Our advice is to look within when beginning your college search. Remember that you are not just looking for your future school – you are also choosing your future home. Examine who you are, including identifying your values, goals, and passions. Next, be sure to establish your priorities and the main factors shaping your college search (e.g., major, school size, distance from home, campus environment, student organizations) Once you have an understanding of what is important to you, it will help you to discover colleges that meet both your personal wants and social needs.
It is totally acceptable to start your college search with superficial factors that are not limited to the school—like is there a professional sports team in the area? Is the school near mountains for hiking? Is the school in warm weather? Establishing these factors can help narrow your search, making the process much more manageable and less overwhelming. Remember that it is possible to refine your choices as you learn more about the schools you are researching. Be open-minded and willing to adapt. Reflect on your research as you go, and have conversations as a family.
Discovering how you’ll fit into a school’s community is just as important as researching academics, so, given the current limits regarding campus visits, we have some tips to take your research to the next level.
Dig Deeper and Expand
Keep in mind that taking virtual or in-person campus tours is great, and you should absolutely seek these out, but they mostly give a cursory glance of a university. Also, some elements can be misleading. A visceral reaction where a student falls in love with a beautiful campus does not mean it’s the best school for them. Bad weather or a bad tour guide can ruin a visit, but again, that doesn’t mean the school is a wrong fit. So deepen and expand your evaluation of each of these schools beyond tours.
Utilize Your Network
Reach out to those who are in your circle: your family and friends, your parents’ friends, and teachers, coaches, or other mentors. Seek out opportunities to have conversations to learn about individual schools.
Don’t be shy to reach out for conversations. Most people love talking about their alma maters and experiences. Ask questions; be candid and try to get a read on what they enjoyed most and what was left to be desired. If someone in your network has a current connection with anyone on the campus, you might ask them to put you in touch with that person.
Ask questions that you cannot use Google to answer: What was your freshman experience like? How have you connected with others in your major? How accessible are the professors outside of class? If you experienced distance learning, then how was the virtual instruction, and did the college offer any virtual events to connect you with other students?
Social Media Can Be an Ally
Most definitely, subscribe to the accounts of potential colleges on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. (Remember to assess your own accounts and whether your content is appropriate before connecting with any college-related social media; some students have separate, more professional social media accounts for this purpose.) Try digging deeper into the school’s social media accounts that are not associated with offices of admission. Look at posts from student organizations that are not designed to market the school to you, but to inform and connect current students.
Also, consider your own social media circle—connections on Instagram, for example—and how they might help you obtain authentic information about a school.
Form a Relationship with the University
Next, as Mark Twain says, Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is. Put yourself out there and connect with admissions officers, academic advisors, or professors. Having these conversations not only helps you determine whether a college is a good fit, but taking initiative to get your questions answered is a good way to demonstrate your interest in the school.
There are a few approaches to choose from when you reach out. This is your shot to personally engage with the university through one-on-one video chats, a conversation over direct emailing, or even picking up a phone and calling university counselors or faculty. Remember that admissions officers’ jobs are to recruit a class of students; they want to help you get in! They want to be a resource and answer questions, so don’t be hesitant to reach out to them.
We recommend that you come prepared to discuss your potential area of study, why the particular school interests you, and specific questions you would like to ask. These questions most definitely should go beyond what you would find in an admissions brochure, on the homepage of the college website/program, or that are easily answered with a quick Google search.
Some questions you might ask are: What qualities and experiences are you looking for in applicants? How easy is it to take courses from different colleges within the university?
You may also want to research alumni. Do your best to locate young alumni, not necessarily famous alumni. You want to have conversations with alumni who are like you. University websites offer alumni testimonies and many networking opportunities like live chat rooms where students can mingle with alumni and current students. Students also come across alumni when they research careers and specific companies where they could see themselves working in the future. Creating a LinkedIn account will broaden your network, help you develop a professional profile, and provide yet another resource to read alumni profiles and begin conversations with them.
Find Resources on the University Website
When navigating any college website, it is helpful to go beyond the university mission statement, the undergraduate admissions webpage, and the 360-degree campus tour. College websites can be a wonderful research tool as students explore anything and everything that is of potential interest.
Many students read through course catalogs that include class summaries for selected majors and/or minors. Some find posted syllabi that can further emphasize the expectations of the workload. Others peruse professors’ areas of expertise to discover what kinds of teachers they will learn from and the hands-on opportunities they offer, such as research or lab positions, to undergrads.
Still others will read the college’s online journals, recent news on department pages, or student newspapers to get an idea of campus issues, find out what work is being done, and learn about a college’s typical activities. For more information about how to research a school, visit our blog post.
Other Research Ideas
- Locate any and all university publications, websites, blogs, and podcasts, and read, read, read! This will give you an edge in understanding the college’s climate, and you’ll likely read stories of what students are actually doing on campus.
- Research the location of the college and what there is to do in the area. Try looking at Google Maps and widening your perspective on what exactly is surrounding the campus. What types of entertainment can be found by the college? What restaurants are nearby? Are there any art museums or historical sites? Are there deserts, mountains, lakes, or beaches? How do you see yourself living in this climate/area of the country?
- Beyond a campus tour, look at floor plans and take virtual tours of housing options, like dorms or student apartments.
- Learn the campus restaurant offerings and their menus.
- Check out student demographics data available online, so you can understand who your potential peers would be on campus and what is important to them.
- Search YouTube for student-made videos—these videos can give you an awesome glimpse into student perspectives and day-to-day experiences.
While most of this in-depth research will be for your sake, you may also have schools on your list that track your interest based on your emails to admissions officers or how many times you navigate their website resources, click on certain links, attend recommended webinars, and more. Additionally, some colleges will have supplement essays asking you why you want to attend, so this research is invaluable to writing an authentic, effective response.
Use this information as a jumping-off point. You know yourself best and what is most important to you while researching colleges. Take what is useful, and try it.
If you would like to talk through the college application process and your research discoveries, reach out to us anytime!