Numbers sometimes lie (and people sometimes lie about numbers).
More importantly, numbers don’t tell the whole story. When you’re looking at colleges, you’ll want to make judicious use of the available numbers — and then look beyond them to uncover information about what life at a school is really like.
Paying attention to certain numbers when engaging in the college search makes sense. You should, for instance, have some idea about costs — not just tuition and room and board but also financial aid possibilities. You can get a sense of what to expect from an aid package by using an online "financial aid calculator," which every college with federal aid is required to display. You can also look for this information on websites like Noodle that show “real costs" on college profiles. To find out what your aid package might look like, you can make use of each college’s own online financial aid calculator, and you can also look up “real costs" on college profiles.
Other numbers to consider are the size and diversity of the student body as well as the graduation rate in five or six years. Remember, though, that no statistic will tell you what your experience at a college is likely to be — nor will metrics reveal what kind of experience you want.
Once you’ve excavated all the information you can from the available numbers, you’ll want to dig deeper. You are going to want to know what the prevailing culture of a college is in order to see how appropriate it may be to your needs. “Culture," for these purposes, refers to the way the members of the collegiate community, students, faculty and staff, share a distinctive way of learning, living, and even speaking. Not unlike an anthropologist investigating a different culture, or a sociologist describing a neighborhood or town, you need to find a way to come to some conclusions about what makes a place tick.
Colleges in the United States share a lot of common characteristics. From the outside, they can sometimes seem very much alike. There are, of course, easily detectable differences: Some are big, some small; some urban, some rural; some public, some private; and some technical, liberal arts, or pre-professional. Discovering these kinds of differences should not be a problem.
But what are they like inside? And, why do college viewbooks, admissions officers, and tour guides so frequently sound alike? They sound alike, in part, because most colleges really (for their own reasons, not yours) want everyone to love them, and they want to give no one a reason to turn away. They want your application.
Or, they sound alike from lack of imagination. Or, because each one wants to promote generally nice things, like a sense of community, good relations between students and faculty, “intellectual curiosity," preparation for the so-called “real world," internships, research opportunities, and so forth. Your job is to see through this and get to the real differences.
You come upon this challenge at a time when an overwhelming amount of information is freely available. As you might expect, some of this information is good, and some not so good. You’ll need to take more than the student-driven college gossip sites with a grain (or several) of salt. Colleges will basically speak with their own interests in mind. Without years to devote to figuring things out, how might you spend a reasonable amount of time getting the information you need? Here are three key tips for getting started.
It’s a good idea to check out the various publications that offer not only statistics, but also narrative descriptions and assessments of colleges. These guides won’t be right about everything they say, but, in fact, their subjectivity can be useful to you. Some human being is making a judgment, and presumably wants to be helpful, and you have the power to read and assess that help. You can find a collection of different reviews and student answers on Noodle’s college profiles. You can also check out each of those sources for yourself.
Compare a few different opinions, and look for correspondences. Do they agree that the place in question is laid-back, or hard-driving and intense? Is the prevailing talk about sports, the Greek system, Tolstoy, off-campus weekend activities, post-graduation Wall Street jobs, community service, or partisan politics?
Narrative descriptions should provide a good starting point, and you can do this work — pleasant work — online anywhere, as well as at home, at school, in the library, or in a bookstore. If you have a college counselor, see if she can also comment on the schools you turn up that seem to suit your needs and aspirations.
You’ll also want to read (with some care) the literature that colleges make available as well as the material available to the college community itself. If the viewbooks all look and sound alike, read for the distinctive aspects that emerge (and, I would say, reward the places that take some care to distinguish themselves).
Through your digging, if you set your sights on some reasonable number of possible colleges, you can find out a lot — sometimes a shocking amount — about what that particular tribe called “Pretty college with the trees and smiling students" is really like.
The strategy of touring colleges admittedly takes time, money, and frequently the cooperation of parents — but it provides incredibly useful information. If you can, set foot on a campus of interest, and continue your research there, face-to-face with the place and its people.
If you are thoughtful in how you interpret data — and if you seek out additional qualitative information — you are very likely to find a school that suits you. You’re looking for a place where you can spend four years (ideally, not more), participate in activities that matter to you, cultivate meaningful friendships, and gain the preparation you’ll need to pursue further education or enter the workforce. By taking a multifaceted approach to your college research, you’ll significantly improve your chances of finding a school that will be the best fit for you.
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