#58 Navigating the Competitive Landscape of Computer Science Admissions Transcript



Jennifer Stephan  0:01  

I believe students who have what I call a really strong CS fingerprint have the best outcomes. What I mean by that is all parts of their application are supported by Cs related activities, or creative problem solving activities. And it’s not enough just to have strong grades, in math and science. I mean, that’s absolutely true, absolutely needed. It’s not enough to just have CS related activities that demonstrate genuine interest in the field, extending yourself in ways that maybe others haven’t. So you can look a little different. I find that I’ve had a lot of success with students who have essay topics that show creative problem solving in unique ways.


Lisa Marker Robbins  0:44  

Of all the college majors, computer science is the hottest major right now. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Because of this, it also makes computer science a highly competitive major. Often universities that admit as many as 50% of their applicants will only admit single digits to the computer science major. Yep, you heard me correctly. My guest, Dr. Jennifer Stephen is an expert on computer science admissions. She leans into her vast experience as a Dean of Academic Advising and a school of engineering professor of computer science, independent educational consultant, and a mom of now young adults to give insights into competitive admissions to help your family chart a path to admission. She also explains why if your teen is creative, and hasn’t considered computer science or related majors, they might just want to do so. I’m Lisa Mark Robbins, and I want to welcome you to College and Career Clarity, a flourish coaching production. Let’s dive right in to a great conversation. Well, I am super excited to welcome Dr. Jennifer Stephen of Tufts University and an independent educational consultant. She is here to talk about what could be the hottest major in the US right now. Or maybe Jennifer, you can tell me maybe outside the US as well. And that is computer science. Not only is it a hot major, it’s a super competitive major. Jennifer is the Dean of Academic Advising and undergraduate studies for the School of Engineering at Tufts University. Through her work there her previous work that hat that she’s worn as a mom, and as an independent educational consultant. She’s got fantastic insights for us on computer science and the admission path there. Jennifer, welcome.


Jennifer Stephan  2:49  

Oh, thank you so much, Lisa, I’m really delighted to be here today.


Lisa Marker Robbins  2:53  

Would you say I started out saying it’s the hottest major, is that correct? And no, would that just be for the US or everywhere?


Jennifer Stephan  3:00  

Oh, it’s the hottest, it’s the hottest everywhere really, since 2008 enrollments and interest has skyrocket to the tune of at some places an increase of 800% of applications since 2008. So it is just astounding. Part of that is because as we know, 2008 was the economic downturn and families are concerned about return on investment in the money that they spend on college, but also making sure that their children are of some health in what’s a very insecure, confusing world, right and if at all, and so having something to anchor on to in terms of being able to be employed and you know, have some certainty in their future.


Lisa Marker Robbins  3:41  

I work with a lot of students with my college major and career coaching course where the students like well, maybe or I’m not sure or you know, what is computer science parents, like you said, are looking, you know, have that lens on it. Like, we really want to not only increase the ROI on this investment we’re making in our student and their future, but we want to have a excellent outcome. So how would you say a family should look at computer science? Like how would you describe the field itself? Because there are other fields that we’re going to talk about as well. But how would you describe computer science?


Jennifer Stephan  4:18  

At its core computer science is about creative problem solving. A lot of people don’t realize how much creativity there is in the field of computer science. On tufts campus. There is a school of Museum of Fine Arts in a school of engineering and then a School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Museum of Fine Arts is actually part of the School of Arts and Sciences, but from a degree program standpoint, I consider them separately. And I’m always saying to my counterpart at the School of Museum of Fine Arts. We are the makers on campus. I’m an engineer myself, I have my Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD in electrical and computer engineering. I did teach computer science for 14 years. I was a professor of CS at Wellesley College for 14 years and I remember when I first arrived at Wellesley College very early on standing online To get my photo ID as a brand new faculty member straight out of graduate school, and I was behind an esteemed French professor who must have for some reason been, she’d been there a long time renewing her ID. And she kind of said to me in a very low academic Ivory Tower, way, computer science tells me about computer science. And when I said it was free, she seemed very surprised that she thought it was much more about like fixing computers. And I said, No, this is a creative discipline, creative problem solving. So I have three daughters. So one of my daughters is an artist, my oldest daughter is an engineer, my youngest, I don’t know, we’ll see. But my my middle daughter being an artist, people often say how did that happen, I’m like, it’s actually makes a lot of sense. We are the creators, my husband’s an engineer, as well. So we are we are the creator, artists and engineers. So CS is a very creative problem solving oriented discipline.


Lisa Marker Robbins  5:47  

You know, a lot of people, everybody always says, you know, STEM fields are hot, but a lot of people use the acronym steam instead, because they include that art, and I’ve never really thought about it in the way that you’re putting it. But I think I’m gonna start saying steam instead of STEM myself, after listening to you share that,


Jennifer Stephan  6:07  

especially certain fields of art. Again, my daughter, she really loves photography, she really loves image. And one day, you know, we were at a scientific exhibit somewhere, and they had all sorts of satellite images, and she was riveted by them. So if you think about it, photography is is an instrument, you know, the basis and instrumental basis. So of all the artistic fields, manipulating image light, how light works is, you know, maybe more so than sculpture or something engineering related. I say that is not an artist. So maybe an artist will be great.


Lisa Marker Robbins  6:37  

But a take exception with you on that, right?


Jennifer Stephan  6:41  

Hey, but especially the image, you know, because the math, signal processing is what I did my PhD research and and that could be whether it’s, it could be an image, it could be a voice signal. So data can represent an image. It’s what I’m saying. Yeah,


Lisa Marker Robbins  6:53  

that makes sense. You know, so where my head goes to, and we were talking about, you know, getting your ROI, your return on investment on this college, if it’s so popular. Now, what has that done to the admission rate, like the competitiveness of computer science programs?


Jennifer Stephan  7:11  

Oh, it has really driven the admit rates down and made it extremely competitive to gain admission to many of the top schools, I tell my students who are applying as CS majors and have friends who are applying as other majors don’t think you’re competing against them, and they may get into a school that you don’t get into the disciplines are different, and it’s just a different beast. And I actually have some data I don’t remember off the top of my head about the difference in mid grade at Carnegie Mellon University 2015, the admit rate was 5%. While it was 19%. For its seven other programs, more recent data since then, it’s consistent with that. And at the University of Washington in the fall of 2021. Another top CS program, the direct to meet major CS, computer engineering and mid rate for out of state residents was 3%, while the direct to college engineering admit rate was 33%. And the overhead rate was 51% 3% 51%. Just out that so it is exceedingly competitive to gain admission to CS programs. And I always tell my students, I always tell my families I manage expectations that they have got to adjust their expectations with respect to what a reach really means. What a reach school, you know, may be for them if they were studying something else. It might not be a reach school, but because they’re studying it very well, maybe.


Lisa Marker Robbins  8:32  

Yeah, it recently interviewed Andy bores to his Director of Undergraduate Admissions at University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and they only admit 6% of computer science applicants. Well, they’ve got other programs that you know, are above 50% Admit rate, so absolutely changes. You’re right. What’s the difference between that reach that target that safety school for sure.


Jennifer Stephan  8:56  

I had a 21 year career at Wellesley College before I moved to Tufts University six and a half years ago, during the latter part of my tenure at Wellesley for eight years, I served on the board of admissions and I’ve evaluated voted on in committee read about 100 applications a year and I specifically read transfer applications. It was actually the case during that time that the CS department which had been my home department when I had been there for 14 years, my former department came to the Dean of Admissions and said please don’t admit any CS students like just don’t because we already have students who are frustrated at a small liberal arts college like Wellesley College, you know, I moved into administration in 2008. I was in that role for eight years. So sometime in between 2008 and 2016. This occurred, there were 100 person weightless on certain classes, and this is about a 2300 2500 undergraduate student campus to have waitlist of about 100 students. I would have students who were frustrated that they couldn’t get their first CS class until their sophomore year, sometimes their second semester sophomore year. And again, they said to the dean of admission Please don’t admit any CS students, we already have enough on our campus. So that’s an example of competitiveness.


Lisa Marker Robbins  10:06  

Yeah. So because if they do admit them, then they can’t serve the ones that they’ve already admitted? Well, I think that’s a great point, too, because sometimes somebody will be like, Oh, I’ll apply to a different major and hope to switch enter that major. But even if the policy of the university is yes, you can, they are still may not be space. Like, they might say, Yes, we allow change of major. But what you’re reiterating, and I know to be true of many schools as that doesn’t mean that there will be space, just because there’s a policy that says, yes, there might be years where there’s no space, or very little space. So that’s not a good strategy to apply to a different major and hope to change into computer science, if that’s what they want, because of the competitiveness.


Jennifer Stephan  10:54  

Well, yeah, a few points. I mean, what you said is absolutely true. I also think that every student’s best chances of admission are through an authentic application. And admissions officers are savvy, they are not going to believe that a student who was application screens, let’s say, an interest in computer science wants to study Italian literature or Russian culture or something like, which are, as we know, under enrolled majors, and they’re just not going to believe that. And so not only will a student perhaps be unable to achieve their ultimate goal of studying CS, because perhaps they cannot move or perhaps there isn’t space for them to move. I mean, some places don’t even let you move. You know, Carnegie Mellon has a good example, if you are not admitted into the School of computer science application, your chances of being later admitted are almost none. So some places won’t even allow it in some places. While they might allow it as you say, there might not be space, you might have your application dismissed because it’s not authentic. Exactly.


Lisa Marker Robbins  11:51  

Yeah. Well, and I know at University of Illinois, and he told me, If you don’t apply to computer science as a 12th, grader, there is no change of major, that’s the one major and he said, there’s a couple other majors that are getting tight enough that they may not allow change a major but I know in computer science is very common. So how do you advise? Like, what are your best tips for the families that you’re working with? When they’re applying, like what’s going to increase the chances of getting into these really competitive majors?


Jennifer Stephan  12:25  

Well, I believe students who have what I call a really strong CS fingerprint have the best outcomes. And what I mean by that is, all parts of their application are supported by Cs related activities, or creative problem solving activities, I will say that as well. And it’s not enough just to have strong grades, strong grades in math and science. I mean, that’s absolutely true, absolutely needed. It’s not enough to just have ces related activities that demonstrate genuine interest in the field, extending yourself in ways that maybe others haven’t. So you can look a little different, I find that I find a lot of success with students who have essay topics that show creative problem solving in unique ways.


Lisa Marker Robbins  13:08  

When you said a strong CS fingerprint threw out the application, let’s, let’s hit on what that is for a listener. So the essay would be a place where they can put their fingerprint on it. Let’s flush out what it means on the wall.


Jennifer Stephan  13:24  

Yeah. And just to be clear, that doesn’t need to be about CES, it could be about something that’s not ces related on the surface, but actually shows creative problem solving. And I’ll give you an example. I have a student to actress she just wrote to me today, I had sent out a holiday greetings card to say thank you so much. And here’s what I’m up to. She’s a sophomore at Northwestern right now. She applied early decision to Northwestern to study CS in the School of Engineering, and we talked about should it be a school of arts and sciences School of Engineering, that’s another consideration. And her essay that she wrote was about the American Ninja Warrior style obstacle course she built in her backyard. And she described in detail in her essay about her problem solving approach, specifically around the monkey bars, which she felt every self respecting obstacle course should have monkey bars. And she wanted to be variable in space, so that a child could go across them, or an adult could go across them. And she created if you can imagine the monkey bars, there were many slots that you could drop these monkey bars and she would drop the monkey bars in and then she would try to go across and the monkey bars would spin and that frustrated her that’s not the way monkey bars are supposed to be. She said that her dad said I don’t know maybe you should just nail them in and move on from this idea that you’re going to have variable Space Monkey Bars, but she was fiercely determined she was going to figure it out and she ended up settling upon a beautifully elegant solution. She detailed some failed attempts to solve the problem which is important because you will always fail as an engineer, as an artist. Actually, as we were talking earlier, that’s part of the process for solving problems and being successful, but then she settled on a beautifully elegant solution. which is the rungs that slot into these bars, she nailed a piece of wood to each end.


Lisa Marker Robbins  15:06  

So she debited straight in that in a fantastic essay. And it sounds like you said, you know, I just sort of say like you are going to fail if you go into computer science or same would be true in engineering. So showing that you’re willing to take a risk and that you’re resilient, and you get back up and keep going. And I imagine so you also probably that fingerprint would be on the extracurricular activities.


Jennifer Stephan  15:30  

Absolutely, absolutely. And I think some people think you have to have all CS, extracurricular activities, or everything CS related, you could, in that case, to be accepted to the most highly selective, the tippy top, you really have to be very, very at the top of those, if you’re doing CS competitions, or you know, first robotics or various math competitions. Math is the foundation for all engineering and CS, to get into the tippy top. The CMU is the MIT is for CES, you have to be at the tippy top, if you’re doing sort of the classic ces things, but if you’re doing different things, you could look different in the pool, and perhaps distinguish yourself that way. And that’s what this student did that I’m describing as she actually was a black belt in karate. And she had a lot of other really, really cool activities, and some classic CS one, some camps and some research activities, but very, very interesting application with a lot of aspects of showing a lot of strength.


Lisa Marker Robbins  16:23  

And obviously then in the class to academic choices they make for what they’re pursuing in high school, as well as


Jennifer Stephan  16:29  

the you want to take a lot of math and science, you want to do well in your math and science. If you’re sending test scores, you want to have strong math test scores, students often extend their high school curriculum through MOOCs or Khan Academy or dual enrollment or some local college courses. It’s helpful if you identify activities that genuinely interest you, and that you are really excited about. If you can generate them yourself, rather than have someone tell you what to do and have your parents pay to play that’s even more powerful.


Lisa Marker Robbins  17:00  

Well, I think you just brought up MOOC so massive online, open enrollment courses, for any listener who might not know what it is, those are free. They’re available online, you know what I’m thinking like, if they pursue something CS related through a MOOC, and they’re doing this or they’re not earning credit, they’re not getting a grade for it. It also demonstrates what a lot of colleges like see, which is that intellectual curiosity and that self starter piece,


Jennifer Stephan  17:31  

right? Absolutely. And that’s sort of what I was just saying about, like, if you can come up with the idea on your own, if you can not, you know, just have a parent or a counselor or some adult, or you follow what your friend is doing, you know, say do this, if you don’t just follow a path, you come up with something on your own. That’s different that they haven’t seen before that can distinguish you in the pool as well. I have a student, he wrote a really cool essay, they live in an urban area, and they parked their car on the curb outside their house, and his father looked out the window at breakfast one day and said, shoot, someone’s parked in my spot again, do you think it’s the same person. And my students said, I don’t know. Like any good engineer, I decided to figure it out. And he secured a camera to the base of their mailbox and pointed it towards the parking spot. And every 15 minutes, he takes a photo the camera takes a photo wirelessly transmits it to his computer. Then he has a computer program that parses the image, identifies the license plate identifies the actual license plate number, stores it in a database, compares that license plate to all the other past images, crunches some data and then shares it on a website with his father. So his father can actually go to the website. So we also created a website to display the data, his father goes to the website rather than looks out the window to see who’s parking his car and knows if that car is parked there before that is intellectually curious. That is genius. Born from within, right, I could not tell him, You should go out right. And I couldn’t tell my other student, you should go out and build an you know, an obstacle course in your backyard and fail a whole lot and then figure out this elegant solution. These things come from the students intellectual curiosity, and I think are more powerful than many other types of experiences. Of course, there are many experiences that ACES students talents, though,


Lisa Marker Robbins  19:19  

I agree, I love the creativity. And I know that colleges love it as well when they’re reading and they can then I mean, talk about authenticity. You know, many colleges allow students when they’re selecting that major. So let’s say that the student I had a recent student that lives in Virginia who was applying to colleges for CES, so many colleges say okay, what’s your first major, but they also allow a second major. One of the interesting things that I did learn from Andy Borst. At UI UC was for certain majors like CES, they don’t allow a second major but for the under enrolled majors or the AP Average enrolled majors, you do get a second choice. If a student were given the opportunity to choose a second major, that maybe would be like adjacent or share some of the qualities and maybe keep that career path of computer science open when they can’t get directly admitted into the CS program. Do you have suggestions for other major said would be up for consideration?


Jennifer Stephan  20:27  

Absolutely. My home department, electrical and computer engineering is one Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering are two separate fields. But sometimes there’s a joint degree available. Data Science very closely related also very hard. I have to admit, I have a student who very much wanted to study computer science was actually admitted at the University of Waterloo to their geomatics degree, which is the data science that underpins Google Maps and those types of tools that we have. These are some examples that are coming straight off the top of my head, I actually have a long longer list computer engineering, electrical engineering, data science, robotics, geographic information systems that’s related to geomatics. As I mentioned, human computer interaction I mentioned computational biology or bioinformatics, Applied and Computational math, informatics, human factors engineering, digital arts, and media, which we talked about a little bit. There’s a connection there. Cognitive Science, very closely related, actually, quite a few faculty members on the staff at Wellesley College have CS cognitive science, backgrounds, statistics, machine learning AI, as just some examples. Yeah,


Lisa Marker Robbins  21:35  

but absolutely fantastic. Well, this has been a super, super helpful episode, because you’re right, it’s a hot major, and I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. So families really need to, I think, from an early stage of high school, go at this with a lot of intention, so that they’re making the right choices, informed choices when it comes time to applying.


Jennifer Stephan  22:02  

Right, I think the last thing I might add is, I think it’s very important that this is a genuine interest on the part of the student, because otherwise, they’re not going to be able to make that authentic application to schools, and they won’t see the outcomes that families might hope for. Also, they might not be happy if they’re just wanting to study. See, so and most of us will be most successful if we’re actually pursuing what we really love, as opposed to what we think will give us a job. That’s my


Lisa Marker Robbins  22:29  

life’s work, right is where is that intersection? I can pay the bills. I love it. As parents, we just want our kids to be happy.


Jennifer Stephan  22:38  

Right? Yeah. And also to contribute to society. So you know, what, what do I love? What am I good at? Yeah, what can I be compensated for and what adds value to society? In my role as dean, I’ve worked with lots of students who were studying a subject could be CS could be engineering could be something else for the wrong reason I’ve had students say to me, oh, econ is for my grandma. And English is for me, for instance, or something like that. Or I’m going to be pre med just because or I’m going to be an engineer just because and I’ll say, well, you’re now signing up for a job that you may not like, if you if you don’t like this, realize it’s going to go forward in the future, you’re going to continue working.


Lisa Marker Robbins  23:16  

There’s an interesting stat around that, that kids that you’re advising both at tops, and in as an independent counselor might benefit from students from kindergarten to high school graduation, go to school for 16,000 hours. So you say that to a kid, and they’re like, Oh, I’m failing. You can see on their face like, Man, I’m filling every one of those hours, right. And then when I tell them that the average adult is going to work over 90,000 hours and their life, wow, that light bulb goes on that you better do some intentional work around finding the job that you’ll love. And right now we’re making a choice about that first job after graduation, and then we’ll see where it takes you. But you’ve got to be wired for it. So absolutely,


Jennifer Stephan  24:03  

absolutely. I say to students, I’ve been known to say to students, it takes more than Well, it takes skill. And it also takes passion, which is of course an overused word, but it really does summarize what we’re talking about here. You have to care about what you’re doing. Yeah, yeah.


Lisa Marker Robbins  24:18  

Well, great parenting advice, as well as great advice for our teens that are considering ces Jennifer, thank you for making time to come on to the podcast. If people want to keep in touch we’ll put it in the show notes. But where’s the best place to find you?


Jennifer Stephan  24:33  

The best place to find me is that my practice lantern college counseling that’s li n t e r n. My name is Jennifer Steven and you can email me at Jennifer at lantern college.com Please do not reach out to me at Tufts University. Today I am here in my capacity as an independent educational consultant Atlantan


Lisa Marker Robbins  24:55  

Absolutely. Well, thank you, Jennifer. Take care of you My hope in bringing Jennifer to you is it will help manage your family’s expectations when it comes to competitive admissions, help you think more broadly about majors and careers, and set you up for success. By now you’re beginning to understand the importance of having what Jennifer explained as a fingerprint on your team’s application, regardless of their major. That means creating the narrative to demonstrate your team as a competitive candidate, who understands that the major they selected aligns with their wiring. Inside my launch Career Clarity course, which is currently open for enrollment. I coach teens through my three pillar framework to identify majors and careers that are a best fit for them. And for those who think they might know what they want to study, they use my step by step process to confirm fit. By the time a student finishes my course they won’t only be prepared to make an informed decision on their college major, but they will have created that fingerprint Jennifer talked about your college bound homework this week is to check out my launch Career Clarity course and consider joining me in this next cohort. The doors for enrollment are closing soon. And I want your team to be supported in choosing the right college major and career path. Go to flourish coaching co.com forward slash course to learn more. Thank you for listening to College and Career Clarity podcast where I help your family move from overwhelmed, confused to motivated, clear and confident about your team’s future. And this is exactly what you’ll achieve when your family joins me inside my launch course.