As a past admissions counselor and someone who is very much still connected to that world through my current work and relationships, I can see how much has changed due to COVID. Students are now visiting college campuses virtually, attending virtual recruitment events, and speaking to admission counselors almost solely through a screen.
While the platform of communication has changed, there are still some questions that are more useful to ask an admission counselor than others. This isn’t just a time to ask random questions. Interactions can and should be purposeful. This article is going to break down the best ways to interact with your admission counselor by asking thoughtful questions that will help you truly get to know a campus and its culture.
Overview of Terms
Before we really dive in, I want to give a brief overview of how colleges are engaging with students currently.
Q&As: Some colleges are hosting question and answer sessions. This is pretty straight forward – questions are asked, and they answer! Some might have a few of their most popular questions prepared beforehand to get the session kicked off, but definitely bring your questions to this!
Info Sessions: This is something that is traditionally done before on-campus tours, but colleges have transitioned these online as well. This can be attached to a virtual tour or solo. Typically, this is a 15-30 minute overview of a college – everything from academics, admissions, student life, and more.
Virtual & Live Tours: Many colleges have had to transition their on-campus tours to a virtual platform. Some of these are pre-recorded and ones you can take at any time (they should be available on the school’s admissions or visit website, or you can check out youvisit.com). Some campuses will have a “live virtual tour,” where a current student or admission counselor will walk you around the campus in real time and talk about each stop, almost as if you were there in person.
Student Panels: Some colleges have created opportunities to hear from a student panel. They will gather students from different backgrounds and with different interests and ask them questions, so prospective students can gain a variety of perspectives and learn about the school through the eyes of current students. They may leave time for you to ask questions, so have some ready just in case.
One-on-one Virtual Admission Visit: Sitting down in person with an admission counselor has been something colleges have offered for a long time. These have transitioned to online offerings, and many times, a school will have a place to sign up to meet with your admission counselor on their website. These are usually around 30 minutes and a time when you can get more individualized questions answered. This is definitely a virtual offering where you want to make sure you have your camera and audio on, and where you should plan to be in conversation throughout.
College Fairs: These used to happen in a hot, overcrowded high school gym before the times of corona – oh the memories! This was a time where you could peruse the aisles of college tables and simply stop at a school that sparked your interest, take a brochure, and learn more about them. This has also transferred to a virtual platform at most schools, and students can pop into different “rooms” to visit the college fair “table” and speak with multiple schools over a short period of time. In a virtual world, this looks a little different from college to college – some enable a “waiting room” and speak to one student at a time, while others allow students to pop in as they come. Be prepared for someone to join in the middle of your conversation, and be cognizant of the time being used if there is a waiting room enabled.
These may have slightly different names at each college, but make sure you read about the event and pay attention to what you are signing up for, so you can be prepared to interact with your admission counselor in the best way.
What Hasn’t Changed
Admission officers actually want you to engage with them in a real way. No one ever appreciated the student who walked up to their table at a college fair and looked blankly at them, waiting for the admission officer to “sell” them on their school without any introduction, interaction, or questions. The same applies virtually. My roommate (and bestie) who is a current admission representative was venting recently when she said that she might add “presenting with enthusiasm when you can’t see any faces’” to her resume.
If you are in a private location without a distracting background, turn your camera on if the presenter allows. Nod along and show them you are engaged. If the presenter allows for interaction through audio, consider coming off mute to ask your question instead of relying solely on the chat box (assuming the dog or your younger sibling isn’t going nuts in the background). Every presentation will have different functions allowed, but if this is allowed, take advantage of it and know they will really appreciate feeling like they are interacting with real humans and not blank screens.
Questions NOT to Ask During Your College Visit
Now, I’m going to dive into questions not to ask, then provide some good questions to ask.
Let’s start with three questions not to ask:
- Do you have XYZ major, and is it good?
- This is a totally understandable question, but it isn’t a great use of a question to a person for a few reasons. For starters, seeing if a school has a particular major is as easy as a thirty second google search. Basically, if you can find the information on Google or on the school’s website, it shouldn’t be one you spend the time asking. Even if it is an easy question for them to answer, multiply your question by 200 people doing the same thing, and you have a glimpse into an admission counselor’s inbox.
- This also leaves yourself open to not really getting the information you might truly be seeking. Admission officers are honest, but they also want to sell you on their university. No smart recruiter is going to answer “actually, it really isn’t that great of a program.” Instead, they will likely say, “it is great!” And while that may be true, what does that really tell you? Instead, try asking if they can tell you more about what their XYZ major students do on campus. Or maybe you already did some research about the major and department (bonus points here), and you want to find out more information on a particular program you read about such as their study abroad, internships, or research opportunities available to those students. How does the campus support those students in their personal and professional pursuits? What opportunities make this program great?
- What’s your student to faculty ratio?
- Now this question has good intentions (although it can likely be found on a website as well!), but I think it is important for you to understand why you are truly asking that question. Hopefully you are asking as a way to understand if the size of a campus might be a good fit for you. Maybe you like larger universities for certain elements, but really do not know if you’d enjoy large classes. Or maybe you want a smaller school for certain elements but being in small classes where you are expected to participate in class discussion sounds miserable to you. Basically, student to faculty ratio can be misleading. Many large universities have a student to faculty ratio of 25:1 (or less), which is great and might make you think that class sizes will be relatively small. However, those same universities might have some classes taught by teaching assistants (not professors – this isn’t inherently negative, just different), lecture halls that seat up to 500 people, and their average class size might be well above 25. Try asking questions that help reveal what you truly want to know instead, like: What is the average class size? What percentage of classes have fewer than 20 students? How many classes can I expect to have in a large lecture hall? What is the size of your largest lecture hall on campus? Are classes taught solely by professors? Once I am in my major courses, what does the average class size look like?
- Do you have XYZ activity?
- Again, very much something you can google (are you seeing a theme here?). Try and rephrase this question to find out the information that is truly important to you. These questions might look something like this: Is XYZ organization a big deal on your campus? Do you know how active this student group is, or is the mission of this club something that is important to the university as a whole? Can I be involved in the theater or music department without majoring or minoring in those? Would you describe the student body as one that is actively involved? Do students have free access to sporting events?
Questions to Ask During Your College Visit
In addition to the alternate questions listed above, there are some other really helpful things to ask that can help you gain more of a feel for a campus. Utilize the admission counselor to gain a sense of what that college community is like with interpersonal questions that get to the heart of things more than facts and text.
Now, let’s dive into the good stuff, to be the most insightful student in your interactions!
- How would you describe the student body and culture on campus?
- This sort of question really helps you grasp things beyond facts and figures. All the facts may align, but if the culture on campus is one that is really opposite to you, then it is likely a place where you won't be too happy. Other questions that can help you understand culture are: What are students passionate about on campus? What type of student thrives on your campus? What is one of your favorite traditions on campus and why? What would you say students love most about your school? Based on what I have learned about this school, I think I am a good fit because XYZ. Did I interpret that right? How can I best highlight that in your application? The broader questions here can be asked in any presentation format, but you might want to save the more personal ones based on your fit and your specific application for a one-on-one visit or a college fair, if you are the only one there.
- What is something you think the students on your campus would say needs improvement?
- My colleague, Nicole, asks this question all the time, and I think it is a phenomenal one. This helps you see a very realistic view of a campus (spoiler alert: they all have flaws, and that is okay) and could help give you some real insight. They should all have things they can work on, and an answer to this question can potentially help reveal how a campus is working to move forward. In fact, that can be a follow-up question: what is being done on campus to address this? Once you get an answer, ask yourself: Is the area of improvement something that is a deal breaker for you? Or is it something you care about and actually want to help try and make better once you are on campus? Does the answer reveal how the university listens to and responds to students? These sorts of reflective questions can help you capture a lot more about the vibe on campus than a website can, and the admission officers are the ones with all the insight! While colleges should be open to all about this, it can feel weird to have to address a question regarding flaws in front of a big crowd, so out of respect, I’d suggest saving this type of question for a one-on-one interaction.
- What sort of things are students doing off campus and on the weekends?
- If you are unfamiliar with an area a campus is in, this question can reveal a lot. Maybe they have lots of festivals come through, or maybe there are ten hiking trails and three rivers nearby that you didn’t know about. This can help paint a picture about what life is like as a member of the local community, not just on campus. Some schools might be in more of an active city than others, but the second part of the question will help reveal what happens on or off campus on the weekends. Do students stick around on the weekends, or do many of them go home? What sort of things are happening on and off campus? In your opinion, what is the best thing to do in the city or your favorite thing about it? These are all safe questions to ask in any visit format!
Some Parting Thoughts
Now that you are armed with some thoughtful questions to ask, it is important to note that you only want to ask these if they are important to you. Demonstrating fake interest is never helpful and, again, it is important to be mindful of the person behind the email address, juggling many questions and requests. Most of these questions can be answered in virtual events and will be best asked in one of those sessions where admission officers can respond verbally and not have to write out a ten page email response.
One last thing to note here: it is tempting (and reasonable) to ask what their campus will look like next year as it relates to COVID-19. But, let me tell you: nobody knows. We were all surprised by COVID-19, and colleges are literally taking it one class at a time, one day at a time. They are admission officers, not fortune tellers. I think it’s fair to ask that colleges are upfront about the cost of their college for next year, the likely resources that will be available, and any updates related to COVID-19 they may have. It’s just unlikely the admission counselor in front of you may know the answer to all of that at this present point in time. So, ask the questions you have if they are of genuine concern, but know most colleges are planning as best they can and with so many changing variables, their plans and the landscape will be changing daily with these variables.
Be kind to them, your teachers, your counselors, and all those around you. We are all navigating the unknown, but hopefully this article will help you know a little more about the colleges you are thinking of applying to in order to build a list full of schools where you know you can be happy and successful.
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.