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College Research: Five Tips For Evaluating Fit

If you are a high school junior beginning your college search, you have probably perused a guide book such as The Fiske Guide To Colleges, visited college websites and maybe even logged into a popular college review site such as College Prowler or Unigo. If you find that many of the college descriptions are starting to sound similar and you aren’t sure what to look for, you are not alone. Here are five tips to getting to the important points.

  1. Check the List of Majors. This seems obvious, but it is surprising how many students do not take the time to review the list of college majors and minors to see if there are offerings in line with their interests. If you are considering a specific profession such as engineering or nursing then be sure the college offers the major. Are you a liberal arts/science person who loves the idea of exploring everything from philosophy and neuroscience, to Arabic and anthropology? Or will you feel more comfortable in an environment where students are preparing for particular professions such as marketing or athletic training? You will find majors on the college website under academics.

    Before deciding on a college, make sure to check that your major is available.

  2. Are There Requirements?  If you have no interest in reading Virgil’s The Aeneid or you glaze over at the idea of having little choice in course offerings, then a college with “Core” requirements would not be right for you. Likewise, if you need structure and would feel overwhelmed with too many choices then a college with no requirements might not be right either. Most colleges have distribution requirements where you have choices of hundreds of courses in categories such as Physical and Life Sciences, Quantitative Reasoning, Social Science and Humanities, Fine Arts, Non-Western Culture and Civilizations and sometimes foreign language or ethics. A few have a physical education requirement. The specific distribution categories will vary by college so be sure to check this out on the academic page of the college website.
  3. What Academic Opportunities Are Available? Look for opportunities such as undergraduate research (not just in the sciences) and ask if students receive grants for summer research. Are independent studies or senior capstone experiences offered? Find out if students do internships and if the college ever offers grants to help fund them. Investigate the study abroad options and ask what percentage of the student body participates. This will tell you about the kind of resources the college has and how curious students are to expand their world. Also, be sure to check academic support such as tutoring, writing centers, support for challenging courses and professor availability.
  4.  What Is the Culture?  Colleges have personalities and cultures. Do you like people who are politically aware and care about issues such as the environment or voter’s rights?  Perhaps the idea of joining a sorority or fraternity sounds like fun to you. If you cannot imagine giving up athletics, you may want the college to have many students who love to play intramural sports. Have you lived in a city all your life and want to be near the great outdoors for a change?  Or is being near a mall with a J. Crew at the top of your list of priorities? Some colleges will offer all of the above. However, if you dislike fraternities, then don’t put a college on your list where 30% of students join Greek Life. If you lean left or right politically or on social issues and don’t want to mix much with those with opposing views then pay attention to which issues people care about on campuses and how they lean. Consider religion, arts and music offerings, sense of community, friendliness and whether students are competitive or collaborative (or both). College review sites, guidebooks and conversations with current students will help you understand campus culture.
  5. A Vibrant Campus Life?  Visit the calendar of events on the college website. Are there lectures, cultural

    events, athletic contests and alumni returning to speak to students? Are professors having lunch with students, publishing articles and contributing to the intellectual conservations on campus and beyond? Pick up a copy of the student newspaper (it is often online). Do students care about their school? Do they have a voice and an opportunity to share their opinions? Are there clubs and organizations in line with your interests?

Choosing a college is about much more than a spacious dorm room, a winning football team or a campus in a warm climate. Take the time to reflect on what matters to you and see how the colleges on your list match up.

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