Finding the Four Distinctions on Your College Visit

Colleges of Distinction Staff

The Four Distinctions

There are so many pieces of information that bombard you when you’re researching a college! From intramurals to quantum physics, it’s hard to prioritize what’s important about a campus.

Keeping the Four Distinctions in mind will help you categorize the information you receive. Are you happy with the way the campus stacks up in each category? Do you have enough information in each area?

If you still have holes in your knowledge, the campus visit is a great time to take a look for yourself. Here are some ideas for places to go and questions to ask.

Engaged Students

Look over the materials you already have from the college, and ask your child to think specifically about internships, study abroad, student research, service learning, and other innovative learning programs. What is he/she most interested in? Arrange to visit the offices that coordinate this program if possible, so that you can ask about requirements, funding, and opportunities.

At the Admissions office, encourage your child to mention his or her high school interests and activities. Are there groups on campus that seem to match these categories?

What do we look for?

  • Seminar-style programs and special freshmen courses

What percentage of classes encourages students to develop key skills in critical thinking, speaking, and writing?

  • Internships

What services are available to help students find good ones? How many students participate?

  • Undergraduate research

What programs does the college have to help students and professors research together? Do students participate in research conferences and publish papers as undergraduates?

  • Study abroad

What programs are available? What financial aid is available? How many students participate?

  • Fieldwork and Service Learning

What does the college do to connect the classroom to the outside world?

How Can I Find Engagement? Questions to Ask

When you visit a campus…

  • Ask openly about engagement. How many students study abroad? How many students take internships? If there an office that arranges study abroad and/or internships? Try to visit it.
  • What opportunities are there for students to pursue research with a faculty member? Fieldwork? Are there classes that include travel?
  • Does the school have service or service-learning requirements for graduation?
  • Does the school participate in NSSE? If so, how do they score? Keep asking this until you have found someone who knows. If they do not use NSSE, how do they measure how well students are learning? (Some schools have their own surveys and measures of engagement, or use other s similar to NSSE.)
  • Visit a class. Are students involved? Is there discussion and debate? Is this a class you would enjoy being in?

Ask students…

  • What kind of engaging experiences have they had? Study Abroad? Internships? Service? Do they have any planned?
  • What are their favorite classes? What makes them interesting?
  • Have they had any “hands-on” learning experiences that they especially enjoyed?
  • Have they been involved in any research projects or fieldwork, or special trips related to a class?

Great Teaching

If possible, arrange to visit a class. Do students seem interested? Do they feel free to ask questions? Ask ahead of time if you can speak to a professor in your child’s area of interest. Do they have any ideas of classes, activities, or opportunities that your child might enjoy?

Ask students about their favorite professors, and why they are favorites. Do these seem like people your child could relate to? Have they been involved in any special academic programs that they can tell you about?

What do we look for?

  • Smaller classes (averaging 15-35)

How big are freshman classes? How big are senior classes? Does the school have any limits on how big or small a class can be? If some classes are larger, does the school do anything to break those into discussion groups or other smaller units?

  • Lower student-to-teacher ratios (averaging around 12:1)

How many students is a professor responsible for each semester—more than 80-100? Does the school work to keep this number low enough that professors can actually get to know their students?

  • Reasonable faculty workload (around 3 classes a semester).

What other, non-classroom, responsibilities are required of professors? How many administrative committees are they required to serve on? How much publishing/ research is required? What outreach duties do they have?

  • Little or no use of graduate student “teaching assistants.”

Does faculty actually teach the classes he/she is listed as teaching? If there are teaching assistants, how big a role do they play interacting with students?

  • Limited use of part-time faculty and strong retention of faculty from year to year.

Can students count on their professors to be there when they need help? Can students build mentoring relationships with faculty that will last all four years of their college experience?

  • High levels of faculty involvement in student co-curricular activities.

Are professors active members of the campus community? Do they participate in student activities and organizations? How easy is it for students to interact with faculty as mentors and leaders outside the classroom?

  • Encouragement for faculty and others to develop new programs.

Are there many academic programs that were designed by faculty? Does the school have a record of supporting new ideas for academics and education?

  • An environment that rewards good teaching.

Does the school consider teaching evaluations important when it comes to salary and promotion decisions? Does it help professors to blend research and teaching, or is this a “publish or perish” school?

How Can I Find Great Teaching? Questions to ask

When you visit a campus…

  • Ask about faculty-to-student ratios, and average class sizes.
  • Ask about availability. How many professors are full-time? How many students is the average professor responsible for per semester? How accessible are professors?
  • Ask about professor’s involvement in campus life. Are there any organizations with faculty sponsors? If these are organizations of interest, ask to meet with or e-mail the sponsor if possible.
  • If you eat in the cafeteria or take a campus tour, look at how professors and students interact outside the classroom. Do they seem accessible? Do students want to talk to their professors?
  • Ask about what academic programs are popular or distinctive. How many students participate in the school’s distinctive programs—are they only open to majors?
  • Does the school use Teaching Assistants (T.A.s)? If so, how? Is it mostly the professor who grades and teaches, or mostly the teaching assistant?
  • Ask to sit in on a class. Do students seem comfortable with the professor? Does he or she seem comfortable with them? Can they ask questions freely?

Ask students…

  • How easy is it to get help from a professor?
  • What have been their biggest classes? Their smallest?
  • Do they ever see professors outside of class?
  • Who are their favorite professors and why?
  • What professors have made a difference and how?
  • Do you feel comfortable asking professors to write you recommendations?
  • Are there professors helping you get into grad school, or helping you with career plans?

Vibrant Community

Arrange ahead of time to visit any facilities or offices related to your child’s interests and activities. Are you satisfied with what is available? Is your child?

Ask students what they do on weekends and for fun. What campus events do they most enjoy? Does this interest your child?

Ask students how often they visit the nearby community/neighborhood. Is it an area that you and your child like? Does it offer a setting that your child finds appealing?

Ask to see residence options for freshmen. What does the school do to build community for those who live on campus? What kind of rules and regulations are there for residence life? Are you and your child satisfied with these arrangements?

What do we look for?

  • Campuses that are more than 50% residential

What innovative residence options are there? If students do not live on campus, how many live close by?

  • Campuses with high levels of student participation in a wide range of activities

How many student organizations are there? What percentage of students participates? How involved are students in campus governance and event planning?

  • Campuses with active athletic programs

What kind of facilities does the campus offer? What intramural and recreational sports does the campus offer? What fitness facilities are there?

  • Campuses with strong co-curricular cultural programs

What support is there for student participation in music, theatre, and fine arts? What multicultural opportunities are there on campus?

  • Campuses with many regular speakers, concerts, exhibitions, film series, and other events

How many outside speakers and performers did the campus host last year? What programs or funds are there to encourage such events? Does the campus sponsor any series of speakers or events?

How can you identify a school with a vibrant community? Questions to ask

When you visit a campus…

  • Ask about activities and organizations. Does the school have affiliations that match your interests? How active are those groups?
  • Where will you be living? How will your roommate be selected?
  • Are you required to live on campus? If so, how long?
  • If you are interested in playing a sport, speak to a coach if you have not done so.
  • If you are interested in theatre, music, or other performing arts, ask to speak to someone who can tell you how to get involved.
  • If religious groups or activities are important to you, be sure to ask about the chaplain’s office, study groups, and other activities. How will your spiritual needs be met?
  • Consider intramural programs—are they of interest to you? Ask about any other hobby activities that you know you would like to try.
  • Be sure to look at any facilities that are important to you—auditoriums, fraternity houses, fitness center, etc.
  • What opportunities are there to go off-campus? Do you like the surrounding community?
  • How does the political and social atmosphere of the campus fit your personality and values?

Ask students…

  • What activities are they involved in?
  • What are the best experiences they have had on campus?
  • Where do students hang out?
  • What do people like to do for fun?
  • Are there any important or fun events that go on campus?
  • If it any of the following are important to you, be sure to ask about: dating, dancing, athletic scene, parties, spiritual life, etc. Do the students seem to reflect your interests and values?
  • What do they do most weekends?

Successful Outcomes

Ask to visit the Career Services Office or similar office. What services do they offer students? Do they go beyond helping students write a resume?

When can students begin getting internships? If your child is considering a career that will require graduate school or other advanced study, ask what the office does to give advice on graduate schools. Do they offer information about the GRE or GMAT and other qualifying tests for postgraduate study?

How do we identify a school with successful outcomes?

  • 6-month employment placement records of 85% or better

Among those seeking employment, how well have the school’s graduates fared over the last 5-10 years? What does the school do to help students transition to post-college life?

  • Strong record with graduate and professional schools

How many are accepted into their first choice of schools? How does the school rank proportionately in the number of PhDs, MDs, MBAs, etc., that it produces?

  • High levels of alumni giving and other satisfaction rankings

How does the school rank nationally in percentage of alumni who give back? How do alumni rank their school in surveys? How many actively participate in alumni associations?

  • Alumni involvement in recruiting, internships, teaching, and other on-campus activity

How much will students interact with alumni? How do alumni help each other?

  • Anecdotal evidence of alumni satisfaction

What do alumni say about how the school has prepared them for life and career? Are notable alumni eager to testify on their school’s behalf? What kind of prominent scholarships and honors (Rhodes, Truman & Marshall Scholars, etc.) do graduates achieve?

How can you identify a school with successful outcomes?

When you visit a campus…

  • If possible, visit the Career Services Office. What does the school do to help students get started in their careers, or with graduate school? When does the school begin those programs?
  • If possible, visit the alumni office. How are alumni involved in the campus?
  • Look at an alumni magazine. How have alumni lived the legacy of the school? Can you see yourself doing these things?
  • What kind of alumni networks and organizations are there?
  • Do alumni help students get started in their careers?

Ask students…

  • Have they met any interesting alumni?
  • What was that experience like?

Ask seniors…

  • What do they plan to do when they graduate?
  • Have they had internships or other experiences to help prepare for the future?
  • How has the school helped get them ready for life beyond college?


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