Beyond the brochure: Finding the perfect college fit
As I started thinking about how I wanted to approach writing this post, a famous quote from the movie “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch came to mind:
“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of
who do the things that no one can imagine.”
Well, borrowing from that quote, we can say something similar about college visits when it comes to determining colleges that will be the best fit for you: “Sometimes it is the activities that no one imagines anything of that provide value in the college search process that no one can imagine.”
When visiting colleges, many people register for an information session and a tour. Keep in mind, that is all highly scripted and you will only learn what the colleges want you to learn. Is that really the best way to figure out if a school will be a good fit for you? There are many more activities that you can engage in during visits that will help reveal whether or not a particular school will be right for you but it will also help set you up for long-term success. It may even enhance your probability of admission.
Let’s take a look at a few of them:
Attend a class
Many colleges offer opportunities for prospective students to attend classes or sit in on lectures. This can provide a firsthand experience of the academic environment and teaching style.
Attending a class during a college campus visit can provide several benefits. First, it can give you a better sense of the academic rigor and classroom environment of the college. You can see firsthand how students interact with professors, how engaged they are in class, and the types of assignments and discussions that take place.
Additionally, attending a class can give you insight into the particular department or program you are interested in. You can see if the teaching style and course material align with your own academic interests and goals.
During the class, pay attention to how the professor interacts with students and how engaged the students are in the class. Take note of the course content and structure, the teaching style, and the level of participation and discussion. In other words, does it seem that the professor is genuinely motivated to support student learning or not?
Overall, attending a class can give you a better understanding of the academic environment and help you determine if this aspect of the college is the right fit for your academic goals and interests.
Visit the study abroad office
During a college visit it is an important step in determining if a college is going to be the right fit for you. Studying abroad can be a transformative experience that offers the opportunity to learn about different cultures, languages, and ways of life, while also expanding your academic and professional horizons.
But like anything else in life, the devil is in the details! When you visit a study abroad office, you will want to ask a number of different questions that will help you determine how feasible studying abroad will be at that particular college and to what extent they fully support the process:
Some of the most important questions to ask are:1. Will my program be pass/fail or will I be receiving a grade for my international courses?
Studying abroad is a once in a lifetime experience and when opportunities arise to do things, like traveling with fellow students on weekends, you don’t want to be the one who has to say, sorry I can’t go. I have an exam on Monday. The personal growth you will derive by taking advantage of the full experience will be well worth it.
2. Are the study abroad programs your own or through international partners?
Study abroad programs generally come in three flavors and depending on the college you are attending, they may offer one, two or all three different flavors. Generally, the larger the school the greater the options. You will want to ask questions in order to determine which options exist at the school you are visiting.
- Many of the large universities have their own international campuses in different countries around the world. For instance, NYU has campuses in London, Shanghai, Paris, Abu Dhabi, etc…In many of these cases the curriculum you take will be the same course offerings using the same textbooks that you would be using at your home campus. This makes it super simple to study abroad. The question is, does the university have its own campus in a city where you would like to study? By the way, one great way to think about choosing a country is to study abroad where you can continue to develop your foreign language skills that correspond to the foreign language you are taking in high school.
- Frequently, colleges offer study abroad programs at various international college campuses in cities/countries where they do not have their own campuses. These international schools are not affiliated with your college or university. In these cases, your college has a formal relationship with the international school and evaluates the curriculum offered by that school in order to ensure equivalency so that each course you take will help progress you towards your degree. One such example of this for students who want to study engineering in China at Purdue University has an engineering school relationship with Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
- A 3rd option, and this is more likely to be the case at smaller colleges, 3rd-party study abroad organizations offer experiences at international schools but in these cases your home college does not have a relationship with the international school and therefore, each student will be responsible for ensuring that the courses they want to take will be accepted for credit by your home college or university. This can be a process and requires significant advance planning but again can be worth it if you end up attending a smaller school that doesn’t offer either of the first two options. Certainly, in some cases these programs offer already approved curriculum but if you try to take courses that are not already approved you will need to get them evaluated and approved by your home school.
- The last option is a variation on options one and two, where your home college piggybacks on a pre-existing study abroad program with another U.S. university to either study abroad on their international campus or you may be able to piggyback on a pre-existing program that school has with an international school. One example of this building on the example above in option two, In the past, Penn State University has enabled its engineering students to study at Shanghai Jiao Tong University by piggybacking on Purdue’s pre-existing program with Shanghai Jiao Tong. In either case, you will still need to make sure that your home campus will grant you credit for the courses you will be taking. You will also need to confirm the language courses may be taught in.
3. What language will the curriculum be taught in?
When you visit the study abroad office, if you already have a country in mind where you would like to study, you should inquire whether or not courses will be taught in English or in the native language? If your foreign language skills are pretty far along, courses taught in that foreign language will certainly help you progress. However, you will need to assess how ready for that you are. For instance, at one end of the spectrum, imagine taking an art history course in French and at the other, a course in Thermodynamics in Mandarin. Not only do you need to be able to speak Mandarin but you need to understand engineering Mandarin.
4. While I am studying abroad, what resources from my home school will be available to help me navigate when issues arise?
There will always be little things that come up during your semester abroad and it is good to know that your home school will either have advocates on site to help you or that are designated and empowered contacts back at your home school.
Overall, visiting a study abroad office can help you determine if this aspect of the college is a good fit for you, based on your academic and personal goals. It can also help you prepare for a successful study abroad experience that will enhance your college education and personal growth.
Visit the campus library
Are you serious about your studies? The campus library can provide important clues about the academic culture at the school; i.e. are you seeing most students focusing on their work or is there a lot of socializing going on? How are students using the library?
Eat a meal on campus
Eating a meal on campus can provide a sense of the campus culture and social environment, as well as the quality and variety of dining options.
Meet with a professor
Meeting with a professor in your major area of interest and coming prepared with insightful questions about the curriculum and areas of research can demonstrate your level of engagement with the subject matter while providing insight into the particular academic program as well as create potential opportunities for research and mentorship in the future.
This is an important first step in learning how to build relationships with faculty members who can serve as future mentors, advisors, recommenders for internships or jobs and may even make introductions to job opportunities.
Visit the career center
One of the important considerations in choosing a school should be the depth and breadth of the college’s resources that are available to help students identify and secure internships and find employment once they graduate.
There are a few important things to look for as well as questions to ask that will help you determine how robust the school's career services infrastructure is and how well they will be able to help set you up for success.
Do they offer resources such as career counseling, resume and cover letter development and review, mock interviews, job and internship postings, career fairs, networking events, and alumni connections? By understanding the level of support provided, you can assess whether the college is committed to helping students achieve their career goals.
Ask some of the following questions:
Are the staff at the career center welcoming, supportive and eager to help?
What percentage of students find a job within six months of graduation?
What is the average starting salary for graduates in my field?
How many employers come to campus to recruit students for internships and full-time jobs?
Will they share a list of the companies that recruit graduates?
How many alumni mentorship programs or career networking events does the center host?
A lot of useful information can be found online but there is nothing like being there in person to see things for yourself.
Explore the surrounding area
Exploring the surrounding area can provide a sense of the local community and opportunities for recreation and entertainment.
Visit the student center
The student center is a hub for student life and can provide insight into the campus culture, resources, and activities.
Speak with students
When visiting a college campus, asking current students questions can provide valuable insight into the college experience and help you determine if the school would be a good fit for you. Try to ask as many of the questions below as possible to at least 10 students:
What do you like most about your academic and extracurricular experiences at this college?
What do you like the least about your academic and extracurricular experiences at this college? What would you change?
How would you describe the campus culture and community?
How easy is it to get involved in student clubs and organizations? What barriers to entry are there, if any?
How accessible are professors outside of class?
What is the workload like and how do students typically manage their time?
Are there any unique academic or research opportunities at this school?
How is the quality of life in the dorms and on-campus housing?
If you have taken advantage of the career services resources, what is your opinion of the quality and range of services?
How does the college support student well-being and mental health?
Ask this question of some juniors or seniors:
If you could go back to your freshman year and start over, would you still want to be here?
Asking these questions and others will give you important clues about the college and can help you gain a better understanding of the college's academic environment, student life, and support systems, and help you make an informed decision about whether the school would be a good fit for you. No matter how silly or strange these conversations may be, take notes or record the conversations so you can refer back to them.
Wrapping up, these are a few valuable activities you can engage in that many people don’t tend to think about when making college visits. Not only can these activities help you refine and narrow your college list, but it will also help set you up for success and may even pay dividends in terms of your probability of admissions.
P.S. When it comes time to interview and write essays, you will have lots to write and speak about!
If you’re ready to dive deeper into your college application, check out the guide that our college admissions experts put together to help you navigate all the criteria admissions committees look at.