If you want to make your college visit worth the time and expense, you need to keep your eyes wide open — and your mouth, too, even in ways that may seem embarrassing.
You have little time to learn a lot— so spy, ask, and excavate. Perhaps you don’t want to risk asking the tough questions, but, if you are lucky enough to travel with parents, not wanting them to ask questions that make you cringe may just be enough motivation to make you speak up. No matter who goes on the tours, remember, you want the answers, so you do the asking.
Where to Find Answers
When you are wandering around the campus, let your eyes stray to bulletin boards, or to the headlines of the college newspaper (or the alternative newspaper). Look in the other direction when the tour guide is pointing to the new science building; take note of the people wandering around campus, who they’re with, what they’re carrying, and what they’re doing.
Some of what you need to know will not be offered in information sessions or official tours. Talk to students at a lunch table, a coffee shop, after a designated class visit, or late at night in the dorms if you spend a night. The walk around campus, the class visit, the night in a dorm could, if you are attentive (and a little bold), give you insight into the school’s students, how they talk and live, how they work (and how hard they work), what they fret about, and what they celebrate.
If you are sent to a popular lecture class where the professor is angling for a standing ovation, you may get a sense of what is valued in the teaching at that college. If you go to a small class, pay attention to who talks and how students listen to each other, so you can begin to form some opinion about how academic conversations at that college.
Of course, you will necessarily be basing your assumptions on a few observations. But as you observe, think about what is significant to you, and you will learn something of importance — even if only something of importance about your own preferences and powers of observation.
How to Understand Answers
If you believe, as I think you should, that simple statistics never tell the whole story, then ask questions about the numbers. Here are a few examples of how you can get at the truth beyond the statistics.
The average class size is 18? Does that include many single-person reading classes and tutorials, or little break-out sessions led by graduate students, to offset the a large number of big lectures? Ask the admissions counselor the size of a first-year math course, or of the introductory course on Shakespeare. How many lecture classes of more than 75 or 100 students are offered each semester?
An admissions counselor should know the answers to these questions, or should be able to find the answers for you. “By the way, admissions counselor, you said in your presentation that 95 percent of the courses are taught by tenured faculty members, but the school paper reports that TAs are going to strike because they claim they teach 70 percent of the undergraduate courses.” Who is right? You have a right to know, but you will have to probe.
A school may also report that students do research. So ask — how many do? Is the research done only by scientists, or are there a wide variety of opportunities? Are students placed in research positions, or do they have to dig them up themselves? (The latter isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something worth knowing.)
Do students pursue internships? How many, how are they secured, and where? What is the job placement rate? Ask for the specifics that you may find relevant to you.
A Final Word
Of course, this all would be so much easier if you could just go by the rankings in U.S. News and World Report, but it would be so wrong to do so. A good college search takes some real work. That work begins with asking the right questions — and then listening carefully to the answers.