Unless you’re willing to just pick one set of college rankings and use it to decide between colleges, at some point you’re going to have to dig deeper and actually start researching colleges. The fact is that once you get past adding or removing colleges from your list based on things like size, majors, and locations, most students will still need to narrow down their lists. There’s no magic formula for deciding between schools–what’s important to one student won’t be for another. And given the cost of college, students should commit to researching them further to find their differences. But how do you research a college?
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At this point students need to start looking at the things that aren’t easily quantifiable. Because let’s face it, if it could be done easily, they would already be part of the rankings. So what you’re really looking for are clues that will help you decide which colleges are going to best meet your needs. Start your college research with the following 10 overlooked clues and you’re likely to have a much more rewarding college career.
1. Research Graduation Requirements
In ancient times, before the internet, beyond some brochures, you started researching colleges by requesting the college catalog. Even with all the information available on the internet, the college catalog is still a valuable resource. Of course, it’s a lot easier to use now since they are online and you can usually search by keywords.
And that’s where students should start their college research by looking at the college catalog for general graduation requirements. Some colleges are very flexible in their distribution requirements. Honestly, my son graduated without having to take a math class. Yes, I may have issues with that. Others have extensive and specific course requirements for graduation. How much do these requirements differ between the colleges and how important is it to you?
2. Check Course Availability
As you browse through all the courses listed in the catalog, remember these are possible courses. Many will not be offered every semester or even every year. Usually catalogs will state how often the course is actually offered. Even so, it’s still a good idea to check the course schedule for the number and types of classes offered in your probable major. This is especially important if you are considering attending a smaller college. The focus of departments can vary dramatically between colleges.
3. Class Size Matters
For those planning to attend larger universities, use the course schedule to check the class size for upper division classes. While you should expect larger classes for introductory courses, the class sizes should decrease as you progress in your degree. Even comparing public institutions within the same state can reveal some pretty big differences in class size.
4. Who is Teaching-Faculty or Adjuncts?
When you’re researching the class schedule, check to see which professors are teaching the classes and how many. In other words, are the full-time faculty in the department teaching the classes or are they being assigned to a variety of part-time faculty? In general, extensive use of part-time faculty is not a good thing since they don’t have the same amount of time to prepare for the classes and may not be around when you need letters of recommendation or research opportunities.
5. Credit by Examination can Save Time and Money
Find out the college’s policy of accepting AP classes, CLEP, dual credit, and IB classes for credit. Don’t just look at the general policy, look for the specific requirements for the tests and classes you have taken. For bigger universities, this can get you out of the large introductory classes.
6. Student Newspapers can Shortcut Research
Read the student paper. Most college papers have some presence online. The paper can reveal issues and concerns on campus that aren’t going to be mentioned by the admissions office. You can also check the local city paper and do a search on the college name for more information.
7. Do You Like the Student Activities Available?
Research what activities are being held on campus. Which clubs are active? Does the school bring in a lot of speakers? Are there movies or concerts? How hard is it to find out about intramural sports? Is there transportation for off-campus shopping and activities? Does the campus support its athletic teams? You can usually find out how many people attend sporting events by looking up the individual game stats.
8. Make the Career Center a Priority
When researching colleges make sure you find out what sort of resources are being offered by the career center. Does there seem to be lots of opportunities to interact with the career center staff? Do they offer networking events for internships and jobs? If you can’t find this information now, how will you find out about it once you are on campus?
9. Department Websites can Contain Valuable Information
Visit department websites. This is a much more hit or miss proposition since some departments put a lot of effort into maintaining their webpages while others will only contain the basic information required by the college. If nothing else, look up the individual professors to see what their research interests are. As mentioned under course availability, smaller departments are likely to have a limited range of topics for classes. However, keep in mind that these same smaller departments may be much more willing to work with students to do independent study or some other mini-course to explore other subjects.
10. Check Faculty Ratings
Check out faculty ratings at sites such as RateMyProfessors.com. Such ratings will have limitations, specific faculty may not be listed, some people may have an ax to grind, etc. However, if you keep these limitations in mind, you might find some valuable information.
As you start digging into the various campus offerings and characteristics, you’ll find other characteristics to look for that you hadn’t thought of at first. If you have specific questions that aren’t answered by the website, go ahead and ask someone in admissions.
You can also post such questions on forums like collegeconfidential.com or studentreveiw.com. As when using any such website, be aware that not all posters and answers are equal. People will usually know about one school based on their experiences, very few will actually have experiences at two comparable schools. So when someone claims that school A is superior to school B, find out exactly what their experience is with school B.
(You can find even more information and strategies in How to Create a College List When You Don’t Know Where to Start.)