High school students often use the summer to discover their potential alma maters through online browsing, reading, or visiting in person. This summer, I decided to travel to the US in search of the right school for me.
On a two-week journey by car across the East Coast, I visited a total of eight schools, each one hand-picked from the ocean of 4,276 colleges and universities in the US. Using websites like Collegeboard’s Big Future and Unigo that provide users with a college match service that recommends institutions based on your answers in a questionnaire, I got a general idea of what schools I should be looking at. After figuring out that I wanted a small, urban, liberal arts college on the East Coast with minimal Greek life, a special housing system, and a strong emphasis on writing and physical education, I used books like Fiske Guide to Colleges,The Insider’s Guide to Colleges and Colleges that Change Lives: 40 Schools that Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges to find colleges that fit those criteria.
A month of research finally led to a list of eight schools: Williams College, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, Mount Holyoke College, Wellesley College, Brown University, Wesleyan University, and the University of Chicago. No school fit every single criterion, but they had enough to convince me that I could be happy there.
The actual tour, lasting six days (the rest were used for travel or leisure), was a stark difference from what I had imagined. I quickly discovered that I didn’t mind being in a suburban, or even rural, location. Williams College was quite literally in the middle of nowhere, but I loved it nonetheless, and appreciated the peace and quiet. I also learned that Greek life isn’t as bad as I imagined. At Dartmouth, for example, 51 percent of students are members of the Greek community, though most students don’t live in their sorority or fraternity house; organizations are simply used as a support network and serve as a way to meet new people. Additionally, women’s colleges like Wellesley and Mount Holyoke became an attractive option – I was drawn to the tight-knit community of independent women that promoted leadership and peer support.
I was much less concerned with academics. I knew that all of the schools I visited were academically rigorous and would provide a sufficient challenge. Instead, I chose to focus on more bread-and-butter things like, do I like the architecture? Are the rooms mostly doubles or singles? Are there a variety of dining options? Many current students I met spoke about the clichéd yet enigmatic “gut feeling,” which ultimately led them to their college decision. One student representative at Amherst explained her own experience: “Ask yourself one simple question. Can I see myself going [to school]here?” she said. “When I visited Amherst, I saw a girl walking out of the library and I instantly thought, I could see myself walking out of this library every day. That’s when I knew I wanted to go to Amherst.”
That being said, it’s still a good idea to pay attention to the academic program of the college you’re visiting. I made sure to take notice of the student-to-faculty ratio, class size, and amount of classes taught by graduate students/TAs (teacher assistants). Most college curriculums are very challenging, so one thing that sets some schools apart from others is the accessibility of professors. A lower student-to-faculty ratio and smaller class size means that you will get more face time with professors, opening yourself up to personal connections that could result in internships, letters of recommendation, or even job offers. Fewer students also give professors more time to provide each student with individual attention and help with class work, something much less likely to happen at schools where 200-student classes are the norm.
Another important resource provided during college tours is the student guide. Most colleges have student-led tours or information sessions as well as current students working at the admissions office; don’t hesitate to bombard them with questions. All of the students I met were very friendly and I was able to find out more valuable information about campus life, athletics, and academics that the brochures or general tours didn’t offer. I was also able to get their contact information for any future questions, which was really helpful for overseas students like me who are unable to drive to campus for another visit on the weekend.
Lastly, a handful of colleges will offer interviews. Not many schools still do so, but of the eight colleges I visited, Williams College, Wesleyan University, and the University of Chicago offered interviews (prior registration required). Before visiting a school, make sure to look up its interview policy. Interviews are great opportunities for the schools to get to know you on a more personal basis, and also for you to build a connection to a current student (most of the interviewers are trained students). Most interviews are recommended but not required – they’re simply there as another tool for you and the school to get to know each other better. However, the University of Chicago requires an interview as part of the application process, so be sure to know your school’s interview policies well beforehand.
With the close, personal look you’re able to take at colleges when you visit, you will be able to gain a better sense of who you are as a student and what kind of school fits you. You might find new schools after finishing your entire tour (I did!), but don’t worry. In the 21st century, there is a plethora of resources at your disposal to help you find your future alma mater.
Stay tuned for more advice on how to find the right college for you through books and the Internet!
Rhea is a rising senior at Tsinghua International School (THIS). Originally from San Diego, California, she has lived in Beijing for six years and loves to explore new eateries around the city.
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski (flickr)