College Counseling: The Search
Contrary to what U.S. News and World Report would have you believe, there is no single, meaningful metric for measuring how “good” a college is, and therefore no simple way to reduce the thousands of college options to a list of schools worthy of your consideration. If you compare yourself to a sibling or a friend, you will notice that you have different academic interests, hobbies, social habits, athletic talents, and even core values.
Picture these two friends:
- George wants to explore the humanities; loves small, discussion-based classes; wants to be able to play competitive soccer (but is not a Division I level talent); likes being able to step outside his door and toss a frisbee with a friend to relax; and likes the idea of living somewhere different from the Puget Sound area for a while.
- Martha really wants to study Engineering or Computer Science, desires an opportunity to work with professors on their research, hopes to join a competitive robotics team, would like to sing acapella, wishes to avoid being at a school where sports are the center of campus social life, and hopes to live in a major urban center.
Are the same schools going to be right for these two students? Probably not! This is why it’s so important for you to embark on a process of self-exploration to guide you in your search for colleges that are right for your own individual needs, priorities, and goals.
Developing Your Criteria
One of the most challenging and most meaningful aspects of the college search and application process is the self-exploration you will carry out as you begin to identify your priorities and allow those priorities to define the types of schools you research and ultimately apply to. Over time, you’ll develop a sense of what things matter most to you. Some categories that students consider are:
- Location (region of the country or the world, general preference for urban/suburban/rural, preferred climates, proximity to home or family, proximity to area resources such as outdoor activities/internships in a certain field)
- Campus feel (style of architecture, presence of green space, character of surrounding community)
- School size (average class size, relationships with professors, opportunities for research, breadth of academic programs offered)
- Access to specific academic programs (majors, minors, learning support, ability to participate in classes or programs if not majoring in them)
- Structure of academic program (flexibility or structure of core requirements, applying directly to a major vs. deciding later)
- Cost to attend (public, private, availability of need-based and merit-based aid)
- Opportunity to participate in specific extracurriculars (varsity/intramural/club sports, the arts, clubs)
- School culture (diversity of student body and faculty, religious affiliation, political climate, sports culture, Greek life, presence of specific affinity groups, popular sports/clubs/student traditions, level of academic intensity/competitiveness, etc.)
The criteria you develop will be informed by gut responses to some of these options and by your experience visiting a diverse group of schools and noticing what appeals to you and what doesn’t. As your criteria evolve and become more and more defined with time, your College Counseling team will be able to recommend a more tailored list of schools for your consideration.
These days, the amount of information available to you about each school can be overwhelming. An obvious first step is to go to a college’s website, but by the time you’ve gone to a few you’ll notice that they start to look virtually identical. It can be hard to figure out what distinguishes schools from one another. Noted below are some research methods that we recommend.
It is vitally important that you keep notes—in whatever formator device makes sense for you—on what you find out during your research process. You can easily spend a few hours diving into books and websites and learning all about a group of schools, only to be completely stupefied an hour later if someone asks you to name one specific thing you liked about a given school. College research involves absorption and organization of a wealth of information. Keep track of what you’ve learned or you’ll find yourself going back to do it all over again.
Phase 1 of Researching a School: Is this School Worth a Deeper Dive?
A college search book can provide a good first glance into a school. While search books may seem antiquated, they remain one of the best resources available precisely because they are limited in the quantity of information they can share about each school; the entries are distilled to the most important things to know about academic programs, social life, location, school culture, etc.
We have several books available for you to borrow in our College Counseling offices, or you can take the plunge and purchase one that suits you. If you need a starting point, a favorite general-purpose book among our team members is the Fiske Guide to Colleges. Other good options include (but are certainly not limited to): The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges and The Best 382 Colleges (by the Princeton Review).
Phase 2 of Researching a School: Diving Deeper
Once you’ve determined that a school warrants further research, a great first step is to contact them (by phone, email, or filling out an online form on their admissions website) indicating that you’re interested and would like to be added to their mailing list. This serves two purposes: it allows you to receive the promotional material that a school sends out (which may contain information that is helpful in your search), and it puts you on their radar as a potential applicant (which can work to your benefit at schools that track your demonstrated interest).
Next, the internet has many resources available to assist you in diving deeper into each school. Here are some websites we recommend you try out.
- Individual college websites: The school’s website can answer questions you have about availability of academic programs, clubs, or other interests that might not have been covered in depth in a short entry in a college search book. It will also be blanketed in beautiful photos of the campus—and may even offer a virtual tour—which can help you get a sense of the space and whether it appeals to you.
If you have one or more fields of academic interest in mind, a great use of the college’s website is to click into a major that interests you and read through the descriptions of courses available within it. Do they sound like classes you’d be excited to take? You will find that the requirements and course descriptions of the same major can vary widely between schools, and you may be able to rule in/out some schools based on what you learn from their course catalogue.
- Unigo.com & Niche.com: These are two popular websites that students use to answer questions and post “reviews” of their schools. These sites can be a wealth of information on a wide variety of topics, but make sure to read a solid handful of reviews or answers to each question and look for trends in what you read without putting too much stock in any one person’s reply. If you do that, these sites can help you develop a good sense of what it’s like to attend school there.
During your college search, it is advantageous to visit as many different schools as your time, budget, and energy allow. It can be beneficial to visit a school even if you know you will not apply there because every visit will provide you more insight into what aspects of the school provoked positive and negative reactions in you. You can then apply this learning to better define (and sometimes make significant changes to) your college criteria.
Your goal during each visit should be to walk away with a list of pros and cons about the place. Your gut impressions are just as important in this list as the concrete facts you learn about the school during the tour or information session.
Do be aware of the outsized impact that a tour guide or info session leader can have on your overall impression of a school. Remember that your tour guide (and your admissions officer) do not—and cannot—represent the entire school. Make your best effort to separate your impressions of those people from your impressions of the school as a whole.
When to Visit:
We are often asked, “When is the best time to visit schools?” The answer is: whenever you are able. We encourage you to take advantage of any travel plans you already have (family wedding in Portland or trip to see Grandma in Sarasota?) to see a couple of nearby schools. We encourage you to get in touch with your Process Coach if you have upcoming travel plans to inquire about nearby colleges you could visit.
If you have the opportunity to plan a trip specifically to visit schools, the most ideal time is when EPS is not in session, but the colleges you want to visit are. Of course, those times are few and far between, so you’ll need to be prepared to work with whatever timing is available to you. Remember that every school has its own rhythm. You may unknowingly visit during Exam Week or on the first day of a new term. You will undoubtedly see some schools in the morning (“It sure is quiet at this school!”) and others on a Friday afternoon (“Wow, this place is so full of life! Everyone is out playing frisbee!”), and the timing may affect your impression of the campus.
It is absolutely all right to visit schools during their spring breaks or summer vacations. You miss out on getting to see the student body in their element on the campus, but the Admissions Office will be open and functioning normally. In fact, summertime is high season for college visits, for obvious reasons.
What to Expect While There:
Most campus visits consist of a 30-60 minute information session held by an Admissions Officer, and a 60-90 minute walking tour of the campus, led by a current student.
On-campus interviews are becoming increasingly rare, but they are available at some schools. Where interviews are available, we encourage you to take advantage of them; they are as much an opportunity for you to learn more about the school as for the school to learn about you. Interviews must be scheduled in advance. For more information on interviews, head to that section of this site.
How to Set Up Your Visit:
Head to the Admissions page of your college’s website and follow links geared towards visiting students. All schools will have a schedule posted of their tours and info sessions. Many schools will have you register in advance through their website; others will operate on a drop-in basis.
When planning a trip to visit multiple schools, we strongly recommend not visiting more than two per day. Each visit takes both mental and physical energy and most students (and parents!) become exhausted and detached from the experience if they over-pack their days; impressions of schools also begin to run together. Leave time in each day that is not dedicated to the school, even if it’s just to stroll the surrounding area and have a bite to eat.
Making the Most of Your Time on Campus:
Here are some pointers for making the best use of your college visit:
- Take detailed notes. We cannot stress enough the importance of keeping notes about your visit. As you tour more and more schools, the details will blur together and you will struggle to remember basic impressions you formed about each separate place. It doesn’t matter how you keep track of this information, just that you do. Try to include details about academics, extracurriculars of interest, the feel of the campus and the surrounding area, and particulars that you loved or hated about the place.
The information you keep in your notes will serve several purposes:
- It will allow you to share your impressions with your Process Coach so they can recommend other schools for you to research based on your reactions to this one.
- It will help you make decisions about which schools to apply to.
- It will inform you as you decide which school to attend.
- Write down names and contact information for anyone you meet with, or get their business cards. You may want to talk about something your tour guide said in your supplemental essay, or you may want to reach out to the Admissions Officer later as you work on your application.
- Come prepared with questions. Think ahead of time about questions you can ask during the info session or the tour. If you’re having trouble coming up with questions, your Process Coach is happy to help you.
- If you have special interest such as music or a sport, arrange a meeting with a person in that department prior to your visit. Faculty members, coaches and activity leaders are often available and happy to speak with students during a visit. However, these meetings usually need to be scheduled ahead of time.
- Make your visit official. Even if you’re not participating in an official tour or info session, stop by the Admissions Office and fill out one of their inquiry cards. Some schools keep track of whether you have visited their campus or not (as part of what’s called “demonstrated interest”), and it may strengthen your application for the school to have a record of your visit.
- Include a trip to the financial aid office. Because cost is central to many college decisions, it is wise to include a trip to the financial aid office as part of any campus visit. This office will provide a good overview of the aid application process as well as any institution-specific forms you will need. Even if you do not plan on applying for need-based aid, the financial aid office will have information on merit aid awards and other ways to help meet the costs of their institution.
- Extend your visit beyond the two hours typically dedicated to a tour and interview. Speak with other students or spend some time in the Student Union. Read bulletin boards and observe what takes place on campus. Drive around the town. Have a meal somewhere. If you are with your parents, take a half hour and split up to walk around different parts of campus, then come back together and compare notes. Even in the summer, a great deal of insight can come from a college’s surroundings and atmosphere. Remember, you will not just be studying at this school; it will be your home for the next four years.