In rental cars, we drove thousands of kilometers to visit thirty four colleges, from upstate New York and Maine, almost to the Canadian border, all the way down to the Carolinas and even west to Indiana. That’s enough Burger King drive-throughs, roadside motels and “top 40” radio to last a lifetime. We visited two schools every day with only a few exceptions. These grueling “vacations” may have been tiring, but they were worth it. Knowing that I’d be happy at a large number of schools is a very comfortable feeling. For me, having too many schools to choose from is a better problem to have than not knowing where to go.
There’s a certain kind of feeling you can get when you visit a school. My preferred method of evaluating and considering schools starts with;
- Whether it feels right on campus. I walked around the college campuses and tried to picture myself actually going there. I watched students interact with each other, and talked to them. I stood in line with them in cafeterias and bookstores. If I couldn’t picture myself there and I didn’t feel like I would like the people there, then I knew: it wasn’t the place for me. That already cut a lot of schools from my list before even looking at academics.
- Online research on the college’s website might portray the school differently than it really is. Maybe the school doesn’t have a great website and you aren’t impressed. This school could be a lot better than its website, but you’ll have no idea unless you visit.
- You can learn a lot from talking to the students. Getting student’s personal opinions and hearing about their experiences is arguably more valuable than reading the cold hard facts listed on a school’s website. Colleges make a huge effort with prospective students, handing out free Chipwiches or string backpacks.
- Tour guides and admissions officers were always really helpful and will answer any question. Tour guides are especially great because you can ask them more personal questions about things like social life and food that you might not feel comfortable asking admission officers. Schools will let you explore the campus after your tour and most will let you even let you eat lunch in their cafeteria, sometimes for free.
Sitting through thirty four information sessions and tours might not have been the most fun, but I gained a really clear sense of the important factors to take into consideration when determining if a college is right for me. Parents, counsellors and friends will tell you to think about things like size, location, public or private, academic rigor, and even sports or other activities. But maybe I don’t care if a college is in city or the countryside. Maybe there are other things that are important to me. After visiting a lot of colleges, it becomes quite clear what you like and don’t like.
It is also a lot easier to compare schools when you can benchmark them against each other. For example, I know that average class size is a far more useful figure than student-teacher ratio, as some teachers only do research on campus. But I also know that average class size can be skewed as introductory classes tend to be biggest. I took notes during every visit, so now I can compare these things, as well as information I might not find on the website that I learned from the tour guide or the admissions officer.
“Yeah, but I don’t think I need to. I’m just going to go to X school like my dad, his dad and my aunt.” Maybe you think you know where you want to go, but keeping an open mind might be useful. Maybe you’re not exactly the same as your dad who loved it.
People might also tell you not to look at certain schools, “I went to Y University just down the road and X University is such a joke.” Things have changed since your parents went to college 20 or 30 years ago. Columbia University went co-ed in 1983 after having been all-male for 229 years. “Jock” fraternities get kicked off campus and old “nerdy” frats of the 80’s become sites of the best parties. Try to remember that you should be making the decision, not your friends or someone who “knew a guy” a few decades ago.
Many describe college years as the most fun time of their lives, from your 90 year old grandma to your older brother who just graduated. They remember learning about what they were actually interested in, instead of sitting through that class they hated so much. They remember the parties and their track teammates. If I learned anything from talking to people about college, it is that choosing a college is probably one of the top ten most important choices you can make. So maybe giving up one week of sitting at home on the couch or going to parties with friends over spring break is worth it, to have the best four years of your life.
By Ben Lindgren (’16)