No article can tell you which college your child should go to or how to choose the college that’s right for them. Ultimately, the only person who knows what school is best for your child is your child.
What someone like me, a high school senior, can do however, is talk about my own experiences researching colleges and offer tips that were most useful for me during the process.
These are suggestions you can apply to your own child’s college search, because one of the most helpful things to have when making a decision is information.
I took the initiative when researching colleges. I didn’t know what I wanted in a school, but I was willing to spend the time scouring websites, reaching out to current students, and accepting all the help I could get during what was a stressful and sometimes cumbersome process.
My Strategy for Researching Colleges
Create a Spreadsheet
You’re going to gather a lot of information when researching colleges, and you’ll need somewhere to keep it all organized.
A spreadsheet doesn’t sound very exciting, but making a list in Airtable of all the colleges I was interested in—along with fields for their essay prompts, majors, admission deadlines, and student body size—gave me an easy way to directly compare schools. This also made it easier to share my findings with my parents and college counselor.
I used the College Insights Tool to gather admissions data, particularly the breakdown of the early admissions vs. regular admissions acceptance rates. I could also quickly see what percent of enrolled students were admitted early decision. This was helpful in determining if there were advantages to applying early at certain schools .
The easiest place to find information about the colleges you are looking at is on the internet.
Some college websites can be confusing. It took me too long to find out which courses were offered and who taught them. But once I did, the information I gathered helped me understand specifically what I would have the opportunity to learn if I attended each school.
I tried to find course catalogs through college websites, but I often had more success searching on Google for the catalogs.
Be on the lookout for prerequisites for the courses your child is interested in. If you can, check out which courses your child would take within their specific major as well.
After going through this process with multiple schools, you can compare the different courses your child would take at various schools and decide which ones most interest them.
Be sure to see what activities the school has to offer, along with people to contact within the departments they’re interested in. It’s a good idea to reach out to members of the faculty; they can often answer questions more in-depth than what’s found on the website.
I found lists published by some schools of what graduates have gone on to do after their studies extremely helpful. While researching schools, I wasn’t sure which major to declare. But being able to see a list, such as this one from the University of Pennsylvania, opened my eyes to what I wanted to study and which school would help me get my dream job. These lists are typically found in the career services part of a college’s website.
A college website will tell you all the things the college wants you to know, but a forum is where you can find out what’s really going on. For me, Reddit was the best source of student information for the colleges I was looking at.
Many of my questions had already been asked and had multiple comments from current students at the school. From there, I found out things about social life, the best teachers, and the quality of dorms.
As with most of the internet, it’s best to take everything you read from a forum with a grain of salt. Reddit users are typically anonymous, and while that sometimes leads to more honest comments about their experience, it can also mean that the person posting never actually attended the university in question.
Other websites I found helpful were College Confidential, Quora, and the reviews section of Niche. Using these websites gives a comprehensive view of a school from students’ perspectives.
One way to hear about the student experience at a college is to watch videos on YouTube. Many channels are run by students attending a particular college
One playlist I found helpful was “73 Questions with a University Student.” The videos, which are filmed as a student walks across their campus, gave me a feel for what the average student at each school is like.
Even if a school your child is looking at hasn’t been covered by a 73 Questions episode, I guarantee you can still find other videos and channels on YouTube dedicated to their dream schools. Some of these channels have videos where students share the essays that got them accepted or tips for standing out on that school’s application. While I wouldn’t get caught up in their specific high school extracurriculars or scores, hearing about the things their school looks for can help your child better craft their application.
Talking with Current Students
If applying to colleges during the pandemic taught me anything, it’s that more people are willing to talk to people who politely reach out than I expected.
Knowing I wouldn’t be able to visit most schools in person, I began to search for students online with whom I could talk. Initially, I reached out to my college counselor to see if she knew any alumni who were willing to talk. She gave me their emails, and I sent out an introductory message.
For other schools, I went to LinkedIn and searched for my high school. From there, I went to the alumni tab and searched for the names of specific colleges. This is also a helpful tool for seeing the types of jobs people with certain majors get after attending different schools.
Here’s an example of a message I sent on LinkedIn, abiding by its 300-character limit:
My name is Matthew and I’m a rising senior at (high school name). I’m particularly interested in (college name), but haven’t been able to visit. I was wondering if you have time for a quick call to talk about your experience there, any insights you have, and possible connections to (high school name).
Getting people to respond is easier if the message is direct and to the point.
Coming Up with Questions
When talking with a former or current college student, my goals were to create a better picture of what it would be like at the school. Talking to people who had experiences at my high school that they could relate to their college experience made the conversation more productive and effective.
Doing specific research on their school ahead of time can help you come up with detailed questions. For example, if I were talking to someone from Dartmouth, I’d ask them about the quarter system and what they liked and disliked about it.
Instead of spending time asking questions that could be answered online, I wanted to use this opportunity to find out about life at the school.
How friendly are professors? Where do you hang out on the weekends? Are there any comparisons that could be made to high school?
Asking questions like these helped me learn about what the college is actually like.
When I began looking at colleges, I planned a trip to visit several during my spring break. But then the pandemic hit, and in-person tours at the schools I was interested in stopped until after my applications were already submitted.
Virtual tours benefit those who aren’t able to travel, are unable to visit multiple schools, or can’t afford flights around the country.
Now, prospective students have a more equal opportunity to decide what school is right for them and show demonstrated interest in the school’s admissions office by attending virtual events.
The number one thing you can do when researching colleges is to gather information and keep it organized. Collect it from as many sources as you can to get the fullest picture, and then compare schools in the fields that matter most to your child.
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