Beyond the Brochure: How to Find Out What a College Is Really Like

You want to know all you can about a college before applying to study there. You've seen the slickly produced brochures with smiling students hanging out on a well-manicured campus. On the school website are images of stately buildings, gleaming classrooms and hip student havens. But are these images a true reflection of an institution? Learn how to dig deeper in your college research.

By Douglas Fehlen


Covert Campus Visits

Experts strongly caution students against enrolling at a college without first visiting the school. Official student tours are a good way to learn more about an institution, but keep in mind that a college is going to present itself in the most appealing way on these outings. Here are five ways to get a true gauge of academic excellence and campus atmosphere during a school visit.

1. Be strategic in scheduling a campus visit.

To get a good feel for a campus, it's important to visit when school is in session, rather than in summer or over a break. In addition to getting a feel for weekday routines, spend a weekend on the college grounds. Witness firsthand what happens on campus when students aren't in class. You might make a point to be on campus during a football game or another important institution spectacle.

2. Be thoughtful in choosing courses you observe.

Many students visiting a college drop in on a course to observe instruction. Often, though, this is limited to sitting in on a lecture - and maybe not one in an individual's area of study. To get a better idea of the academic experience you might have at a school, sit in on at least one lecture and one class in an area of a study that interests you. Consider the delivery method and level of instruction.

3. Learn all you can about facilities.

Take a hard look at campus facilities, giving the task the time it merits. A tour may allow only a brief look of different buildings, so you may need to return for an investigation of your own. Check out libraries, athletic facilities and residence halls. Have a meal in the student dining facility. Try to blend in and imagine you are a student to get a feel for what living on a campus will really be like.

4. Connect with students on campus.

Most college tours feature bubbly outgoing student guides, but it's a good idea to talk to other students who don't have an interest in whether you attend a school. Also seek out individuals who share your interests by checking out social events during your visit. Look for happenings in the student union and on bulletin boards. Perhaps you can even drop in on student club you're interested in joining.

5. Check out the surrounding neighborhood.

While it's important to become familiar with a college campus, it's also a good idea to explore the town or neighborhood the school is located in. Most likely you'll want to spend at least some time away from the college grounds, and what the surrounding area is like can impact your decision. For instance, if you're into the arts you may want to explore nearby museums, theaters and other venues.

Cyber Sleuthing

Maybe you're preparing for a campus visit and want to get a head start on learning what a school is like. Or perhaps you've returned from spending time at an institution and want to follow-up with more research. Regardless of your situation, there are a number of ways to learn more about the colleges you're considering online.

1. Google the college.

Start with the basics. What comes up when you type a school's name into a search engine? No doubt the official school site will top the results, but take a close look at the other sites brought up in a search. Learn about the types of activities going on at a college and check out what people generally say about it. Subscribe to a Google feed for up-to-the-second news on a school.

2. Follow a school newspaper.

During your online sleuthing, be sure to check out the website of the school newspaper. Very often these publications feature unvarnished student views about a college on everything from academic controversies to residence hall policies. Reading student-created news can help you to feel tapped into the everyday pulse of an institution, even if you live far away.

3. Check out online message boards.

Another great way to get the real scoop on a school is to visit online message boards. These can be found on the websites of various campus organizations and student groups. For example, you might be able to follow the activities of a particular club by following message board updates. College Confidential is a popular national site that allows you to post questions about schools and get responses from students who attend them.

4. Do some digging on instructors.

Some college rankings rate instructors based on specific metrics. These results can provide you with an overall impression of a school's faculty. Go further, though, by learning about specific professors in the program you're interest in. Check out who teaches classes you're likely to take. Are they widely renowned? Have they published extensively? Do some demonstrate mercurial personalities?

5. Connect with current students and alumni.

The Internet provides all kinds of opportunities to connect, including with those who can offer insight on a college. Ask school officials if there are people you can IM with about campus programs. Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media sites feature student and alumni groups to which you can address questions. Online connections may even lead to real life friendships if you do choose to attend an institution.

Feel like you still need to do some homework on how colleges stack up against one another? Learn about the best college rankings.

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