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. It is essential 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.

Often, the main factors you uncover about different schools will begin to blend. Yes, a core curriculum, access to professors, and study-abroad opportunities exist. The tour guides will all state that if you want a club 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 true 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, which can help you identify that particular college’s fundamental values, mission, and ethos. Hint: This can also be excellent 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. You should find some videos if you search — A Day in the Life at College X. Try to view videos from various people to gather a few different perspectives. Ask yourself if any common themes have been shared.

3. Admissions Outreach and Communications

I firmly believe that how you are treated in the admissions process directly reflects 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 expect if you attend. If you have particular interests or involvements, investigate whether anything you could 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 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 is involved in Greek life, that indicates 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 students’ minds. What topics, concerns, and 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 reside in 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 a nice relationship between the college and the town/city seem to exist? If you 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 decide 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 specific extracurricular involvement? Ask the admissions office if you can speak to an active student 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 learn something new, it may reinforce your particular perspective (positive or negative). I firmly believe that a student will view a college differently once admitted. 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. 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 making a pros/cons list and looking into a college’s logical aspects, you should consider what your gut tells you next. The answer is always within you. You need to be brave enough to see it sometimes.

I am cheering you on!

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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. Laurén has also directed college counseling programs at independent schools for over 25 years. Laurén is the author of the Amazon best selling book, Mindful Admissions: An Insider’s Guide to Staying Sane, Applying Well and Getting Accepted to College.

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