Colleges enjoy sharing what makes them stand out. They tell their narratives—the stories at the core of their institutional identities—with enthusiasm through marketing messages, on-campus experiences, and interactions with admissions representatives, current students, and others. It can be a lot to take in.
However, most colleges have so much to say because so much happens at colleges. That’s why they can be amazing, transformative, life-shaping places. Still, learning about the academic offerings, history, values, culture, and most identifiable alumni of just one school might feel overwhelming.
Your job when comparing colleges’ narratives is to remember that you get to decide what really matters. This can be a lot tougher than it seems for a couple of reasons.
Being a novice buyer is the first challenge. Think about it this way. You’ve placed orders at restaurants. You’ve tried on clothes to see what fits and what doesn’t. You’ve downloaded your favorite apps. These are typical consumer choices that we make, often without deep thought. But how practiced are you when it comes to deciding on a college experience?
Chances are, not very. Add to this that the stakes are high. You—along with your family—likely will spend thousands of dollars on tuition, room, board, and books, just for starters. Are you nervous yet?
Next, pile on the application and deposit deadlines, already in sight. Now can you feel the pressure?
Take a deep breath. Recognize that you probably won’t become an expert at applying for college. Should you have to, though?
After all, getting in is a process, and colleges have years of experience helping people just like you move through it. While anyone looking at a FAFSA for the first time can attest that the steps to enrollment are laid upon a learning curve, with a little patience and diligence you’ll figure it out. Be careful not to let application-related activities distract you from the more serious work at hand: finding out about the schools that interest you.
This is a far more open-ended task. Own it. Don’t be passive.
While the pride, tradition, and school spirit on most campuses are authentic, colleges also work to give you favorable impressions. Tours are scripted. Web content is curated. That student who replies if you include a college’s hashtag in a tweet has been trained.
If you’d like to get the full picture of an institution—and you should, especially if that institution is one of your top contenders—then it’s wise to look beyond official channels.
This begins with perhaps the most courageous task in college research: figuring out your narrative and making it the focal point. The best advice here is to be honest with yourself in deciding what you want.
It’s easy to get caught up in listening to what makes a campus special or unique. For example, features such as a strong athletics program, a commitment to walkability, and the latest lab gear certainly all have merit. But are these things important to you?
This combo is a jackpot if you’re into sports, think having a car at college would be a hassle, and plan on majoring in biology. But it’s a nonstarter if cheering on a team doesn’t appeal to you, you plan to commute from home, and your academic interests lie outside the sciences.
So make a list of what would make you happy at college, what would propel you to success, and what you want to take away from the experience. Allow seemingly silly items to be on that list. Chances are, whatever comes to mind is worth jotting down.
Then seek out those things in your social, web, and in-person engagements with colleges. Ask questions about everything on your list. If you’re interested, for instance, in dance as a co-curricular activity, then ask if there’s a club related to dance. Dig deep. If there’s a dance club, then ask to connect with the club advisor who can put you in touch with club members. See where the dance club meets.
Is this time consuming? Yes, but colleges want you to get to know them. Can it feel weird being this inquisitive? Again, yes, but curiosity and scholarship go hand in hand.
Remember, the right college is the one that’s right for you. Find the campus with the narrative that matches yours, and you will find the one where going to school seems like coming home.