A rite of fall has arrived — it’s college admissions season for this year’s high-school seniors. As I’ve traveled around the country in recent weeks to talk about my new book, There Is Life After College, high-school students and their parents have been asking me plenty of questions about the college search process, completing their admissions applications and applying for financial aid.
One thing that has struck me about the questions is how little some students and parents know about the colleges and universities they’re considering. While we’re inundated with more college rankings than ever before, it seems that hasn’t made us better consumers.
Colleges and universities have benefited from this confusion in the marketplace: They know more about the prospective student than the prospective student knows about them. It’s in your interest to change that balance and learn as much about the college you’re considering as possible.
Here are four mistakes that students and parents make during the college search:
1. Delaying the campus visit until the spring. About a quarter of campus visits by prospective students occur in April, according to an analysis by VisitDays, a company that helps colleges schedule student visits. Of those students who visit in April, about half of them are stepping foot on campus for the first time after submitting their application.
Unless you’re applying to a half dozen colleges in all corners of the country — making visits burdensome because of time and finances — make an attempt to see as many campuses as you can this fall or winter. A physical campus filled with students and faculty members feels and looks much different than the carefully crafted online virtual tours now offered by most colleges.
One note about tours: Colleges like to emphasize the bells and whistles — their fancy dorms, climbing walls, and technology-filled classrooms. Don’t let them distract you. Be sure to check out some classes, particularly within the major you’re considering, to see if the teaching style of the professors fits your needs. Look up the office hours for professors in your major and stop by to talk with them while you’re on campus, which also happens to be good practice for being an undergraduate student because office hours are an underutilized resource.
And ask questions. No student or parent wants to be the annoying one that holds up tours, but I’m always surprised at how few questions — especially about academics — are asked of student guides. For example, ask how many students work on semester-long projects or research with faculty members. Do students receive prompt feedback on academic performance? How often do students talk with advisers or faculty members about their career plans? (According to one survey, just 50 percent of college seniors do so.)
2. Considering only research universities for undergraduate research. Students increasingly want hands-on learning experiences in college, and in part, that comes from working on research projects with faculty members. But too many students and their parents believe that the only way to work on research is to attend a research university — an R1 in the lingo of higher education — where faculty members and their research teams often secure the biggest federal grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, or other federal agencies.
Don’t be fooled by the term “research university.” For the most part, undergraduates will never have a chance to work on those projects that bring so much prestige to the universities; those are reserved for graduate students. Undergraduates might not even meet those star professors because research universities also bring in a steady stream of graduate students to teach introductory undergraduate courses.
Undergraduate research is critical to success after college. Studies have found that project-based learning stimulates critical thinking, gives students a better understanding of what they learned from a lecture, and allows them to work in situations with uncertain results. But if you really want to work with faculty members on research projects, even in the sciences, you’re much better off going to a college that focuses on undergraduate education, like a small liberal-arts college.
3. Ignoring life after college when choosing a college. During the admissions process, many colleges will encourage you not to worry too much about your life after college. They will tell you that their curriculum prepares you for your fifth job and a lifetime of employment, not just your first job after college. But college can and should be about giving you a broad education and about arming you with the skills to land that first job.
Be sure the college you’re considering thinks of career development as a four-year journey, not just an office you visit the second semester of your senior year. Internships while in college are more critical than ever to securing a job after graduation. Ask colleges you’re considering about their internship or co-op programs and how and where students get such experiences.
Also ask about job placement figures and don’t just let them give you a generic figure that some 90 percent of their students are employed or in graduate school six months after they graduate. Dig deeper into those statistics: How many graduates are employed full-time? How many are employed in their field of study? What’s the placement rate by major? If colleges can’t answer such questions, you might want to look elsewhere.
4. Getting your heart set on one place before the financial-aid offer. Several years ago, New York University, one of the most expensive institutions in the country, called several thousand prospective students who were accepted after they got their financial-aid offers. They focused on students who had a big gap between what NYU offered in aid and what the family was expected to pay. NYU essentially wanted to encourage the students to look elsewhere, because while the university might be a good academic fit, it wasn’t a good financial fit.
The calls had almost no impact on a student’s decision to enroll, and after a few years, NYU ended the outreach. Most parents didn’t want to disappoint their children. Instead of telling them to go to a less-expensive school, they encouraged their sons or daughters to take out bigger loans, or the parents took out loans themselves to help subsidize the degree.
Choosing a college is an emotional decision for most teenagers, and they don’t know the cold-blooded financial reality until it’s too late, usually after they begin paying their student loans. But if students have several choices at various price points, they are better able to figure out which one is the best academic fit and the best financial fit when it comes time to make a decision.
The college admissions process flies by, and for parents, you might only do it once or twice in your lifetime. But don’t let that be an excuse not to be an informed consumer.