If Colleges Don’t Advertise Their Troubles, How Do You Spot Them?

By Sam Rosensohn

The college marketing blitz aimed at undecided teenagers wondering where to spend four years of college tuition is big business, and colleges are not about to advertise their flaws.

And when prospective students arrive on campus the marketing mania often gains altitude. Schools want the best and the brightest they can attract, who have the money to pay for the rising cost of college.

A recent acquaintance dubbed Penn State’s student-run campus tour, the Disney Tour. He said the tour guides were cheerleaders, real school cheerleaders, and their accounts of college life were too enthusiastic to buy as presented.

So, if the college brochures and the college tours are more marketing tools than representational accounts, what’s a student to do?  Start talking to people who have attended the schools you have identified.

If you don’t know anyone who’s gone to the schools you’re interested in, then ask your guidance counselor to give you the names of students who’ve recently gone to that school.

If you’re guidance counselor says no one from your high school has attended that school, ask him to call some neighboring schools to identify students or graduates to speak with.

Most certainly, if it’s within your budget, make a trip to the school. First stop, the office of the school newspaper. And ask for, as Jay Mathews, an education writer for the Washington Post once said, The Dirt.

You want to read about the latest school scandal, stories written on professors frequently absent from class, grade inflation, tenure battles, campus crime, date rape, alleged corruption by the administration, proposed tuition hikes, misuse of student fees, campus controversies, minority complaints, student arrests, and partying.

Matthews is a smart guy. He’s been at this along time, and he knows for a long time that schools put on the Ritz for prospective students – everything from upgraded food in the cafeteria to the latest bold move by a school’s marketing specialists.

So to keep the innocents from being fooled, Mathews suggests a website called studentsreview.com, drummed up by MIT students that presents student assessments of colleges.

There are many positive comments on the site and insight from students on how they got into the schools of their choice.

Studentsreview.com is a smart starting point, because it may raise questions you didn’t have, which you can then follow up on with admission’s officers.

Let’s take a look at a few comments posted on the site about UConn and the Berklee College of Music. “UConn provided a very good education. I enjoyed the atmosphere but you have to work at it. The professors were supportive if you sought them out. Try to avoid large classes if possible. Socially it was great as long as you don’t sit around and mope.”

Here’s what another student had to say about life at Storrs. “UConn is great for some people and not desirable for others. If you want a small school where attention is paid to you at every second; then this isn’t the place for you. If you’re going to complain how it is in a rural setting, about the cold weather in the winter, or about how much people like to party then it’s not for you either.

“UConn is, however, a great place to meet great people and party your (buns) off in the process. Student following for the men’s and women’s basketball teams and also the quickly rising football team is almost an obsession (which is great if you love sports).”

While these are unsubstantiated student comments, and we know a student could post a remark after receiving a poor grade or having a run-in with a professor, the comments are important to investigate, if you’re thinking about going to UConn. This is not what the tour guides or the glossy brochures are going to share about the state university ranked number one in New England.

One Berklee student took off the gloves when it came to reviewing the respected Boston music school. “Not only is the faculty close minded, but so are most of the students. Berklee regards itself as a school of contemporary music, but most of the faculty members are stuck in 1952. Girls are treated like brainless pieces of meat. It is hard to find a faculty member that truly cares about you: most teachers are struggling performers and or writers that need a steady paycheck, and that can be quite frustrating.”

Another student offered a positive take: “Berklee is definitely what you make it. Some people expect this perfect magical school, but no such thing exists. Sure, it has its faults and disorganized ways, but that’s because it’s run by musicians on many ranks. Better musicians running a music school than businessmen. They way to look at it is you go there, pick good teachers, and take in all the information you feel helps you go where you want to go, and ignore the rest. That’s it.”

Studentsreview.com also offers inside tips on how to get into individual schools from students, who were accepted to those schools. This was noted by an undergraduate in the computer science program at Dartmouth.

“Good grades and test scores won’t get you in but bad ones will keep you out. More than most schools (that I’m aware of), Dartmouth really strives to create a community in its incoming class. Be excited about life and take the initiative to do something and be someone in high school. From what I gather, admissions places a lot of weight on the things that show who you are as a person: your essay, interview, teacher recommendations, and even a recommendation from a peer.”

Here’s what a student who was accepted to Swarthmore College wrote: “Great SATs and high school grades (in honors, GT, or AP classes) can’t hurt. I had a few different activities that I was majorly into (band, lacrosse) and a ton of other stuff I did less in depth.

“But I didn’t really do anything extraordinary. This school is full of people who made headlines or wrote books and screenplays in high school, but there are tons of normal people like me here too!

“In your essay, keep in mind that Swarthmore likes socially conscious students. This doesn’t mean that you have to have a ton of community service or activism experience, although if you do, make sure you let them know. In my essay, I talked about how excited I was to have the opportunity to participate in these things at Swat, because I hadn’t had the opportunity in high school. I didn’t interview because I was scared, but really, the interviews are casual conversations, sometimes with student admissions fellows and sometimes with admissions staff (some of which are alumni).

“I applied early decision, which has a better acceptance rate, and is a good idea if Swarthmore is your #1 choice.”

Studentsreview.com is a site worth exploring, because at a minimum it serves as a primer for subsequent questions, your visit and the essay.

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