When you’re in the market for a new automobile, a slick TV commercial might get you excited about a great-looking, fast car. Chances are you don’t rush out and buy it without doing some research. You might check out reliability and safety ratings. But hearing your friend say it’s the best car he’s ever owned may be what gets you to the dealer. There’s nothing like hearing from someone with firsthand experience.
Many high school juniors are just starting to put together their lists of prospective schools. They will spend the coming months looking at websites that are designed to make colleges look as alluring as those cars in the commercials. But if they want to make truly informed decisions about where they’ll be spending their next four years, nothing beats talking to students.
That’s why I always encourage my clients to allow time to meet students during college visits. That’s also why I decided to ask some of my former students who are currently freshmen to share their perceptions of college life.
It was clear when I worked with him that my student who is now at Stanford would be a perfect match for the school. The intellectual passion he demonstrated in his studies and extracurricular activities in high school was genuine, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’s already established close relationships with professors and has had countless discussions about politics and science with his friends. He continues to work hard, studying six to eight hours a night, and says people who are not motivated and ready to take advantage of all the opportunities at Stanford will quickly feel intimidated by their overachieving peers. But he says Stanford students find time to socialize on weekends, and different groups mix well at the school.
Another student knew he wanted to be on the East coast, and loves the urban feel at Boston University. He says it’s not the place to go for big athletics. But they do have some big classes, which may surprise parents who think that private school tuition always means small classes. His social science lecture has 300 students, which is comparable to introductory courses at many public universities. He reports that this school is a good fit for someone who’s independent. You see a lot of unfamiliar faces on campus every day, so someone who needs a small community feeling would probably not enjoy Boston University.
A small community feeling is exactly what another student found at Goucher College. Her smallest class has nine students and the biggest has fifteen. Her French professor held a special study session on the Sunday before their final exam. That’s the kind of attention you receive at a small liberal arts college, and it’s very different than what you get at a big public institution, where students may find some professors more interested in their research than in helping students. To be happy at Goucher, you have to want an environment where teachers care if you show up, everyone knows everyone else and you’re not a face in the crowd. Students are more likely to turn out for theater performances than sporting events. There are no fraternities or sororities, so students do more socializing in residence halls and at parties in nearby apartments.
Fraternities and sororities are a major part of life for my students at USC, Vanderbilt, and University of Maryland. Many of them agree with my freshman at University of Arizona, who reports that not being in a fraternity limits your social life.
The presence or absence of Greek life, community feeling and school spirit, and the quality of interaction with professors are just a few aspects of college life that you learn about when you talk to students. But they can make all the difference in your college experience.