosophy classes a like, before you start wondering whether you should take a break after getting an MA or not.

Furthermore, where did you get the idea that a BA in philosophy gives you no career options? A BA in philosophy is an incredibly useful degree -- you can do just about anything with it. The most common options are academia and law school, yes... But you have options, and you need to know that.

With all that said, here's my advice:

Stop looking at just the philosophy departments. It's not like W&M (or any of those other schools, I bet) will let you just lurk in the philosophy department alone. Heck, you're looking at a full liberal arts education, even if you'll be there for less then 4 full years. What should matter more to you right now, I think, is atmosphere, academic culture, and general education requirements of the school. Which school will provide you the right setting? Which school will give you the education you want? Which school feels right? I chose W&M because of the school W&M is -- because of the rigorous academic standards, because of its emphasis on well-rounded education, and so forth. The philosophy department (albeit excellent and wonderful and a place that still feels like home, a bit) is only one small part of the school, and, no matter how dedicated you really find yourself to philosophy, it will be only one part of your education. The school, as a whole, counts. The education you will receive, not just as preparation for grad school but as the foundation for a life of learning and thought, matters as a whole. That's what you should pay attention to.

With that said, I can give you plenty of information about W&M's philosophy department, placement, etc. I just don't know what, specifically, you want to know, given the vague questions you ask. Feel free to MeMail if you want more information.
posted by Ms. Saint at 4:30 PM on December 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

Don't go to any PhD program, at least in the humanities, without full funding.

Amen. End of story. Even then, don't go unless you have full funding in a top-10 or so department.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:11 PM on December 21, 2009

Ms. Saint has it. You're overthinking the trees and ignoring the forest.
Jayder is similarly right on about non-ivy type excellent schools (see also: New College of Florida, the College of New Jersey, honors colleges within larger state universities, and any school from Colleges That Change Lives that also meets your regional requirements).
posted by willpie at 5:31 PM on December 21, 2009

Three random tidbits from a W&M alumna (me):

--Although this is in no way scientific, a bunch of my W&M friends...I'll say at least 55%, went to graduate school after undergrad. I stayed right there and went to the W&M Ed School.

--W&M does not focus on grad students more than undergrad students, which is not to say that there isn't any love for grad students.

--Prestige: Pretty much everyone that has heard of W&M has been impressed that I went there, but there are plenty of people that haven't heard of it...more so the further you get from the East Coast.
posted by hellogoodbye at 6:32 PM on December 21, 2009

First off, congrats - you sound smart, committed, and serious about school for all the right reasons.

Building on what's been said above, I'd suggest keeping a broad perspective on your academic future in a number of ways:

1. Your interests are still emerging, as they are for everyone at the undergrad level; regardless of how much philosophy appeals today, you may discover another academic passion as you pursue your BA.

2. IF you do stay with philosophy for the long haul (BA, grad school, academic career, etc.), you'll most definitely want/need to supplement that specialized training with other areas of expertise to have *any* hopes of employment in higher ed (even with a big brand-name doctorate under your belt). Over here in English studies, when we're feeling down about our own crappy job market, etc., we always take comfort that at least we're not in Philosophy, a field where there are basically *no* undergraduate majors (besides you) and one that has mostly lost it's place in the general education curriculum on many campuses (hence, few classes to teach; hence, no need to hire new faculty). On the other hand, coupled with expertise/training/credentials in areas like writing/literacy, critical thinking, and general humanities, etc., academic philosophers have a lot to offer (i.e., they're potentially employable). Which leads to...

3. As you consider schools at each level, look for programs that allow a lot of flexibility and choices to combine a specialized area like philosophy with training in other related subjects, whether these are at elite campuses (which they're probably not) or more humble institutions. A common misperception is that simply getting a big-name graduate degree is the ticket to a secure academic job. In this era of change in American higher education, that's not always quite true. Rather than being *excellent* within a narrow (sometimes obscure) specialization, successful academics in the humanities find ways to get training and experience (from whatever sources) that makes them *indispensable* within the evolving needs that colleges and universities face today.

4. Finally, although you're immersed in a decision-making process going forward (where to complete your BA), keep in mind that one potential key to figuring out your future possibilities is the experience you'll soon complete, your Associates degree at at community college. Although the job market in the humanities generally sucks, there are in fact almost 4000 campuses in this country, and American higher education is actually expanding, not shrinking, despite the gloomy attitudes among some critics. Needless to say, most of these schools have modest reputations, little PR outside their local area, and serve students with diverse ability levels, needs, and aspirations. All of which presents important challenges and opportunities to the faculty employed on such campuses.

What I'm getting at is this: as you're planning your future, give some thought to the very real possibility, wherever you get in and however successful you are in your future studies, that eight, ten, twelve years from now the academic career roller coaster may well bring you right back around to the environment where you're currently: a job teaching at a community college. Can you imagine yourself satisfied in such an environment? Would you consider this future a success, tolerable, unacceptable? There tremendous satisfactions to faculty careers in these kinds of places, not least of which occasionally getting to mentor smart, quirky students like you. Think about the teachers you've had who've turned you on to philosophy thus far. They're making vital contributions to our society, even if their work isn't as well recognized at the elite levels of the education system. As I tell my graduate students, recognizing the range of possibilities for the future and coming to know yourself should be the goals of education, life (which of course, philosophers already know), and a successful career.

Here's to the life of the mind and your future. Good luck!
posted by 5Q7 at 10:40 PM on December 21, 2009

Sorry, I'm skimming at this point, but here's my relevant experience:

SATs will be counted very lightly or not at all for someone transferring from another college with more than a semester of credit. Your GPA (in college) will be weighed very heavily, surprisingly performance in college classes is considered to be a good indicator of performance in college classes.

It is worthwhile to consider if a college will accept more/less than average transfer credit from your current college. For example, I transferred an associates degree which fulfilled all of my gen ed requirements, including courses I had tested out of at community college but which you can't test out of at my current college. People who transferred which nearly the same courses but who didn't do all the paperwork for their associates had to take a bunch of gen ed to fill very specific requirements, i.e. not just a humanities but a specific type of humanities, when they already had a pile of other general humanities classes. On top of that, transferring to an out of state college can result in odd credit being accepted/denied, which can make an impact on how happy you are (retaking the same bs courses) and how much time you have to focus on courses that actually interest you.
posted by anaelith at 7:16 AM on December 22, 2009

It sounds like you're talking about state colleges, anaelith, and if so, your experience has very little relevence for the kind of school that the OP is talking about. I would be extremely surprised if Brown or Amherst exempted students from distribution requirements because they had an associates degree. I suspect that if the OP were to get into one of those schools, she'd have to start over at the beginning.
posted by craichead at 7:45 AM on December 22, 2009

craichead: William and Mary has an articulation agreement with the Virginia community college system, and:
Students granted admission as degree candidates to W&M under the provisions of this agreement will be granted junior standing, defined as having earned a minimum of 54 credit hours of coursework toward the Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree. These students are considered to have completed lower-division general education and proficiency requirements at W&M with the exception of the requirements listed below
And the list of exceptions is fairly short. In other words, assuming the OP is accurate in that W&M must accept them (there's a whole slew of requirements), they may be able to finish their undergraduate degree significantly sooner. I don't think they'd have to start over from the beginning at, for example, Amherst, which seems to have plenty of provisions (PDF) for transfer students, but it may be rockier going. Since the OP is already looking toward graduate school, depending on what kind of offers other schools make saving some time now by going to W&M and then going somewhere else for grad school later might be a pretty decent choice.
posted by anaelith at 10:44 AM on December 22, 2009

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