Doesn't it seem like every college, no matter where it is, is just filled to the brim with happy students who study on the sunny lawns?
It does if you trust the glossy brochures and colorful booklets schools send out. But the schools you're seriously considering need more scrutiny!
Here's how you can get beyond the marketing material and get an insider's view of what it's really like to attend a particular college.
1. Do Your Own Research
Schools want you to know all about them. That’s why they put out so much information. Start here so that your basic questions are covered: the size of the school, average class size, student demographics, national ranking, etc. Decide what your top priorities are, and gather all the information you can on how your chosen schools stack up.
You can check out one of the many college guides, but it's not really necessary to buy one since these don't change a whole lot from year to year. Head over to the library and flip through the guide from last year or even two years ago. Colleges are not like cars -- there is not going to be something new and must-have this year that wasn't around last year. ;)
2. Go to Information Nights / Open Houses / College Fairs
Read up as much as you can, but then go find actual people to talk to. If your high school isn't hosting a college fair, look around at other local schools. Check online for bigger college-oriented events in your area. Make a habit of getting on your school district's or local library's website to look for information sessions.
For practice, head over to an open house at a local community college, even if it's not on your application list. You'll get a chance to ask questions in a no-pressure way because you won't be worried about whether or not you're making a good impression.
3. Talk to the Admissions Office
Don’t feel shy. This office exists to answer your questions and create a smooth transition for applicants and accepted students.
You can schedule an information interview, which is different from the interview you may be invited to attend after you apply. This is your chance to ask questions and essentially interview the school about whether it is a good fit for you.
All the focus tends to be on whether you will get accepted. But you also need to consider whether the school meets your requirements and desires.
Bonus: If you have done your research and are asking questions that go beyond the obvious, you're going to stand out as an interested and interesting candidate.
Don't be afraid to ask detailed questions about programs, degrees, or opportunities! If the admissions office doesn't have immediate answers to your questions, that can be a perfect segue to asking for help lining up your next angle of inquiry, namely...
4. Talk to Department Heads and Professors
The admissions office will be able to guide you in general ways. But there is no better source of information on what a certain academic track is really like than talking to the people who design and teach the curriculum.
Make an appointment and be respectful of time, but don’t be shy to seek information directly from a department you’re interested in.
Not sure which department you want to apply to? Choose your top three and schedule short conversations with the heads or professors in each of them. You can explain that you are very interested in that department and would greatly appreciate even just 10 or 15 minutes of the person’s time.
It would be ideal to speak with a department head / chair, but if a department offers to set you up with an associate professor or even a teaching assistant, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!
The quality of the information you’ll get doesn’t depend on the status of the person you talk to, but on the quality of the questions you prepare ahead of time and ask during the conversation.
5. Visit Classes and Talk to Current Students
If at all possible, get on campus. Get the feel of campus. Look at the fliers on the student bulletin boards and eavesdrop (a little!) on the conversations in the student union.
What is the atmosphere on campus? Do you find yourself drawn to the groups of people you see, eager to become part of the activity all around you? That is a great sign!
Ask students how they like their classes. What are their favorite parts about the school? This is like going on Yelp or Amazon to look at reviews: just as you would in those situations, consider the source of the review. Are you catching a student coming out of a stressful week of exams -- someone who is ready to badmouth every class and professor just out of sheer stress?
The student body is a particularly great resource if you have some questions that might get the "Public Relations" treatment from the school itself. Think "Do female students feel safe crossing campus alone at night?", "Will I get harassed for being openly gay?", or "Is there any support on campus for anxiety or depression?"
These kinds of delicate subjects might get you a lot of different answers, depending on the students you ask. But you're much more likely to get a real sense of how these issues affect the student body from the students themselves.
6. Talk to Alumni
Alumni will have a different perspective from current students. They’ll be able to tell you what they did after completing their degrees (grad school? internship? career?). And they’ll also be able to speak to what they wish they would have done differently or taken advantage of while at the school in question.
Bonus: Talking to alumni is not just a way to find out about the school; it’s also a way to hear about how to capitalize on your degree if the school in question turns out to be the one for you.
If you feel shy about asking questions or think that you would be infringing on someone's time, I invite you to reconsider! This past spring, I got to see firsthand what's is like to be on the alumna-end of this exchange when I participated in a program with my alma mater (St. John's College) answering questions from students who had been accepted and were deciding whether or not to attend this unique program.I found the experience very rewarding and was happy to chat with them.
Ask the admissions office about an alumni outreach program, or do your own crowd-sourcing project among the people you know. (Social media would be a great way to start: you can find out who went where in your network of family and friends, and then set up conversations with the people whose brains you want to pick!)
Join the conversation! What's working for your in your college research? Where are you stuck?