How To Guide: Narrowing Your College Search Part 2

Looking at the campus and overall environment of your choice colleges.


This article is written by Ed LaFreniere:

With a bit of campus humor, this handy guide for the college-bound student helps one navigate the ins and outs of campus life, what questions to ask, what to look out for, and when to know what feels just right. 

This is part two of four parts. .

–Size does matter for most: Visit a number of campuses early on, ideally by your junior year, to get a sense of how big, or small, an environment makes you comfortable. Assuming that you have a choice, given financial factors, will you freak out at a place that has 50,000 students – or will you be happier than a wart hog in a mud pit? Are you aggressive enough to fight your way through that huge bureaucracy to get the classes you want? To hunt down professors and teaching assistants for extra help? On the other hand, do you prefer a small environment where everyone knows you? Where you can't hide (which may, or may not, always be a good thing!)? Where the professor can tell that you're absorbing the material about as well as waxed plastic? Some campuses will give you an instant feeling of home sweet home; others will make you think you’re on Mars.

– Is the setting (urban, suburban, rural) appropriate? Are you a city kid who loves theater and late-night restaurants? Or would you rather read poetry in a tree on a rural campus that’s a million miles from nowhere? Maybe something in the middle?

– Do you want to be relatively close to home? Or would you just as soon give your family the opportunity to travel through mountains by yak for three weeks to get to you?

– Will the climate enable you to engage in outdoor activities that you absolutely, positively can’t do without? You probably will have a tough time winning the national waterskiing championships if you spend six months in the Maine woods.

– How good is the food (best to try it out, if feasible; at the very least e-mail students and inquire). Hey, you have to eat at least a few times a week. Is there a variety at each meal, and how often do the menus repeat themselves? The same old slop and glop will get old in four days, let alone four years.

– Is campus housing available for as long as you expect to want it, or need it? Lots of small colleges guarantee it for all four years. Many (if not most) big universities guarantee it for freshman year only, or sometimes freshman/sophomore years only. After that you’re in a lottery, or you live off-campus. Will you have to pitch a tent? Would you rather be imprisoned in Alcatraz for the next few years than live in this area?

– How good and accessible is off-campus housing? Within walking distance of the campus? Biking? Driving? Space shuttle? Are typical apartments and houses in good condition and spacious enough for the number of roommates that you no doubt will have to pick up after? Ask the housing office for information.

– Facilities overall – are they modern, clean, attractive and well-maintained? If you have to ask your parents for an industrial-strength respirator, the answer is probably ‘no.’ Rate the following:

1.  Classrooms. Lecture halls. Labs. Are they comfortable enough? Do they have strategically placed alcoves for naps?

2. Dorms. Are the rooms livable? In good condition? Palatial enough for YOU? Clean? Spacious enough to step over bodies on Saturday nights (and Friday nights, and Thursday nights…)? If rooms are as messy as yours at home, this is probably not a healthy thing. Also, are the rooms ‘wired for Internet access’ (or is it only your dorm-mates who are wired)? Does it matter if you have instant Internet access from your room – or can you live with a public area? Also, are some dorms considered better – and closer to academic buildings – than others? Are there ‘theme’ dorms, such as ‘substance-free’ or ‘kids who actually have to work every night and need peace and quiet’? Are dorms coed? Does it make a difference? If you’re in the South, are they air-conditioned?

3. Cafeterias and other eating facilities. Will you have to interrupt your eight hours of homework each night to wait in long lines to get your food? And will you then have to stand there like a dope holding your tray for half an hour while waiting for a seat to open up?

4. Library. We hate to bring up a sore spot, but you may have to spend a few minutes there eventually. Does it have chairs, and enough volumes? Will you be able to find a spot at your best time of day?

5.  Sports facilities. As an example, if you love basketball but probably aren’t headed for the NBA or WNBA, are there enough courts – and playing time – for unrecognized talent such as yourself? If you’re a golfer, are there courses nearby that don’t charge eight hundred thousand dollars for green’s fees?

6. Computer facilities. Vast majorities of students bring their own. If you don’t, will there be enough? Are they of recent vintage? Will you get access only at 4 a.m. as a freshman?

– Is the campus navigable? Can you get from one class to the next without a helicopter and before the end of the semester?

 – Is the name prestigious enough for you? One of the main reasons for hundreds of thousands of transfers is this one. Just on the off chance that you get wait-listed at Harvard, will your second choice (and third and fourth, etc.) satisfy any need you may have for name recognition? Perhaps you don’t care, and that may be fine, too.

– Semester vs. trimester. With semesters you’re typically done with half the year just before Christmas vacation. With trimesters you have more frequent exams, but, at many schools, fewer courses at one time. Does it matter? Will you need a big mid-year break to spend a month listening to the sweet sounds of Spinal Tap or Cannibal Corpse?

– Early decision/early action? If you fall in love with one school – not a good idea to limit yourself, by the way – you can choose one of these. But remember that you will fit in very nicely at perhaps dozens or even hundreds of colleges. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment; with so many applicants, many admissions officers acknowledge that the process, particularly in highly competitive situations, is a crap-shoot. Whatever route you choose, know – and abide by – the deadlines for applications and financial aid forms. Admissions people are more like your Latin teacher than the dude who taught you poetry and gave you three years to complete assignments. Be on time.

– Can you afford the place? What’s your likely debt after four years? Many graduates pay back loans until they’re 40 – this is fact, and it can hurt your lifestyle. Be careful not to put yourself in a position where you’ll be driving a Yugo for 20 years instead of the BMW you dream about. Debt is probably the biggest stressor among adult Americans. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to get into it AFTER college; don’t go overboard now! Once you’re accepted and you know the financial aid offers, be realistic about this. Surveys have shown that earning power within six or so years after graduation may have little to do with where you studied as an undergraduate.

– Where do grads go afterward? How many go on for advanced degrees? What percentage find jobs right away? Any stats on average starting pay – and salary, say, five years afterward? How many companies recruit on campus each year? Is there a strong, supportive alumni network?  How many grads become nomadic sheep herders in Tibet, or Paris Hilton groupies, or, worse, lawyers or dentists?

– Safety and security. Log on to securityoncampus.org. Under a law known as the Clery Act, colleges must publish crime stats going back three years. You’ll see reports dealing with off-campus and on-campus crime, as well as less serious offenses. But keep in mind that low numbers at a very small school may, as a ratio, be comparable to higher numbers at bigger schools. Don’t overreact. But study the trends and you’ll get an overall sense.

– Off-campus attractions. What’s important to you? Restaurants? Cultural offerings, such as theater, concerts and museums? A town that’s big enough to perform community service? Can you walk to town? Heaven forbid, but how’s the night life and bar scene (not that this would apply to you, the consummate conservative 4.0 geek, but friends who visit you may want to know). Chances are your campus will offer activities. But will you need more? Is there something to do within 10 miles other than contemplate a virgin forest? How about other leisure activities? Maybe you like to fish, or kayak, or hike in the mountains? Archery may not be allowed in certain parts of the campus, particularly in the dorms, so be forewarned!

Look for part three next Sunday.


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