How To Guide: Narrowing Your College Search Part 3

Here's the third installment of this practical and sometimes humorous manual for parents and college-bound high school students.


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 crucial college visit, what questions to ask, what to look for, and when to trust your feelings that it feels "just right."

This is part three of four parts.

The All-Important Visit

Can you imagine buying a house and surrounding property sight-unseen, in a neighborhood you’ve never visited? Oh, and guess what – a huge family comes with it, idiosyncrasies, dysfunction and all – and you’ve never met any of them. But they’re yours for four years! Deciding on which college to attend without a visit (preferably while school is in session) would not be altogether different. Yes, pictures from the Internet and from slick brochures can give you an idea. But you actually have to be there, if at all possible, to experience the place. If you can, spend a couple of days, including an overnight in a dorm. Some tips:

–You’ve just stepped on campus. Quick – what’s your first impression?

• If Voldemort creatures are buzzing your head while flying around on Firebolt brooms, hey, this might be the place! On the other hand, if you see physics professors hurling rotten tomatoes at students as part of a time-and-motion experiment ... or notice teaching assistants tossing kids out of classroom windows to keep large lectures from getting too overcrowded … think twice!

If you get the creeps, borrow a broom and take off! First impressions count a lot. You may not know why, but trust your instincts. You should feel like you belong.

– What kind of ‘feel’ do you get from watching students?

Are they super competitive, slitherin’ around each other with a killer instinct like Draco Malfoy? Or are they all wearing suits, ties, two-inch-thick glasses and pocket protectors, gazing quizzically for minutes at a time and eventually exclaiming, ‘Aha! I’ve figured it out – this is a SANDWICH!’ Or are they just like you – wearing a filthy old baseball cap (backwards, of course) along with a tee-shirt (never washed) that’s imprinted with ‘Computer Science Majors Byte,’ and flip-flops, even in the middle of a blizzard?

– Observe. How are students interacting with each other?

Are they carrying on pleasant conversations? Carrying books? Carrying beer at 9 o’clock in the morning? Carrying classmates who’ve had too much beer?

Seriously, do they seem overwhelmed by stress or panic instead of appearing relatively relaxed and happy? Final-exam week is not the time to make this determination. Can you see yourself here, mixing it up with this cast of characters?

– Stop and talk to a few kids who aren’t screaming, weeping or cramming while running. Don’t ask endless questions. Just try a few that are easy to reply to, such as:

• Whew! Does ANYONE around here ever take a shower? … How many times is the average student arrested during spring break?... Looking around at all you guys, I can’t help but wonder – is the ENTIRE admissions staff, like, demented or something?

Actually, you might do better asking how competitive the academics are and how much time you’d likely spend on school work each day – or anything else that’s important to you, such as intramural sports. If those you approach snub you, either you have your baseball cap on the right way, you’ve asked an inane question, or you’re back on Mars.

– How does the physical part of the campus ‘feel’?

If you are a country kid who climbs trees, will an asphalt jungle be a good fit? Or, if you’re a city kid who believes that trees are solely for dogs, will you feel out of place? Does the architecture soothe your soul – or make you want to jump out of your skin?

– Don’t let the weather sway you on the days you visit. It rains everywhere. Sometimes it snows. Sometimes it’s sunny, or hot and muggy. Try to ignore the basketball-size hail so that you can appraise the place fairly.

– Ask for an interview if you think it will help. Large universities rarely, if ever, require them. Are you good one-on-one with an authority figure, anyway? Can you avoid letting loose with sarcasm for half an hour? If it’s a small college, an interview may be in order. At the very least, you can ask questions. Assess the risks as opposed to what you might learn. If you can present yourself like George Clooney or Reese Witherspoon, go for it! If you’re more like Napoleon Dynamite, take dance lessons instead.

– Visit a dorm or two, and not just those on a tour that are sparkling clean and show like a Newport mansion. Spend a night if you can. See what real dorm life is like. Noisy? Lots of partying? Can you hear yourself think? Can people study quietly in public areas? Is your list of items to bring in the fall topped off with ‘gas mask’? Remember, there’s no maid service. No Mom or Dad. If the rooms look and smell like your brother’s, shop the classifieds for tree houses.

– Stop and think about how your true initial reaction. Yes, your first impression is critical – particularly if the first word that comes to mind is ‘hideous’ or ‘repulsive.’ But many others decide within 10 seconds of a tour that THIS IS HEAVEN!!! Then they spend the rest of the walk building a case to validate that impression. Once you’ve toured, think about retracing those steps. Explore prudently and honestly, and absorb the ambiance. As for the thousand students napping on the quad: Are they really asleep, or has the cafeteria mystery meat done them in? Examine a few for pulses.

Learn about activities. Peruse the web site before your visit for a list of clubs and the names of individuals who run them. Email for information. Once there, visit the yearbook office, or ask for a copy in the library. Are lots of teams, clubs and other organizations shown? See a lot of things that you’d be interested in? Or are there 200 pages of photos from beer-pong competitions? If a team consisting of the college president and the vice presidents is the perennial winner, watch out!!!

Will there be enough events and activities on campus? If you scoped them out on the home page, and the only event Saturday night is a lecture titled 'Wart Hogs from A to Z,' will you be thrilled? Scan bulletin boards for postings in academic buildings and elsewhere, such as cafeterias and the student union. Read the student newspaper. Are there a zillion events to choose from? Or will you be bored to tears for four long years? If they have only two local TV stations, which show endless reruns of Star Trek and Green Acres, will that be enough? Some studious types can do without much of an entertainment calendar. For others, well, it may be one reason why they don’t always wake up with a clear head. After all, there’s only so much you can take of Arnold the Pig, and when that Green Acres theme song gets stuck in your head like a broken record 10 minutes into your botany final, you’ll wish you’d gone to NYU.

– Other things to research with extracurriculars:

Is there a sizeable proportion of students who are interested in the same things as you? Is there a computer club, for example, if that’s what you’re passionate about? Varsity, junior varsity, club or intramural curling facilities? Busloads of skiing enthusiasts? Frisbee freaks? Thousands of participants for an annual Dirty Stinkin’ Sneaker Contest?

• Can you get tickets to campus athletic events? Will you have to camp out overnight in the snow and sub-zero temperatures to get a seat smack behind a post for your average hockey game? Have football tickets been sold out for six generations, except for those residing atop flag poles above the stadium?

Try to visit others who may have a profound impact on important areas of your life: a coach, a cleric, band or theater director, or community service staff, perhaps. List your three favorite activities outside the classroom – things that are vital to your existence: Will there be plenty of opportunities to engage in them? E-mail the powers-that-be in advance. Will you get a warm welcome? For instance, are you an aspiring actor who has done a lot of theater? If the head of the college’s drama department greets you with a sneer and tells you that you’d do better to set your sights on becoming assistant water boy for the math team, inquire about other options. If it ain’t a fit, ya better split.

Visit buildings that house academic departments you're interested in. How impressive are the facilities? Will you be claustrophobic in tiny rooms built out of cinder blocks that haven’t been painted since the Peloponnesian War? Also, walk into the central office for the department chairman/woman – or at least for the academic dean who oversees the department. Ask a couple of questions. Try, if at all possible, to meet a professor or two. See if they seem friendly and supportive, not to mention competent and aware of your presence. Can you picture yourself going in and begging to get into a class that’s oversubscribed? Or would you rather watch Barney reruns ten times a day?

Visit the job placement office, if there is one, and ask about internships, too. Will you have a shot at learning about the stock market while working summers for a major brokerage? Or are you more likely to be mucking out horse stalls for the equestrian club?


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