Last week I traveled to Virginia and Washington DC to visit 11 colleges in five days – it was in association with a national organization of independent counselors that I belong to. And while it made for a hectic week, it was great to get out and see so many schools at once in that part of the country.
Interestingly, the thing I found most striking was how much these schools looked like one another.
Almost all of the campuses were in beautiful settings. Almost all of them were perfectly landscaped. Almost all of them had red brick buildings and one focal point building framed by white columns.
At first glance, it would be easy to conclude that the schools were similar in all aspects. But as we dug in and learned more, it became clear that appearance is where the similarities ended, an important thing to keep in mind as students go about deciding which schools will be the best fit for them.
Some differences are obvious: Size; city, suburban or rural; specialties of study offered (e.g., nursing, engineering), etc.
Other differences may be hiding a bit further below the surface. Some schools, for example, may cap the size of their intro classes at 50 students. Other schools – of exactly the same size – may top out at 300-400 in a class.
Some schools are very diverse – racially, ethnically, socioeconomically and in terms of lifestyle. Others have student bodies that are quite homogenous. One male tour guide we met, who identified himself as gay, said he transferred from another, similarly-size school in the state because he “did not feel accepted there.” At his new school, he has found it easy to fit in.
Many students assume that schools with a Division I sports team will be the most spirited and will have great attendance at games. This is also not the case across the board.Some Division III schools, in fact, can fill the spirit category quite nicely, often eclipsing their more athletically talented peers.
If you’re trying to uncover the degree of academic rigor in a school, ask specific questions when you visit. How much time do students spend in the library? Is there adequate and easily accessible academic support and do students use it? Does the student body seem overly stressed with academic pressure?
And finally, if you’re looking for a better sense of the social scene, ask questions about how students unwind. Are there things to do if a student doesn’t party? Is Greek Life a big focus? Do kids stick around on the weekend or do they live close enough that many go home?
We’ll talk more in future issues about how to evaluate a given school. For now, keep in mind that looks can be deceiving, even among schools that share many similar, physical characteristics. Take time to dig in and look below the surface!