In the last blog post, I wrote about something I called student culture and why it was important to include that in your college research. Quite simply, I defined student culture as what the social, cultural, intellectual environment of a college is. These factors are normally driven by the students. Are the students intellectually driven? More relaxed? Motivated by grades? Money and future success? Is the learning competitive or collaborative? These issues can make or break your college experience, much more so than the average SAT scores of the incoming freshman class. While I think this is the most important aspect to consider in looking at prospective colleges, it is also easily the most neglected. It is neglected because it's probably the most difficult to find reliable information on.
So how do you find information on what the student culture is like at a particular college or university?
1. Visit the college. This is probably the single best thing you can do to find your best college fit. While there, you can get the school's vibe and whether or not it is right for you. A friend of mine recommends you take the "bench test". After you have taken the usual tours and information sessions, take the time to simply sit on a bench and look around. Do you see yourself spending the next four years here? You can sometimes pick up a positive or negative vibe just by looking. My son and I visited fifteen college campuses in the US and Canada back in 2012. He decided against Princeton because he felt it was pretentious and trying to be "Cambridge University when it wasn't". I don't know what made him draw this conclusion but that's what I mean by a vibe. Columbia seemed fine....good city, good school...until he actually met some undergraduate students. Immediate thumbs down.
When visiting, do more than just take the tour and look around. Go and actually talk to some of the students walking by if classes are in session when you are visiting. Ask them what they like and what they would change about their school. Pick up a copy of the school newspaper if available and check out what's making headlines at the school.
2. Email the college. If distance precludes a visit, the next best thing is to email the college admissions office and see if it can refer you to students who would be happy to help you learn more about the college. As a matter of fact, if they go so far as to reply to your email and refer you to students, that should tell you something (positive!) about the school. If you do decide to correspond to students, I would recommend you know a little bit about the college already and ask the student to elaborate on that if he/she can. Asking a broad question like, "So what's it like going to this college?" is going to get you a blank stare. Be a bit more specific: if the idea of playing intramural sports interests you then ask about that. My son actually wrote to a student at Reed College, a school he was seriously considering. I'm not sure what the student told him and I'm not sure that if what the student told him had anything to do with his deciding against going there but I'm happy he had some perspective on the colleges he was considering.
3. YouTube. For me, YouTube is the most overlooked college research resource out there. A college often posts videos about itself on line and frequently its students will post "unofficial" videos that may be more frank and honest than anything the admissions office can give you.
So don't simply rely on college guidebooks like Fiske or Princeton Review to tell you everything about a college. The college reviews on those books all sound the same anyway. Take your time to find out about what the students are like at your favorite universities. Remember they will be the ones you'll be living and working with for the next four years...you might as well like them!