Choosing Your School:

Questions to Ask When Considering Colleges

The future is a big bright place that everyone sees in personal ways. Choosing the best secondary education for your career goals is the first step, and one of the most important decisions, toward meeting those goals. Before making a choice, ask yourself some tough questions, and be ready to do the same when you visit your choice schools.

While U.S. News & World Report has put out multiple “America’s Best Colleges” issues every year, it’s important to get a more personal perspective before making such a significant decision. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts began surveying college freshmen and seniors about a decade ago to get a true handle on participating schools.

While there are snags to their surveys, such as the fact that many leading schools decline to join, it is a new angle on helping families with a tough decision. And, while the U.S. News & World Report annual has been the “grand old man” of college publication standards, schools are now choosing to opt out of filling out their detailed surveys as well.

Basically, there’s no perfect way to winnow out schools—it takes legwork and keystrokes. Most schools have extensive websites. With the rising cost of tuition, fees, and gasoline, it pays to keep search costs as low as possible, but nothing beats actually walking the campus and meeting its population. And costs are important.

The Princeton Review says 45 percent of families surveyed expect total college tuition to top $100K per child. More than half of students and parents say they need financial aid—including education loans, scholarships, or grants—to pay off college costs. As much as one-third worry they will be accepted by their first choice schools, then not have enough money to attend.

To make the best choice, start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I want to live on campus or commute?
  • Do I want a small college town or a city university?
  • What part of the country do I want to live in to attend college—and will I want to stay in that region after graduation to take advantage of the networks built in those four years?
  • What kind of weather do I prefer?
  • What size of college appeals to me—small at up to 3,000 students, medium at 3,000-7,000, or large with a greater than 7,000 student population?
  • Do I prefer single-sex or co-ed dorms? Does it really matter to me?
  • Am I interested in Greek life, and want to pledge to a sorority or fraternity?
  • Can I live with regulations and restrictions?
  • What kind of extracurricular activities do I want?
  • How extensive should a school’s athletic program be?
  • Am I looking for a strong creative arts environment?
  • Do I want an academically challenging environment, or do I want to do well without working over the top?
  • Do I need a highly structured academic framework, or a curriculum that allows for independent projects?
  • Do I want a professional-track curriculum, or liberal arts?
  • Will I want to participate in off-campus internships?
  • Would a year-round cooperative work-study program that alternates with guaranteed employment be something for me?
  • Can my family afford my college goals?
  • Am I willing to work part-time in college?
  • Do I want to study abroad?

Answering these questions will help make choosing your best college an easier exercise, and will help you quickly see what colleges truly don’t meet your personal goals.

Getting There is Half the Challenge

College is as much about atmosphere and location as it is about academics and whether you can pay for it. Big schools can have a small school feel, but offer more diversity options.

Small schools have smaller classes and appeal to students, but they often offer fewer options in majors and services, and may only offer specific classes on a rotating-year basis.

Large schools often allow teaching assistants to regularly sub for professors, where small schools usually only use professors in more intimate classroom settings. Also, if you don’t want to be one of 300 students in your 101 classes, you need to consider carefully what size school to attend.

At large universities, go to the specific college or colleges that you’re interested in – such as the college of engineering—and ask questions of those students. Questions like: What does the faculty expect of students?

How many hours a week do you spend on homework? How much writing is expected, and what are the ways students are allowed to express themselves creatively in the assignments? How much reading is assigned in your classes? What are the exams like?

Some professions cannot be completely taught in the classroom, and while on-the-job training may not be an option, ask about internships available in your major or any kind of field work in which students can participate.

Visits allow you to get firsthand knowledge of how the place looks and feels. Such trips also allow you to see what the brochures don’t show, such as crowded or shabby dorms, or inadequate workspace in the library to accommodate the number of students studying there. Also, walking the campus allows you to ask questions of people beyond the college reps, and that can be critical.

Once you return home, take note of what follow-up you receive from the schools you visit. Which ones contact you to ask, “What can we do to get you?” “Is there any other information you need?” Watch to see if alumni letters arrive later, showing that their grads still appreciate a connection with the school.

Document your feelings and impressions as soon as you get home. Listen to family members’ take on things as well, but remember the final gut-decision must be yours.

Prepare Visit-Questions Ahead of Time

When you visit campuses, here are specific questions to ask students and administrators. Many can be crossover questions, and you might find differences between a student’s and administrator’s take to be quite revealing. When their answers match is equally enlightening.

Questions to Ask Other Students on Campus

  • What do you like most about this college? What’s the worst thing?
  • What do you wish you’d known when you were making your decision?
  • What are the students like here?
  • What are the classes like?
  • Do you live on-campus or off?
  • Where do you eat?
  • Are there lots of small discussion groups or mostly large lectures?
  • Do graduate students or professors teach introductory classes?
  • How often are you able to meet with instructors?
  • What kind of feedback do you receive on coursework?
  • How often in the last semester have you participated in class or met with a professor outside of class?
  • What do you do on weekends, and where do students study/eat/hang out?
  • How central are the Greek houses to campus social life?
  • What role does sports play here?
  • What percentage of students go home each weekend?
  • How do students get around?
  • Where do students park?
  • How often do you have to make class presentations?
  • Do any of your courses involve community service?
  • Do you have contact with your teachers outside of class?
  • Who do you talk to about career goals?
  • How helpful is the administration and its staff?

Questions to Ask Campus Administrators

  • How and when are majors selected, and when must you declare?
  • Can you design your own major?
  • How can students get help for class selection?
  • What types of career planning and job placement services are available?
  • How is technology used in classrooms?
  • What kind of computer and technology options are available to students?
  • Are there student labs available for help with computers, math, science, writing, etc.?
  • How many students have their own computers, and how many students use the shared units?
  • How extensive are the library services?
  • What percentage of students go on to graduate or professional schools?
  • What types of internships are available, are they required for graduation, and how much help does the school help in securing these internships?
  • What percentage of students do internships?
  • What percentage of students study abroad at some point within the four years?
  • What types of scholarship/financial aid is available?
  • What percentage of students graduate in four years?
  • What percentage of first-year students return for sophomore year?
  • What was the average tuition increase over the last five years?
  • What percentage of students work on-campus? Off-campus?
  • What safety services are available on-campus for students?
  • Can you take classes at other schools in the area (if applicable)?
  • Who serves as a student’s advisor, and do advisors change each year?
  • What kind of events come/are invited onto campus?
  • What are the living options on and off campus?
  • Where do students eat?
  • Where are computer labs located?
  • When are they open?
  • Can students access the campus network from their dorm rooms?
  • What services does the career placement center offer?
  • What services are available to help students adjust or cope?
  • What type of health and counseling services are available to students?
  • What percentage of students commute to campus?
  • What public transportation is available?
  • How are spiritual and diversity needs handled?
  • What do students do for fun?
  • What kind of activities do students engage in outside of class?
  • What sports and physical exercise options are available?
  • How aggressive is the school’s summer class schedule?


Categories: Education: Middle and High School