Creative College Research

By Christopher Logan and Nicole Pilar


170707_promo_IMG_0059

Like all good millennials, I have a horrible penchant for reality TV. Yes, I can name all of the Kardashians, I compete in a fantasy league for Survivor, and I have considered submitting an entry tape for The Amazing Race with my pops. I’m not alone here at Collegewise, either (shout-out to Monica Brown and her excellent take on how highly selective college admissions is like The Voice). But there’s one show that arguably combines the principles of college list building and brain cell busting entertainment: The Bachelor/ette.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show (your brain is probably thanking you right now), it’s a classier dating show where one Bachelor or Bachelorette attempts to find their soulmate over the span of 12 weeks. Night one is when all of the candidates show up and attempt to win the heart of the Bachelor/ette in order to move on to the next week. If a candidate is chosen to remain, they are given a rose. This continues week after week until the final episode, where there is generally a proposal. It’s a pretty legendary show here in the US.

But back to you, dear reader. A lot of the college search process is about finding your match. Instead of waiting at the end of a hosed down driveway for a seemingly endless line of limos, you, as a student, are probably going through Instagram accounts, college guidebooks, and a bunch of virtual tours in order to find that “perfect fit.” But, much like the drama on The Bachelor/ette, something they don’t tell you is that the perfect college doesn’t exist. The college search process is a journey, and the best ones are where students think about finding places where the positives make the negatives worth it.

Now, a quick word before we really dive in. This post isn’t going to reference rankings or numerical metrics. If that’s something that’s important to you, totally okay (but please make sure you understand the methodology and how those rankings are really preying on the emotional fears of 17-year-olds). Here at Collegewise, we have never found that those rankings are the best way to determine that place you are hoping to make your home for four years of your life. There are too many aspects of a college experience to boil down into a mathematical equation. Instead, we are going to walk you through some of those big factors and give you our favorite questions to ask as you embark on this quest to find The One.

Without further ado, here are some of the factors that we at Collegewise think are important for you to consider as you go along this journey.

Location, Location, Location!

Many people think concern about location is superficial, but there are a lot of reasons you might want to stop and consider the details of exactly where you will be studying.

Accessibility

One time I went to visit a friend at another college, and I literally had to take planes, trains, and automobiles to get to him. His school was in the middle of nowhere and it was a nightmare to get in and out of there. Think about how convenient and affordable you want your travel to and from school to be, especially given the opportunity for parents and friends to come visit you. You also want to think about access to things like grocery stores and something like a Target for essentials! (Pero Amazon delivers, soooo ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on that last one.)

Weather

Look, some of us are from California and don’t do well in the cold. Or maybe you’re from a place with low humidity and don’t think walking through hot soup all September is going to be a pleasant experience (or good for your hair). Suffice it to say, you may do well to consider what types of weather are tolerable for you. More importantly, you may want to think about whether seasonal affective disorder (literally SAD) would impact your college experience.

Cost of living

College is expensive. Living your life while in college is also expensive. It’s worth taking into consideration the type of life you’ll be able to afford during your college years. Tuition and room & board are only part of what you’re going to be paying for during your time in college, so stop for a second and think about how the cost of living in the city you choose for undergrad may affect your quality of life.

Environment

Not everyone is comfortable in the same places. For some students, a radically liberal environment may be a great fit, and for some it may be a bit of a nightmare. For some students, a southern campus might feel like home, and for some it may feel like a prison. Don’t just think about the environment of the campus you’ll be on; consider the environment around the campus: you will have to step foot in the surrounding area every once in a while.

On that same note, think about what kind of “setting” you want. Do you want to be at a school that borders a forest, or do you want to go to a school where you’re experiencing the hustle and bustle of city life every time you step out of the classroom? Maybe you want to be somewhere in between.

It’s also worth noting that lots of the more remote campuses try to make up for the city-life students miss out on by working harder to provide a wealth of on-campus activities and opportunities. At the same time, some of the more urban campuses can be more reliant on the city to entertain the student body, rather than creating student-specific events. Neither of these scenarios is a guarantee, but you should look into how each of your campuses takes on the responsibility of “entertaining” its student body.

The Dollars and Sense

  • College can be PRICEY. So, it’s really important that you talk with the important people in your life about what the budget is.
    • College isn’t just about tuition—there are also a number of fees to consider, like room and board, the cost of traveling to campus, lab fees, and a parking pass for a car on campus. This is why some of those location concerns we discussed earlier are important factors of the price component.
  • One tool that can be helpful is the Net Price Calculator (NPC).
    • Each college that accepts US federal financial aid (so practically all of them) will have this on their website.
    • The NPC can show you, based on your family’s financial information, what the cost would be for you to attend that school. While you won’t know how much financial aid you’ll get unless you apply, it’s a good estimate of the cost.
  • Something to remember is that the sticker price that you see online isn’t always the actual price (more on that in our podcast here). For example, many private schools often engage in a practice known as “tuition discounting,” where students get large scholarships to offset the price. In fact, this trend has really taken off in the last few years.
  • Depending on where you live, there might be some regional interstate tuition savings programs that offer discounts on out-of-state tuition. Here on the West Coast, a number of colleges participate in the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE), where qualified students only pay 150% of the residency rate, saving them thousands of dollars. Other interstate exchange programs include the Midwest Student Exchange, the New England Regional Student Program, and Academic Common Market. Make sure to read the fine print though, because not all majors or programs are eligible (among other restrictions).

Size is Everything

One of the coolest parts about higher education in the US is the sheer volume of options we have. There are over 3,500 different institutions of higher learning in the US, and they all come in different shapes and sizes. There are real differences depending on the number of bodies on campus. On the surface that reality is obvious, but let’s unpack a bit of what the differences in population can mean with regard to campus culture.

Larger schools know they are large.

  • There are generally a TON of different clubs and resources for students. They also tend to be a bit more in the boondocks because, well, where are you going to put a football stadium for 35,000 people?
  • However, that can also mean larger classes, especially for lower division courses (typically taken the first two years of college) and a lack of the “personal touch.”
    • Look past the student to faculty ratio. That figure is imperfect for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it doesn’t provide enough information about what percent of the faculty are actually teaching faculty (as opposed to research faculty). Instead, you may want to look up what percent of classes have fewer than 20 students or what percent of undergrads are accepted into research positions on campus.
  • Larger schools also tend to support graduate student programs, so it can be a challenge to get access to research opportunities on campus or develop strong relationships with your professors without some serious legwork.

On the other hand, smaller colleges tend to be focused solely on the undergraduate experience.

  • But campus culture and community can look different at these places. They generally are not featured on ESPN in the fall but can offer a more personalized college experience.
  • At smaller colleges, it’s generally pretty easy to find opportunities for research (no grad students!) and you might even be able to create your own major.
  • Smaller schools are not going to have a ton of clubs, but that doesn’t mean they lack in connection. In fact, smaller colleges place a huge premium on the selection of the students they want on campus.

Programs of Study (you are here to learn, after all)

When you’re on a college website, take a look at the list of majors and/or minors. You may not be sure what you want to study yet (or you may have your whole course list planned out already), but it’s worth looking at the list of academic programs offered at the schools you are considering to make sure they have what you’d be interested in.

If you know exactly what you want to study, check to see if your specific major is listed. If your major or academic interest is very niche, you may want to look for a combination of closely related majors and minors that would get you where you’re trying to go. It’s also worth noting that some very niche academic programs aren’t offered as separate majors at many colleges: they are offered instead as specific tracks within a broader major. Don’t write a school off just because your major isn’t listed; do some digging before you cross an otherwise perfect school off your list.

If you don’t know exactly what you want to study, take some time to feel around and see if the school has enough of what you think you might be interested in. You want to have flexibility to find your passion, so make sure there are enough options you’d be interested in exploring. Remember that the majority of colleges in the country have a built-in core curriculum or general education series that is meant to help students explore their interests. This is why many schools don’t have students formally declare a major until well into their sophomore year. Indecision is the heart of the American college experience, so don’t feel as if you’re behind because you haven’t committed yourself to anything yet.

PRO TIP: Check out the way a school is divided up.

  • Some universities—especially the larger institutions—are broken up into smaller colleges: The College of Arts and Sciences, The College of Engineering, The School of Business, etc. You might benefit from checking how the schools you’re considering are split up because that can impact your freedom to move between programs or even to study across disciplines. At the same time, you might also find that some of the universities that are broken up this way offer you greater opportunity to call on faculty from multiple disciplines because many of those component schools will offer cross-college programs for specialty pathways.
  • One of the most important reasons to think about how the school is divided up, though, is to figure out how admissions are happening. Is the university admitting by major? By component school? Are the application procedures different for different programs? Are there different essays, deadlines, and requirements based on your intended program/school? You can find out about the admissions process for a specific program by going to that program’s page on the college website and checking the admissions process listed for the department. For schools using the Common App, another trick is to select the department you’re interested in applying to and check to see if any new supplemental essays or application instructions have appeared.

Vibe Check (Do people still do that? Am I old now?)

One of the reasons admissions is such a tricky game is that admissions officers understand that they are not building a team of academic automatons—they’re building a community of young people who are academics, athletes, activists, artists, adventurers, and a whole host of other words that begin with the letter A. To that end, colleges do their part to build and maintain a campus community. When you’re thinking about whether or not a school is right for you, it’s important that you keep that community component in mind as well.

Remember, “the college experience” is different for all of us, and it’s important that you have some clarity on what you think it means to you so that you can find a campus that will meet you where you are.

Here are some questions to think about as you dig into your research.

  • Is the school more focused on Greek life than you’d like?
  • Do students have enough school spirit for you?
  • Does it seem like you’d find your cohort and enjoy your college experience?
  • Are students staying on campus or are they heading out into the surrounding areas? Is it a low-key commuter school where everyone just dips on the weekends?
  • Are there ways to get involved in intramural sports?
  • What’s the focus on community service like?
  • How political is the campus, and which way does it lean? Does that matter to you?
  • What clubs do they have to offer?
  • What are the campus traditions?
    • Yo, some of these are weird. I once had to drink out of a huge communal punch bowl and then spin the bowl around on my head, and that was an official orientation activity led by my dean.
  • How is faith received on the campus, and is there a faith community for you?
  • Are there multicultural groups to help students of minority cultures find community?
  • Is there support for first-generation and/or low-income students?
  • What is the international and out of state population like?
Moral of the story: Ask questions, people! Don’t just stop at “student: faculty ratio and average class size.” Google is free. Do some digging.


With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self – whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include
counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.