is not a place to go if you expect to
be coddled, but very few people will be coddled for
their whole life anyway — might as well learn how
to find your own way in college. There are
opportunities in abundance at Berkeley, both the university and the
surrounding area — social, academic, athletic, etc. — but nothing
will fall into your lap; they are there to be
found. I've grown to love the eccentricities of the
city of Berkeley and the beauty of the campus, and
very little can beat San Francisco in terms of the
number of things to do. The that complain about
the lack of entertainment are often the ones that haven't
looked hard enough.
Probably the best thing about Berkeley and
especially about my program (molecular and cell biology) is the
fantastic atmosphere of undergraduate involvement in research. My guess
is that most MCB undergraduates perform research in a lab
at some point in their career here, and I feel
very lucky to have been involved in research for the
equivalent of nearly four years (I just graduated in December).
Not everyone has a good lab experience, of course,
and the positions can be highly competitive and difficult to
find, but with persistance and dedication it can be done.
(It also helps to have done well in the
class of a professor you want to work with.)
Many undergraduates are authors on original research papers, occasionally as
the primary author. I believe that most MCB undergraduates
go on to a higher degree such as an MD
Unfortunately, this also means that the “premed culture”
of competitiveness and grade hypersensitivity is predominant. Freshmen will
always hear stories of the competition, some of which, surprisingly
and unfortunately, actually have happened. Think lab work sabotage
(which is in theory why they changed chem lab grades
to pass/fail a few years ago), students who ask a
question about the class to another student only to get
a refusal to answer or a purposeful wrong answer, etc.
I suspect the program has gotten better over the
past few years, as I haven't experienced or seen any
of this happen myself. For the most part, other
students have been extremely friendly and helpful with each other,
and I'm hoping that that's the real truth about MCB!
There is, of course, competition for grades. You'll
find the occasional oddball class where 30% (or more) of
the class gets an A, but those are far between.
For the most part, it's 10 - 20% A,
which means a hard scramble for most people. There
are also legendary stories about this, particularly in EECS —
such as the student that beat the average on a
test by not taking it (the average was below zero
because you earned negative points on the test by getting
wrong answers, which most people apparently ended up doing).
Or the entry-level calculus course where the professor failed literally
half of the class (a couple hundred people) one semester.
The good thing is that failures in math or
science classes isn't terribly uncommon, so if it happens to
you, you're far from alone! The other good thing
about these stories is that it makes you a little
more proud to finish Berkeley alive. Many graduate schools
*will* take the lower rate of grade inflation into account
during the admissions process — as someone pointed out, the
average GPA is 2.7 - 2.8, and a 4.0 really
does mean something. There are many success stories —
it just happens to be the horror stories that are
fun to tell...
Yes, diversity (or lack thereof) is a
problem, but at what top school is that not true
to some extent? The UC system took a beating
from the banning of affirmative action, but I believe it's
taken steps to improve diversity in other ways, and hopefully
it will be better at some point.
For students that
are highly independent and self-motivated, Berkeley is a great place
to go. You make what you want of it
here — if you're not willing to work hard or
find the opportunities that make it a good experience for
you, whatever a “good experience” means, then go somewhere else.