College Message Boards Can Save You Time, Money – Maybe Even Pinpoint the Right School

By Sam Rosensohn

I just got a letter from Natalie White, who graduated from Guilford High School last June, and who’s currently a freshman at one of the nation’s great universities.

“School’s going really well,” wrote Natalie who scored 800 on the math portion of the SAT, “although this semester so far has not been nearly as challenging as I would’ve liked. I probably have two hours of homework a week.”

Had Natalie, who plays lacrosse, known the course work was going to be so light, she would have signed up for another course. Had she learned more about this school, she might have chosen to go to Tulane, which awarded her a meritorious scholarship and the school’s honors program.

“I think that when it came down to it, I didn’t do enough research on the school,” said Natalie, who asked that I not mention the name of her university.

“I applied to it as a random safety since I knew some people here who liked it, was pretty sure I could get a good merit scholarship, and could play sports. I didn’t look into the management program.

“I think the problem with my college search is that I didn’t want to challenge myself. I have a penchant for taking the easy or middle road, which is still easy for me. While I discovered that I liked learning senior year, I didn’t take into account that I would also want to be challenged to learn in the future – that’s what I’m looking for now.

“Earlier in the semester, when I was thinking pretty seriously about transferring, I was looking at Yale and Harvard where I knew I could have a stimulating, intellectual, as well as social experience.  When I was doing my college search these were schools that I automatically ruled off my list because they were too ‘elitist’.”

“So I think what I am trying to get at here is that I wish I had looked at more challenging colleges, and spent more time on my applications and essays so that they would be more attractive to an admissions person.”

This all got me to thinking again about how students – even valedictorians – need to gather more information about the colleges they’re thinking of applying to or attending.

I really like college message boards for that reason. I think they’re a great way to make an inquiry and to get good answers whether you’re a prospective or an enrolled student.

Take Connecticut College’s message board – it permits enrolled students to query administrators in admissions, faculty members and students. For high school students thinking of attending Connecticut College the venue Ask a CC Student lets prospective students talk to enrolled students.

“The message board is a new phenomenon that provides students more in depth information from a variety of mediums,” said Connecticut College Assistant Director of Admissions Scott Alexander.

“Students no longer just have to rely on an admission officer whose job is to be a generalist and to promote the institution as a whole,” Alexander said.

“An interesting phenomenon is that enrolling students started connecting with each other before they arrived on campus and started to make bonds. Students who were interested in theater or surfing made those connections over the summer. We thought it was pretty exciting. Some students were requesting to be roommates.”

Think of a message board as yet another tool to use when trying to determine where you’re going to invest the next four years of your life. But remember, it’s the college visit that will let you know above all if a particular school is for you.

A smart college visit is a must, particularly since 25 percent of the students who enter a four-year college do not return for their sophomore year.

Taking a campus tour, attending a class, eating a meal in the cafeteria, and reading the school newspaper is a good start, but there’s more to do.

Students should also ask their guidance counselors to put them in touch with students who currently or recently attended the colleges they’re serious about.

If it turns out that you can’t identify anyone who’s attending or attended a particular school, call the admission’s office of that particular school and ask them to connect you with a student or an alumnus from your neck of the woods.

College admissions counselors will tell you about open houses, weekly visits, campus tours (they’re usually held weekly), information sessions, as well as classes you can attend.

If you call ahead, counselors can suggest classes to observe, and maybe even arrange an appointment with a faculty member, a coach, or an overnight stay in one of the dorms. They’ll send you everything from parking permits for when you get on campus to information about area lodging.

Some schools offer an interview with an admissions counselor. You might want to consider an interview.  And while you’re doing that your parents can meet with a financial aid officer.

This happens to be one of the best times for visiting schools. The semester is underway and it’s not too close to finals. As finals approach everything starts to amp up and you won’t witness a routine day. Before visiting, learn everything you can about the school through catalogs, the Internet, and reference books. And when you get on campus, make a point of doing the official tour as well as the unofficial tour.

The unofficial tour would be you nosing around on your own or with a friend to discover what interests you most. Introduce yourself to students on campus and ask them what they like and don’t like about school. You’re trying to get a sense of what the place is like and whether you could imagine living and going to school there for four years. Sometimes it takes a couple of visits.

Take notes. By the time you’re done visiting the fifth school: cafeterias, dorms, dropout rate, and initial impressions start to blend. Some students find that taking photos helps them to remember more about their visits.

These are some questions drawn from The National Survey of Student Engagement at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and Planning that you might want answered:

What does the faculty expect of students?

How does the faculty challenge students to leave their comfort zone and excel?

How much homework do students have a week on average?

How much writing and reading is assigned per class?

What are exams like?

What ways are students given to express themselves creatively?

How and when do students declare their majors, and can they be self-designed?

How much help do students receive preparing for the workforce after college?

Do your alumni actively help students to find work?

What types of internships are available and are they required to graduate?

How many courses require community service?

How often do students meet with faculty outside of class?

What percentage of the student body does research with faculty?

What percentage of the freshman class doesn’t return sophomore year?

What does the school do to promote student-faculty interaction?

How often do students get feedback from their professors?

What evidence is there to demonstrate that teaching is important to professors?

What percentage of the student body studies in foreign countries?

What are the student organizations on campus?

What leadership opportunities are available?

What do students like and dislike about the campus?

What type of support services (academic and non-academic) are available?

What do students tend to do on the weekends and what percentage commute?

Where do students come from in the U.S., and from how many foreign countries?

How is technology used in the classroom, and what technological resources are available to students?

What types of athletic and intramural activities are available?

What kinds of musical, performing and fine art events come to campus?

What types of summer internships or summer classes are available?

What types of honors courses, learning communities, weekend or night programs, or other unique academic offerings are available?

What types of financial aid and scholarships are available? What percentages of students work on and off campus?

How extensive is the library service?

What has the school done to ensure student safety?

What types of health and counseling services are in place for students?

What sororities and fraternities are on campus and what percentage of the student body belongs to one?

Where do students live and what are the different kinds of residences and campus housing available?

Where do students eat and how flexible are the meal plans?

Most of these questions came from the National Survey of Student Engagement; if you like, take a look at their web site for more information on how to visit a school: www.iub.edu/~nsse.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com