When students do research into a university, they will look primarily at the academic opportunities there. They look into where it is ranked in US News and World Report and compare that university's rank to other universities the student is considering. The student will also look at pictures of the dorm, the grassy quads, the ivy buildings and the faces of the happy undergraduates and from that data alone, decide whether or not the university is for him or her. For the vast majority of students, this is the furthest extent of the research they do.
Unfortunately, this very shallow level of research fails to answer a very fundamental question: what is it like to go there? If you think about it, that question is the most important question there is, more important than whether that university offers a top ranked program in your discipline of choice. Why? Because you actually have to go, live and study at the university for four years. You will need to live among the students there. If the students there are happy-go-lucky party animal types, would you be happy there if you were a more serious student? Wouldn't you prefer a place where the students are more studious?
I recently talked to a good friend who is currently a sophomore at a large East Coast university. I asked him if he was making friends (he has social issues). I asked him specifically if he was making friends among his American classmates. He said that the Americans in his school were "all snobs" and therefore his friends were almost all Asians. Speaking for myself, I find Americans extremely friendly and not snobby at all. But I'm not familiar with the students at the school he goes to. So he could be right, although I sincerely doubt that the American students there are *all* snobby. Ideally, this is something he should have found out before he decided to attend that university. Granted, it's difficult to determine whether or not the students are snobby from the school website but it does point at something that's important in the college search process: student culture.
Student culture is more than just whether or not the students are friendly or snobby. It also encompasses other things. For instance, are the students there motivated primarily by grades or by genuine learning? Do they stop talking about class as soon as they step away from the classroom or does the conversation continue into the dorms and cafeterias? These things may turn you on or they may turn you off but it's important that you are at least aware of this prior to signing on the dotted line.
Student culture also manifests itself in things like a university honor code. Some colleges and universities have an honor code or honor principle which binds students not to cheat, steal or take undue advantage of other students. One college that has this principle is the California Institute of Technology or Caltech. Because of the honor principle, students can self schedule and self proctor their exams. You take the exam home and it just has to be turned in by a particular day and a particular time. When you take the exam is completely up to you: if you do your best work at night, you may choose to take the exam at 10 pm in the comfort of your dorm room in your flannel pajamas. But the honor code demands that if the professor stipulates that the test is a two hour, closed book exam then the student is honor bound to keep books and notes closed and to start and stop the exam in two hours. You might say that it's impossible for students not to cheat in that situation. But not only is it possible, it's the norm at Caltech not to cheat, not to violate the honor code. Why? Because it's the students themselves who want to be governed by an honor code. They don't want to cheat, steal or take undue advantage of other students. They want to be treated as adults. At Harvey Mudd College, a top flight undergraduate science and engineering school in California at par with Caltech and MIT, an honor code is in place. Students are given keys to ALL buildings on campus, residential and academic. This allows them to enter academic buildings in the middle of the night to study or to work in the labs in isolation. They also leave their dorm rooms unlocked and their bicycles and skateboards in the open. This is also part of the student culture.
At other universities, the opposite is true. Students are competitive and grade conscious and would stoop to anything to bag an A. They will intentionally sabotage other students' work in order to get ahead. In a lot of highly selective universities, this is the prevailing student culture. The students were all top achievers in high school and now they're all in the same ultra competitive university. By definition, half of these wonder kids will be below average in their class. This, for them, is utterly unacceptable! I can do nothing but the best, they say, and their egos can't handle it when the professors dare imply that they have something to learn. This, as well, is part of student culture.
There is no right or wrong answer here. You might prefer the cutthroat competitive atmosphere. For myself, I like an intellectual atmosphere where learning is done for its own sake and grades are de-emphasized as the primary means of student evaluation. I like it when students and faculty collaborate in learning and are not competitive. I like it when I can talk to my professors as people in their offices and seek their counsel and guidance about matters both inside and outside academics.
But that's me. It might not be you. But regardless, it's imperative to find out. How to find out? Stay tuned....