During junior and senior year of high school you will probably receive literally thousands of letters, emails, and solicitations from colleges trying to convince you to apply and attend them. On top of this, you’ll also tour potentially dozens of colleges, adding even more information to your already stuffed brain. Given the sheer volume of this info and the uniform positivity that colleges like to present themselves with, it is no surprise that many students get overwhelmed and don’t know how to sift through it all. If you do feel overwhelmed, know that you aren’t alone. It’s really difficult to differentiate between colleges when all of their mailings seem to be saying the same thing. To overcome this it’s key to train your eye to look beyond the gloss and see the information for what it really is.
The first step to being productive with college information is understanding the college’s perspective in sending things to you. Colleges always want to paint themselves in a positive light. No matter what the situation is, a college will never portray itself as a bad place to attend. If a school is large it will emphasize its abundance of opportunities; if a school is small it will emphasize its intimate learning environment. Never does a large school say you’ll just be a face in the crowd, nor does a small school say you’ll feel constricted. The perspectives colleges show you are always skewed. Students featured in pamphlets will be the ones who are incredibly involved and filled with school spirit; rarely do they reflect the average attendee. Tour guides are often on script and relay information and opinions they may not entirely agree with.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that all the information colleges present you with is wrong; it does mean, however, that students need to look beyond the face value of the words and think critically about whether a school is really a good fit. Admissions officers’ job is to make their colleges seem appealing; your job is to consider whether the college is appealing to you.
Okay, now you know what colleges are trying to accomplish in their solicitations. The next step is figuring out what to do with this now decipherable information. Being an active reader and seeker of specific information is a great way to accomplish this. Colleges fill their letters with positive information, so you have to figure out what positive adjectives really mean the most to you. While “intellectual curiosity,” “diversity,” “collaborative,” and “friendly” are all ostensibly good things, it’s the students’ job to figure out which of those (and other characteristics) are most important to them. Otherwise, every college will seem like the best place on earth and there will be no way to decide where to attend. Pick a few characteristics that are really important to you and seek those out when reading college mail. This filter will make the endless stream of mail a bit easier to sift through.
Once you’ve figured out the sort of vibe you want from your college and have found seem to at least somewhat comply with that, it’s then time to add some more depth to your search. The standard advice is to visit and tour the colleges you are particularly interested in. I wholeheartedly agree with this counsel, but I also think it’s important to go beyond the standard activities that colleges offer to prospective students. Tours are great for seeing campus, getting a general feel for a school, and developing a sense of whether you feel at home at a school; however, real life is not like a college tour. Be sure to look beyond the tour and check out what the students on campus seem like. Do they look busy? Rushed? Engaged in fascinating conversations? Happy to be there? Like people you might be friend with? It’s crucial that the day-to-day vibe of a college campus feels good to you, since you have to make sure you’ll enjoy the everyday grind of your life at the college you decide on. After all, a typical day in college involves going to class and doing homework, not being shepherded around campus learning where the libraries are!
It’s equally important to spend time on campus doing things that aren’t sanctioned by the admissions office. Just like in the letters they send you, admissions office-approved events will be designed to paint the school in an attractive light. These events are valuable, but complementing them with sitting in on classes and talking to random students significantly adds to the value of your visit. If you can, talk to professors and students and ask them the tough questions that mean a lot to you. These people are more likely to be unfiltered and can help you gain a fuller understanding of what life at a college is really like. Adding together this candid feedback and the well-manicured information from prospective student brochures allows you to get a diverse variety of perspectives that you can then apply your own filter to in order to make your college decisions.
Above all else, remember that your college decision is ultimately your decision. You want it to be guided by a genuine understanding of what different colleges are like. To do this most accurately you have to see through schools’ facades and seek out ways to see what life is really like at the colleges you’re interested in attending. Happy searching!
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