Beyond College Rankings: What You Should Really Look for in a School

While college rankings might have their place in choosing a college, they cannot measure attractiveness, the availability of professors between classes, the influence of a college on the development of intellectual skills and analytical competencies or on personal growth and change. Additionally, college is where students develop relationships with peers and with alumni…sometimes a trip to a traditional campus is the only way to determine if a college is a fit for you, even if you plan to take online courses. Do what you can to learn if that college can help you to achieve your goals. The following lists of what to look for on college campuses include information you can find online, and other clues you can find when visiting a campus location.

Off-Campus Research

  1. From Graduation to CollegeGraduation Rates: Graduation rates are more important than you might think…if most students take five or six years to graduate, you shouldn’t budget for four years of tuition. The most selective colleges enroll students who are extremely well prepared for college-level work. These students are likely to succeed and, in the process, boost the college’s four-year graduation rate.
  2. Low Student-Faculty Ratio: The lower the ratio, the more likely it is that your professors will be able to give you personal attention. The the ratio typically is calculated using full-time faculty or equivalent (three 1/3-time employees would count as a single full-time faculty member, for instance). Also, ask how busy a professor might be between classes…you often can learn more about a professor’s time on the college website, especially if that professor is on leave or sabbatical to write a book, or to conduct research.
  3. Good Financial Aid: Look at both public and private colleges as you compare grant aid. Private colleges with healthy endowments are much more able to offer significant grant aid than the majority of public universities, which can level the financial playing field. Also, this link provides some hints on how to negotiate that aid.
  4. Internships and Research Opportunities [PDF]: Hands-on, practical experience can help when you graduate and move on to graduate school or a job. The best way to land this experience is through internships and research opportunities. Almost every department in a college uses interns or researchers, so it’s worth asking the admissions officers about experiential learning opportunities no matter your major.
  5. Travel Opportunities: A well-traveled student can add a vast amount of cultural learning to a resume or grad school application. Trips are great, but semesters abroad can boost that second-language study, or add to any learning experience. Make sure you receive credits for that experience.
  6. Swim ClubYour Curriculum: Look at the program you want to study in every college you choose — which one excites you more? A strict curriculum, or a list of classes that contain more options? You don’t want to go to a college for accounting only to discover that the school specializes almost entirely in marketing.
  7. Clubs and Activities: No matter your major, you’ll want to find clubs and activities — even online — that match your interests and major. These activities only add to your appeal when you apply to graduate school or a job after you graduate. If you can’t find an activity that suits you, create one!
  8. Healthy Atmosphere: Many teens go off to college with little to no information about a healthy lifestyle. But, now’s the chance to learn, if your college choice has healthy food, exercise equipment, a local health clinic, and a counseling center to help deal with stress.
  9. Campus Safety: Use this site to learn more about safety at your college choices. If you opt for an online degree, this attribute might not be important, but look anyway — you can learn how much a campus cares about its students by its safety record.
  10. Academic Support: Don’t deny yourself a learning lab, tutors, a writing center, mentors, and review and study sessions. These options are available even in mid-sized colleges, so ask about your opportunities.
  11. Career Services: As you conduct your college search, look into each school’s career services, such as job and career fairs on campus, the college’s job placement rate, a program for summer work, resume help, and an active alumni base that can help graduates obtain jobs.
  12. Strong Alumni Network: A school’s alumni network can be a powerful tool for providing mentoring, professional guidance and employment opportunities. When you’re looking at colleges, try to find out how involved the school’s alumni are.

On-Campus

College CamaraderieIf you can visit a campus, you can learn a lot about the items listed below. These hints can help you determine if you’re comfortable in any given college location. Be sure to check with the college to learn about their “official” tours. Or, make a reservation before you visit.

  1. The Students: Don’t be shy — talk with students working in the dining hall or bookstore, or who are sitting in the student lounge. You may learn a lot from these conversations.
  2. The Classrooms: Visit some of the classrooms that may offer the courses you want to take. Every college class differs in use and in its vibe, so soak it up to see if it feels right.
  3. The Dorms: Your dorm won’t be the Taj Mahal, but it can be clean, quiet, and safe. Be sure to learn everything you can about where you’ll be living so you’ll feel comfortable during the first year. You may be able to contact the admissions office to arrange a sleepover in a dorm. It’s a good way to find out what living in a dorm is all about.
  4. Bulletin Boards: This is where you can find the meat of any college — from bands that play on weekends to begs for rides to the bus or train station. You’ll also learn about a college’s tolerance, especially if political posters are abundant.
  5. Location, location, location: If large cities scare you, then visit first before you attend an urban college. You may discover that cities are better than you thought — or, you may decide on that college in up-state Vermont.
  6. Student Parking: If you go to an inner-city college, you may not even need a car, if public transportation is available. But, if you feel you have to take that car to college with you, learn how much it might cost to park, store, or drive that car to school and back to the dorm or apartment.
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