University of Michigan (visited 1/31/15)
I did not get a conventional tour at Michigan because their admission office is not open on Saturday (except for a few rare dates scattered throughout the year). I’m a little shocked at this. It’s a major university; people want to visit and tour. I got the feeling from talking to their admissions office that it just didn’t matter; they assumed people would conform to whatever schedule they put forth, and really, they’re mostly right. They’ve got the name and reputation. Therefore, they clearly don’t have to try. However, this also seems to be indicative of how the university runs as a whole. They’ll give you a world class education, but you’re on your own to seek it out, meet them on their terms, and do what you need to do by yourself.
Because I couldn’t rearrange my schedule in order to arrive on a weekday for a conventional tour, I reached out to a friend doing a graduate program at the university. She spent a few hours walking around with me. Although I didn’t get the “party line” and couldn’t ask the tour guide about his/her experiences, I think that I ended up getting much more than I would have on a school-based tour. We walked through much of the area surrounding campus, walked through a lot of the university buildings, had lunch at a local restaurant, and I got the uncensored impressions of the students and school from someone not working for admissions.
“The classes are great, but they’re big.” She said that it’s hard to get advising sometimes, hard to make sure you’re taking the classes you need, hard to get access to some classes. She’s a TA and knows that a lot of the undergrads’ educations were coming from people like her. I asked her what she thought of the university in relation to Berkeley where she did her undergraduate work. “They’re a lot alike. You need the sharp elbows here, too.” However, she said that the students are very different at Michigan. “Maybe I’m jaded after Berkeley, but Michigan is supposed to be this bastion of liberalism. It just isn’t.” She described the overall student body as “rich and conforming.” There are a lot of girls with the stick-straight hair and the “right clothes and right bags.” That’s not to say that there’s not diversity. Clearly there is. It’s a huge school (about 28,000 undergrads); you’ll find some of everyone here. However, there seems to be an overarching culture of conformity. The students I saw as I walked around campus backed up that assessment.
Students who will do well here are those who want to study on Saturday afternoons and those who are hyper-independent with “sharp elbows” (aka who will fight classes, housing, etc) and who can figure out what they need and then know which questions to ask in order to get what they need – academically and socially – without help. “It’s the type of school where you can easily fall through the cracks, especially the first year. You don’t know what you need until it’s too late and you’ve missed an opportunity or a deadline.”
As we walked through the library and then the union, students packed every available space and were studying. There was some socialization going on, but very little. Books were open, papers were being written, areas were relatively quiet. It’s the sort of scene I would have expected more on a Sunday afternoon than on a Saturday. Students here clearly take their learning seriously. However, there were also a lot of students out on the “Diag” (diagonal path cutting across the quad) and heading in and out of buildings. Even on a cold, dreary day, there was plenty going on around campus. The blocks surrounding campus are clearly geared towards meeting students’ needs. There’s a vague sense of “counterculture” but most of the stores were typical college-student places: cafes, restaurants, book stores. There’s no shortage of things to do on or around campus.
Most students study in the Liberal Arts College (LSA: Literature, Science, and the Arts). Freshmen can also apply to Architecture, Engineering, Performing Arts, Kinesiology, and Nursing. Students interested in Education, Business, Social Work, Pharmacy, Public Policy, and some other programs must apply and be accepted into the program during freshman or sophomore years (although some give Freshman Preferred Admissions, aka guaranteed placement, when they’re accepted to the university).