When it comes to researching colleges online, a word of caution. Much of what you find when you start typing words into Google is going to be junk, which isn’t exactly news to you. Instead of Googling “best colleges for future doctors” or “occupational therapy majors,” start with the best resources for information on colleges. These are the tools I use as a professional college planner for my first-step, basic research. Some are better than others for specific search functions, so plug in some criteria and test them out. Use the tools that you like best.
Whenever I turn to a website such as these, I always take the results with a grain of salt and use them only as a starting point. If you find that College X has biochemical engineering, go directly to their website and do more digging to confirm the initial results, and then make contact with someone at the school who can tell you more and answer some questions.
Get Better College Information By Going Beyond Online Research
After you’ve done your research online, including spending significant amounts of time on the college websites for the schools that interest you most, you need to make contact with the schools that interest you. Yes, this means picking up that 50-pound phone and calling someone you don’t know who is probably older than 30 and asking good questions. This is the first step in an ongoing dialogue between you, the prospective student and family, and the college.
Before you pick up the phone or fire off an email, consider these guidelines for effective college search dialogue.
Find the right person to ask. If you have questions about the college in general, ask admissions. If your questions are specifically about majors or programs, find a professor or administrative professional within the department, such as program coordinators. When applying to grad programs in the early 1990′s (read: largely pre-internet) I found myself communicating much more frequently and with greater success with administrative assistants than professors. They were easy to reach because they sit next to a phone, and they knew all the details about how to apply, deadlines, requirements, etc.
Don’t ask for answers that are readily available on the website. If what you’re looking for doesn’t jump out at you, ask another family member to search for it, or use the search box that is usually in the upper right-hand corner of each page. It’s a sign of laziness to ask, “How many students do you have at your college?” It also sends the message that you can’t find answers on your own. If you legitimately can’t find basic data, then by all means ask.
Keep your queries brief and professional. Whether you’re 17 or 47, a well-written email with a succinct introductory sentence and closing statement works best. A variation on the email template here always works well. Hello [salutation if available] My name is _____ and I’m a sophomore/junior at [high school] in [town and state]. I’m very interested in [name of college] and specifically in your [major or department]. I have three questions I’d like to ask:
How many of the students in your [academic program] enter the workforce immediately vs. going on to graduate school?
What sets [college]’s [major] apart?
What new classes or facilities could I expect to see if I enroll?
Thank you for your time and attention to these questions. Sincerely,
You may not get an immediate response, but you will get a response. If you don’t try someone else, or call to see if that person is traveling or on leave from the university.
4. Treat this as the first step in a larger conversation. My rule of thumb is to never ask more than three questions in a single email. Don’t deluge the person with so many questions that she can’t respond in a timely manner. When you receive a response, it’s likely to include a “please let me know if you have more questions”, and while you don’t want to take advantage of that person’s time, you should take her at her word. Thank her for her time and send a follow-up question if you have one.
Between diligent online and offline research, you’ll be well on your way to identifying some colleges that could be great fits for you. For help defining the University of You and exploring great college options based on your unique needs, goals and passions, email me about our College Search services or schedule a free consult here. This is my life and my passion to help students find their best college fit!
Visit college campuses often. And visit early. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it 1000 times. Freshmen and sophomores? Do you think it’s too early to visit college campuses? Surprise! It’s not! But don’t take our word for it.
Minnesota sophomore Claire Ficek can tell you all about the benefit of visiting college campuses early. Even before Claire decided to spend her sophomore spring break touring college campuses with her family, we knew she was smart. Claire lives in a suburb of the Twin Cities where she loves riding horses, attending and watching sports events and serving others through mission trips and local service efforts.
Student stories are so important! Claire said it best, “When you hear it from another student, you can really trust what they’re saying.” Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Claire. Here’s our Q&A with Claire about her college campus visit experience over sophomore spring break this year.
How did college campus visits change your definition of your ideal college experience?
Stuff gets real when you see your name on the Visitor Tag!
Claire: Before I visited, I thought maybe I wanted a huge, public university. I thought I wanted a really big school with challenging classes, down in the South. I thought I needed a lot of sports and a lot of things happening around campus.
Now my definition of an ideal college experience is more focused, and it’s different than what I thought.
I visited all these big universities, and I don’t think I could call those places home. I learned how important it is to me to choose a Christian school, because that’s really important to me. So now my ideal college experience is that I want a small-medium-sized, private Christian college with hard classes, down in the South. Having a lot of sports still matters, but it’s on my want (not need) list. I love high school activities and sports, but I don’t know if I could do something like a Tennessee. Definitely I saw an example of what I want at Liberty. They’re building a brand new business school, and I think I want to major in something business or marketing-related. And because I’m considering a minor in Spanish and want to study abroad, that’s a big consideration, too.
How did you decide which schools to include in your college campus visits?
Claire: For some, it was word of mouth or watching college sports and getting curious about those schools. A couple were recommended to us once friends heard we were visiting over spring break. Some we added because they were close to schools we’d already chosen. And I have a couple of friends going to a couple of the colleges we visited.
Were you anxious about visiting colleges?
Claire: At first I was kind of nervous, especially as a sophomore. When I was on the college tours, they’d ask, “How many seniors are here? How many juniors are here?” They usually didn’t even ask about freshmen or sophomores. I also got nervous when I started to feel like the college that we were touring wasn’t the right fit. Like, “What am I doing here?” When I got nervous, I just turned to my dad and said, “I’m not sure this is the right fit.” My Dad said, “We’re just here to get information and learn. Just take notes. It’s fine.” It’s not like we were there to make a final decision or commit to anything. When I remembered that, I was fine.
One of the best parts was talking to students. That was great. Adults all pretty much say the same thing, “We’re an awesome school.” But I really believed what the students told me when I talked to them.
What types of questions did you ask the students?
Claire: I asked what they were majoring in. Things they liked about the college. Where they were from. How they chose the college. Where else they applied. I learned that these are just college kids that are figuring it out along the way. And just a few years ago, they were right where I am now. That was a relief. They were really nice, and seemed eager to answer my questions. It’s not until you get to talk to the students that you really have a good idea of what it’s like to go to school there. What you learn from the students helps you differentiate one school from another.
Another day, another campus. Duke was beautiful!
When we were visiting Kentucky, we were at a restaurant close to campus. We asked a college sophomore sitting next to us where she was from and what it was like here. Turns out she was from Wisconsin. She admitted that on a big campus, she had trouble finding her way at first, but it wasn’t as bad as she thought it was going to be. It was good to get her input.
At Liberty, students talked about how much they’ve grown in their faith. That’s what I needed to hear, because that’s really important to me. The Liberty students said that their professors are there for them. Liberty is now my first choice, after visiting all the colleges we did.
What about the schools you didn’t like? Were those visits still valuable?
Claire: Yes! Even though I didn’t love every school we saw, it was good to visit both schools I liked and schools I didn’t like. I got to see a mix of large university and small, faith-based colleges.
What type of planning did you do before you started your college campus tours?
Claire: I’m a planner, so yeah, we had it all planned out. My dad made a spreadsheet of all the colleges on the southeast coast. A couple of them I was dying to look at just for fun. We did online research about things like majors, cost, size and other facts about the schools. I then picked my top eight that I wanted to see on this trip. Then we mapped it out using Google maps and Google docs to plan the trip. Then we called the schools in advance or went online to register for campus tours there. It was actually fun and pretty easy.
What advantage is there to seeing a lot of colleges in a short amount of time?
Claire: The good thing was, my focus was on college at that time. We had nothing else going on. No distractions. We could just focus on each school. And then right after that touring the college, we’d write notes and compare it to the last one while we were on the drive. With it all happening in the same week, we could compare them and remember. It’s easy to forget if you don’t take notes.
I used a notebook and made pro/con list of every college while touring. My parents and I would debrief during the drive to the next place. I was able to pick up on things my parents noticed that I didn’t notice. Comparing notes was really important.
So now that you’ve done some college campus visits, are your next college planning steps clear?
Claire: Definitely. I’m going to contact my friends who’ve already gone to college and interview them. I’m also doing a lot of online research for private Christian colleges in the South.
What’s your advice to freshmen and sophomores about college campus visits?
My brother Charlie and me. He and my sister Kate are great sports!
Claire: Start small. Just jump online and look at some colleges you might want to visit. Brainstorming is actually really fun. You could even just go visit a random college that’s close by. (That’s what we did back in December.) See what you like, what you don’t like. I have heard friends who are seniors this year say they didn’t know where they’re going yet two months before graduation. I don’t want to be in that position. I’m a planner, so not knowing in the middle of my senior year would add way too much stress for me.
Also, if you start early, you’re a freshman or sophomore and you can still change the classes you’re taking based on what you learn on your visits. For instance, I learned some things about college foreign language requirements that I didn’t know before we visited.
And remember that the schools definitely want you there. They want you to come visit. The college wants anyone and everyone there to visit because they want you, they want new people in the door. Don’t be nervous. Take your time. If you start early, then you have time. If you start late, then you’re in a time crunch. If you do the behind the scenes work first, then you’ve got three years to do it all on your timeline.
Great advice, Claire. Thanks for sharing your college campus visit experience!