10 Ways to Understand the Heart and Soul of a College

Researching and learning about various colleges can be overwhelming, complicated and daunting. Imagine if someone placed you in a packed stadium and said, “Within this crowd are 8-12 good friends. Go out there, talk to some people, and find those friends. Ready. Set. Go!”

While this example is not how you would develop your friend group, it is similar to how students can feel as they try to learn about colleges. There are thousands upon thousands of colleges out there and it is important to narrow down that intimidating number to something more manageable and identify how you can determine whether the college is a good match for you.

Oftentimes the main factors that you uncover about different schools will begin to blend together. Yes, there is a core curriculum, access to professors and study abroad opportunities. The tour guides will all state that if you want a club that is not already at the college, you can create one if you get a few friends to sign up! There might be many instances when the colleges seem similar. This is especially the case if you are looking at schools with similar characteristics (e.g. size, location, etc).

Here are 10 ways to help students determine how colleges are different from each other. (Twenty20 @AAS)

10 ways to differentiate colleges

1. The College Motto

Each college will have a different school motto and this can help you to identify the key values, mission, and ethos of that particular college. Hint: this can also be a good item to mention when writing your supplemental essay about “Why you want to attend College X.”

2. A Day In the Life, YouTube Videos

Communications shared by the colleges will often show the school on the sunniest day and everyone is always smiling. Balance this information with some YouTube videos from current students. If you search — A Day in the Life at College X, you should find some videos. Try to view videos from an assortment of people, to gather a few different perspectives. Ask yourself if there are any common themes that have been shared.

3. Admissions Outreach and Communications

I firmly believe that how you are treated in the admissions process is a direct reflection of how you will be treated if you attend. If it is difficult to get anyone from the admissions office on the phone to answer a simple question or to get a response to an email, this is a mirror of how challenging it may be to get assistance as a college student.

4. On-Campus Events and Activities

Look into what happens on-campus during a typical weekend. This will give you a snapshot of what you can also expect if you were to attend. If you have particular interests or involvements, investigate whether anything you would potentially get involved with is represented within those activities. You can often find out about weekend events by following the college’s student life social media accounts.

5. Popular Student Clubs

Another way for you to understand a school community is not necessarily to learn that there are 250 clubs and student activities but to find out which clubs are well established, most popular, and strongly supported by the community. If 75% of the student body are involved in Greek life, that is an indication that Greek life does dominate that school. This is not to say that Greek life is good or bad but the question is — what does this fact mean to you? Do you find that to be a positive factor?

6. Student Publications/Newspaper

View an online version of the school newspaper and see what is on the minds of students. What topics, concerns, celebrations are covered? Does this resonate with you? Why or why not?

7. Location, Location, Location

Remember that wherever you attend college, you will also be a resident of that residential community for four years so think about location. What is there to do in the nearby town or city? Are there student discounts at various venues, restaurants, or movie theaters? Does there seem to be a nice relationship between the college and the town/city? If you were to venture off campus, what is there for you to do? If you are visiting the campus, ask your student tour guide or an admissions officer for a place to eat lunch or dinner in town that is a local favorite.

8. Targeted Research

Once you are admitted to a college, ask yourself “What do I need to know to make a decision about whether or not this is the college for me?” This will help to guide your research. Do you want to learn more about a particular academic program? Ask the admissions office if they can connect you with a faculty member in that discipline. Do you want to know about a certain extracurricular involvement? Ask the admissions office if you can speak to a student who is active in that specific activity. Hint: Keep in mind item #3 when doing your targeted research!

9. Visit the Campus More Than Once

The more you visit the better your working knowledge is of that particular college. Each time you may learn something new or it may reinforce a certain perspective you have (positive or negative). I strongly believe that a student will view a college differently once they have been admitted. Definitely return to the campuses of places where you may enroll for a final look.

10. Picture Yourself at That College

As a final step in your decision making process, picture yourself at that college and think about what that feels like to you. Think about living on the campus, walking across the Quad, eating in the dining hall, going into town or what activities you would do on a typical weekend. Are you excited by this possibility or lackluster?

Lastly, your intuition will be the most powerful tool that you have at your disposal. After doing a pros/cons list and looking into all the logical aspects of a college, next you should think about what your gut is telling you. The answer is always within you. You just need to be brave enough to see it sometimes.

I am cheering you on!

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More Great Reading:

The Two Crucial Aspects of College Admissions that Parents Must Be Part Of

About Laurén Carter

Laurén Carter has dedicated her entire career of 30+ years to the college admissions and college counseling profession. She spent a decade in university administration and served as the Director of College Admissions at NYU. Additionally, she has served as Contributing Writer for the Huffington Post and is an instructor for UCLA Extension, College Counseling Certificate Program. Find her on LinkedIn

Laurén has also directed college counseling programs at independent schools for over 20 years and currently serves as Director of College Counseling at Sidwell Friends School (DC). Laurén is the author of Mindful Admissions: An Insider’s Guide to Staying Sane, Applying Well and Getting Accepted to College.

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