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First-year files: The “special sauce” at University of Chicago

January 18th, 2022

The new year is a great time to reflect on the year past: the challenges, the joys, and all the experiences created. I like to encourage Shrop Ed advisees who are now in their first year of college to look back on their first semester. These insights and experiences can often help younger students as college choice decisions are near.

Image via University of Chicago News

In today’s installment of “first-year files,” a student who attends the University of Chicago after taking a gap year shares her experiences. This post is a great distillation of University of Chicago’s intellectual environment, which I consider its “special sauce,” and I am delighted Jenny is willing to be so candid. I believe this is a great read for students as they continue to decide what direction their lives will take.

Jenny’s first year experience from University of Chicago shared below….

I loved my first quarter at UChicago. I took a gap year before coming to college, and to me, being at college combines the best of being in high school and being on gap year––––I have the school community and daily schedule of high school to ensure my productivity, but I also have much greater freedom to make my own schedule and decide what to pursue like throughout my gap year.

I took math, physics, and a core humanities class called Philosophical Perspectives this past quarter. In my philosophy class, we studied ethics through books like Plato’s Five Dialogues and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Our class discussed topics such as “Is anyone really morally responsible for their actions?” and “If someone you love becomes unvirtuous, should you stop loving them?” In my physics class, we built upon students’ knowledge from AP Mechanics and learned techniques for solving physics problems. The coolest part of our class was that our professor was part of the team of physicists who discovered the Higgs-boson particle. After our final, he hosted a social event for our class and shared his experience of working with scientists all over the world on experimental particle physics.

I’ve enjoyed all three of my classes, yet my math class, Honors Real Analysis I, stood out the most. It is the most difficult class I’ve ever taken but also the most rewarding. The class was fast paced: we covered Treil’s Linear Algebra Done Wrong and Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis in nine weeks. I spent many nights and weekends in the library reading textbooks and doing problem sets with my friends, but I don’t regret any second of it for the beauty of mathematics the class has shown me. It was my favorite class this quarter, and I’ve tentatively decided on a math major based on my experience.

Aside from finding the classes incredibly engaging, I also felt a sense of community and strong intellectual atmosphere at UChicago. Unlike in high school, where I sometimes felt like students separate into cliques based on athletic abilities, academic interests, or cultural backgrounds, in college, I’ve found it much easier to talk to students who, upon first glance, seem completely different from me. Additionally, students here have more diverse passions and stronger interests in intellectual discussions. I know someone whose goal is to join psychology academia and research human happiness, but he also loves soccer and Go. Another friend of mine could have pursued music professionally, but decided instead to study physics and keeps a 20-pages+ google doc of her physics theory ideas. UChicago students diverge in their interests, social-cultural backgrounds, and beliefs, but I think most of us share a hunger for knowledge and eagerness to make our mark in the world, and that, to me, makes the school an inspiring place to be.

We’re grateful to Jenny for her generosity in sharing experiences with others, and wish her continued success at UChicago!

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Freshman files: Academic adjustments

March 3rd, 2020

Transitioning from high school to college can be a big change, especially when it comes to academics. College coursework traditionally involves a larger workload and different ways of thinking than high school students are used to, so how can you prepare before stepping foot onto that college campus?

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Istock photo via USNews

Learning from the experiences of others is a great way to understand the world around us. For this reason we’re sharing another “Freshman Files” post related specifically to academic challenges and successes experienced by our first-year college students. Our students were generous in responding, so please carve out time to digest all that they’ve shared.

  1. They learn the importance of time management and organization

My academic transition to college was fairly smooth but not devoid of challenges or learning hurdles. I have definitely developed new organizational and study skills that have proven to be imperative to my academic success. Despite these needed adjustments, I managed to earn a 4.0 for my first semester at UT. **happy dance** (University of Texas in Austin, Texas)

I definitely found it a bit hard at first to hold myself accountable for my work, especially without these adults in my life there to remind me to put my phone away, or not watch tv on my computer instead of doing homework. But, I quickly found a work environment that worked for me in the library (away from my bed and my friends!), which has been working out really well for me. I would say that everyone has to find what works for them in terms of how much initiative they must take to get their work done …. (Tulane University in Louisiana)

So far, the thing that sticks out to me as being relatively challenging, especially at the beginning of first semester, has been learning to manage my time well. I have learned very quickly how different college is from high school and that although professors are there to help you, they treat you like adults and expect you to handle things yourself. Although this was very different than what I was used to in high school, I have grown accustomed to it, and it is no longer a big deal. (Duke University in North Carolina)

Although the courses are certainly more demanding than what I took in high school, I feel like they’re mostly manageable as long as I put in a good amount of effort. When I arrived, I was expecting to be faced with the archetypal scenario of “student who excelled at their high school ends up being average or below average at their new university,” but so far I’ve found that this isn’t really the case. My experience has been that it is still possible and reasonable to do quite well in classes if enough effort is put in. (Stanford University in California)

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time at Harvard, though I did find the transition surprisingly challenging. The two dimensions of college life that were hardest to adjust to were challenging academics and time management—two things I didn’t expect to be so hard to balance. I found that the days quickly slipped by because there is simply so much happening on campus. … After using my break to reflect on where my time wasn’t very well spent last semester, I’ve been able to adjust my schedule and, so far, have had a much more balanced and relaxed second semester.  (Harvard University in Massachusetts)

  1. They take classes they are interested in

Academics have been challenging, but all my classes have been pretty interesting. Last quarter I took math, engineering analysis (math and coding basically), intro to comp sci, and design thinking and communication (a project course). Math was especially difficult for me. The first midterm took me by surprise, but I was able to pull my grade back up by the end of the quarter. It was my first B+, but it was the proudest I’ve ever been for a grade because I worked incredibly hard for it! Getting straight A’s is also a lot less important now in my opinion. What matters more than the grades in classes is that you’re taking courses in what you’re interested in and actually learning the material. My courses this quarter are also very difficult, but I got a lot more freedom to select my classes this quarter so I’m much more excited about them all. (Northwestern University in Illinois)

I have really enjoyed diving deep into my courses this semester – I am taking Ethics in Business, Global Media Studies, Introduction to Macroeconomics, Writing, and Deviant Behavior. I am definitely facing a heavier workload this semester, but am embracing it and taking the challenge really well so far. (Tulane University in Louisiana)

  1. They become self-advocates

I received learning accommodations and have been extremely impressed with the Student Disability Services (SDS) offices at UT. After submitting documentation and fulfilling my intake appointment requirements, I have come to recognize how important self-advocacy is in college life. Since I have been aware of my learning disability for many years, I am able to articulate my academic struggles and needs as a result of my dyslexia. This proved to be crucial in receiving accommodations and achieving academic success. After communicating my documentation and desired accommodations, the SDS offices not only fulfilled my requested accommodations but also offered me accommodations that I had never received previously. Apart from extended exam time, a low-distraction testing environment, and laptop usage for notes and essays, I now receive early class registration, a spell-check aid, and calculator access. I utilize the SDS offices often and am so happy to report that advisors are always eager to help and easily accessible.  (University of Texas in Austin, Texas)

Getting to know your professors is very easy! Even in a bigger classroom setting, I always try to check in with my professor about my progress via email and sometimes by going to their office hours, especially if I am struggling to grasp a particular concept. … you are expected to advocate for yourself, so you must reach out to your professor first and build that relationship, as it doesn’t always happen naturally, especially in bigger, lecture-style courses, where you may not be able to make a personal connection with the professor right away. But, I have found every professor here to be incredibly helpful and resourceful, as they truly want you to succeed and do your best work, so they will always be there for you if and when you need them. (Tulane University in Louisiana)

  1. They stay positive and adjust to the rigors of college life

Probably the biggest takeaway that I have had from college so far is the way that classes teach you how to think. In my limited experience thus far, my classes have been very limited in the factual knowledge and memorization departments, but rather teach their students how to think. I noticed this especially in a history class that I took first semester. I went into it thinking that it would be like history classes that I had taken previously, but I was very wrong. This class taught me how to see history in a totally different way and to pay attention to how things are all connected, not just memorize dates. (Duke University in North Carolina)

I’ve had an excellent (and very busy) transition. … I took a lighter academic load Autumn Quarter in order to ease myself into the transition, but this quarter I’m taking quite a few more classes, including a few more difficult ones; however, they’re all very interesting and engaging and I appreciate the challenge, despite the stress they cause and amount of time they eat up. (Stanford University in California)

I would say that for the most part, assignments differ from high school in that there is a lot more pressure on you to check in with yourself about your own understanding of a subject matter. … Additionally, assignments typically have more weight in college, so it is crucial that you leave yourself enough time to complete assignments, as procrastination will not earn you a grade that it may have been able to earn you in high school. Lastly, professors hold incredibly high expectations for students … so do not be discouraged if when beginning a course, you are struggling a little bit, the material is supposed to challenge you! (Tulane University in Louisiana)

We always appreciate our students’ willingness to share their experiences with such openness and honesty. These small write-ups can have such an impact on high school students who are about to embark on this journey in the near future, so we thank our former advisees and wish them continued success!

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Freshman files: Making connections

February 11th, 2020

One of the best things about college is the fresh start, surrounded by thousands of potential new friends. This makes for the perfect opportunity to be your authentic self, find your niche, make friends who love you for who you are.

Sounds simple, right? Not always. In the first Freshman Files post of 2020, we share reflections written by several ShropEd advisees about the first half of their first year in college. This post will help you gear up for your incredible journey on a new campus next fall.

  1. They joined organizations they care about

“All in all, I have been enjoying Fordham quite a bit! I met a lot of good people and became friends with them. Joining the club soccer team was probably one of the best decisions I could have made. All the lads on the team are all great kids and its just a big family over there, so I’m glad I joined the team.” (Fordham University in New York)

“I love it here. It took a while, but I have met some wonderful people and am starting to build wonderful friendships. I’ve definitely learned important lessons, like deciding what kind of people I want to be around, but now I feel much more confident and self-assured that I know how to make the right choices for myself. … I auditioned for SIKOS (Smith Improv Comedy Organization of Smith) and got in. So, I have been doing that and loving it since last semester. I also auditioned for Celebrations, the student run dance company, and have been doing that since last semester as well …” (Smith College in Massachusetts)

“I ended up joining a couple of groups upon arriving on campus, which have all been great ways to meet friends and decompress outside of class. I auditioned for and was accepted into both the Stanford Chamber Chorale, Stanford’s small-group singing ensemble, and the Stanford Harmonics, one of Stanford’s acapella groups. Between the two of these, I have around 10 hours of music rehearsal per week, which is certainly an interesting position to be in as a prospective STEM major. I’ve made some of my closest friendships through these groups …” (Stanford University in California)

  1. Sometimes it just isn’t easy but they persisted

“Initially, I was unaware of the extent to which Greek organizations influenced social life. I quickly realized that they dictate a majority of the social events, at least for freshmen and sophomores. … I had an unsatisfactory experience with rush, in which I was not invited back to houses I felt I could have fit in, and ended up without a bid. Since then, the Dean of Student Affairs has helped me with a process called Continuous Open Bidding ” (Tulane University in Louisiana)

Overall the transition has been smooth and now I’d say I feel fully transitioned, but it takes time to find your groove and what you actually care about. My first roommate was a little bit of a nightmare, but I just changed rooms last week and things are much better now. …I got to move into the room of the person I was already planning on being roommates with (next year) and she is a lovely individual. …” (Smith)

  1. They keep an open mind

One thing I was a little concerned about coming into Duke was how easy/difficult it would be to make friends and spend time with people who aren’t on the track team. This has turned out to not be an issue at all, as there are ample opportunities to do so, and some of my close friends are people that aren’t on the team. For this reason, I would say that any advisees that you have who might share this concern should not worry about that being an issue. Duke does a great job of providing an environment for students to connect, and I’m sure most universities do the same. ” (Duke University in North Carolina)

“Overall, though, I’ve had so much fun on campus. I’ve found a wonderful group of friends and I enjoy meeting new, interesting, passionate people every day. I’ve also been lucky enough to have established close relationships with incredible professors and TAs, including those for my writing and global health classes. I’ve found that college has already helped me become more open to new experiences.” – (Harvard University in Massachusetts)

“I am still constantly astounded by the caliber and achievements of the people around me. Just a couple of weeks ago I found out that one of my dormmates was on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list last year, and it seems like every other person I meet was either a medalist in some sort of science olympiad or a founding member of a successful tech startup. I’m sure this is a common experience of many other first-year college students, but it seems to be especially true at Stanford. It’s incredibly invigorating to constantly be around such successful and amazing people” – (Stanford)

  1. They take advantage of experiences off-campus

I’m enjoying the campus being so close to the city, and am using it to my advantage.” – (Fordham)

“The school does have many programs in place, however, to get you accustomed to life in New Orleans. I have been paired with a Town Mom, who has shown me around New Orleans. She is in a Mardi Gras Krewe, and even took me to an official Mardi Gras ball, which was an incredible experience!” (Tulane)

We’re grateful to these students for sharing their experiences and wish them much continued growth and success! Stay tuned for more Freshman Files reports on other topics in weeks to come.

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Freshman Files: Taking some time away with a gap year

April 16th, 2019

The “Gap Year” has been popular in Europe for a long time and is now on the rise in the United States.  During a gap year, students explore their interests after graduating high school and before attending college to explore the world, sharpen their sense of purpose or develop a new focus for the future.  

While this has not been the traditional route for students in the past, many colleges in the U.S. are now on board by providing programs to support such a plan.  Colleges like Tufts University, Florida State University and University of North Carolina have added enriching international and domestic volunteer, fellowship and internship gap year programs.  To read more about these schools and several others that now offer gap year programs, go to .  

In today’s Freshman Files post, Eliana Shapere has written a beautiful description of her self-constructed gap year and what it has meant to her.  I am delighted that she is willing to share her experience and think it is a great read for all parents and students as we all continue to consider which direction to go in life.  

I have always been an autodidact. When I was four, I refused to participate in art class but spent all my time at home making sculptures out of tape and things from the recycling bin. School pretty much went the same; I taught myself French and got in trouble for drawing during class. What can I say? Like many creative kids, I was bored. I did the International Baccalaureate Program, which worked well with my learning style. There was a required research paper for each class, and ironically, this was the most freeing experience I had in high school. At the end of my junior year at Tates Creek, I decided to take a gap year to travel the world. It was the best decision I ever made.

I didn’t just decide to take a gap year and spend it travelling out of nowhere. My dad travelled through Europe and Asia in the middle of college, and afterwards switched majors from Math to Physics. His adventure stories filled me with a desire to see the world, and to go at it alone. I was also inspired by my great-grandfather who travelled for two years after college. He too came back from his voyages a changed man, and turned away from his conservative upbringing to devote himself to writing and progressive politics.

I knew that a relatively unstructured year would prepare me to give college my all. My teachers have been books, coworkers, bosses, museums, and strangers who became friends. To raise money for my travels, I interviewed faculty from the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, lifeguarded at Woodland Pool, and canvassed for Amy McGrath. I was pretty shy around strangers until I got a job talking to dozens of them each day about politics. I discovered that I enjoy creative writing more than journalism, and I have filled many notebooks these past months.

So far I have travelled alone to Cuba, Italy, Switzerland, France, and Spain. In Havana, I made friends with an artist who had a huge collection of Art Brut. By the way, I had never heard of Art Brut until meeting him, but now I love it. During school, I prioritized sports, music, and theater, but Cuba helped me remember how much I love drawing. In Florence, I learned enough Italian to survive, and then went to Sicily to eat cannoli and check out all the Greek ruins. I will never forget my first glimpse of the Temple of Concordia through fragrant almond trees. I am interested in Classics, so this was a dream come true.

There have been few drawbacks. A common fear (or so my mother tells me) is that people who take gap years are less likely to go on to college. All I can say is that somehow, my excitement about college decreased exponentially throughout high school. I never thought I would say this last May, but now I feel hopeful and excited about college. I have gained confidence about teaching myself, but I want to join a stable academic community, so I feel sure that college is the right path for me. Another fear is that taking a gap year turns kids lazy. Too much time makes idle minds, but I am grateful for the space to think. I am more creative than I was in high school, because I have free time. During high school, it was all too easy for me to ignore the “little” things like sleep and hanging out with friends. I don’t say this lightly: now, I have a clearer sense of what matters in life.

If you are in high school now, I wholeheartedly suggest that you take a gap year. You will grow in ways you cannot yet imagine. You will get a better idea of what you want to study. And yes, you will have time to think, relax, see your friends, and sleep. Consider if you prefer more or less structure, and let that dictate your year. Even if you’re sure you don’t want to take a gap year, brainstorm what you might do just as an exercise.

There are various scholarships for service, and you can find work nearly anywhere you want. Americans can work with no visa in Australia, and everywhere I’ve been, there have been volunteers working at the hostels in exchange for room and board. There’s WWOOFing (working on organic farms), workaway, and Helpx. I have been Couchsurfing to save money and live like a local. Couchsurfing is a network of people who open their homes to travellers, but it’s more than a free place to stay. It’s about exchanging stories, cooking for each other, and a shared hope for the future.

The possibilities are endless, and it’s never too early to consider a gap year. Now take some time to dream.


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