When I was applying to colleges, I visited schools literally all over the country, from the East Coast to Midwest to Pacific Northwest. Along the way, I learned several lessons about what is important in colleges, what would make me happy to be there, and what didn’t really matter at all.
Secret #1 – Living Conditions
Find out what the residency requirements are for all the colleges you are considering. The general trend among universities has been to longer on-campus living requirements to promote a more collegiate atmosphere, and you may be required to live 2-3 years on campus. If that is the case, visit the residence halls before you make a decision. Visit the best one and the worst one to see the extremes. Would you be happy living three to a room if you knew that other students on campus had private rooms with an office area?
You should also find out the amount of supervision and rules you will have to comply with while you’re living in a residence hall. For example, you may be forbidden from having alcohol, even if you are over the legal drinking age. You may have to submit to random room checks, or even check in with a resident assistant every evening. Ask other students for their opinions, and decide if you can handle the rules and still be happy at this college.
Secret #2 – Professors
Colleges will usually give the percentage of classes taught by professors (as compared to teaching assistants), as well as the number of professors tenured. Obviously, you want classes that are taught by professors, preferably by those who have the highest degree in their field. Whether or not you want your professors to be tenured depends on your academic goals. Tenured professors tend to focus on graduate-level research, and are less interested in teaching your undergraduate classes. If you are interested in research too, you might be able to work on advanced research project with them; but otherwise, you are probably better off (and better taught) by non-tenured professors.
Secret #3 – Diversity
Diversity among students is a major buzzword among colleges these days, but don’t put too much of an emphasis on it. The truth is that you find diversity if you are seeking it. There are international student groups, political groups, Black, Asian, and Hispanic organizations, and religious groups on every campus. Whatever your interests, you will find other people who are similar to you.
Secret #4 – Majors
You probably don’t know your major before you have to decide on a college. And if you think you do, you’re wrong. It will change. Nevertheless, you should know what your major interests are, and make sure that any college you consider has a significant amount of classes and offerings in these areas. If you are reasonably certain of the general field you want to go into (engineering, for example), choose a school that is known for that field and has a big endowment in that area. I certainly benefited from my finance major by attending a college that was known for its business school, and had the most active alumni of the entire university.
Secret #5 – Grading Systems
Does the college use a straight 4.0 system or a plus/minus (with A+’s and B-‘s, etc.), or some other grading scale entirely? If you normally get straight As, you might prefer the normal 4.0 scale, and most other students would probably prefer a college with the plus/minus system. If the college uses something other than a 4.0 numeric system, you might have more trouble getting people to understand your grade point average on resumes and in interviews.
Also, find out the retake policy and the appeals process. At some colleges you can re-take classes as many times as you want, at others you can only re-take if you fail. Beyond that, find out if every re-take grade counts in your GPA, or only the most recent. Next, read the appeals process. Is the grade your professor enters after the semester ends your final grade no matter what? What if she made a mistake in entering it? What if she had one of your exam grades recorded incorrectly? Find out what the college would allow you to do in the unlikely event that you disagree with the grade recorded.
Next time you visit a college campus or research a potential college, consider my tips, too. Don’t just listen to the glowing reports and the best features that the college will evangelize in tour groups and on their website. Dig a little deeper, and you will discover which college is truly the best for you – where you will be the happiest!