What Makes a Good College?

As high school seniors prepare to apply to college, they would be wise to look beyond college rankings in evaluating the quality of the schools they’re considering. While it may be human nature to want to be accepted by highly selective institutions, what really determines the quality of a school is not how hard it is to get into but what that college does for students once they are on campus. How does the college help students maximize their potential?

One factor to look at is the retention rate. Are students staying and finishing their degrees? Students are more likely to stay at a college where they are actively engaged in learning and part of a community that supports their intellectual, social and emotional development.

A college that emphasizes teaching rather than research attracts professors who enjoy mentoring undergraduates. If a school’s mission statement emphasizes a student-centered approach, that’s a good sign. Universities may tout their Nobel Prize winning professors, but that doesn’t mean much if undergraduates don’t have opportunities to study with them.

Advising is another important area where some colleges excel. If you have no idea what you want to study or what kind of work you want to do, trying to figure it out on your own can be overwhelming. Students who receive ongoing support as they explore majors and careers make better decisions. Advising doesn’t get much attention in the college search process, but it becomes very important once you’re in college. You might want to ask if each student has an assigned adviser or whether students need to go to advising centers and see whoever is available. Also, how often do students meet with their advisers each semester, and are they required to discuss their course selections before registering for classes? Good advising helps students make smart curriculum choices and enables them to graduate in four years. For students who are planning to go on to law, medical, or graduate school, it’s helpful to meet the advisers who help students with these applications, and to ask how many students have applied and been accepted into these programs in recent years.

Starting college is a major life transition, and a strong first year experience is another indicator of quality in a college. While most colleges have a formal orientation program, a comprehensive first year experience continues beyond the first weeks of school and often includes peer mentors as well as seminars with professors who serve as academic advisers during freshman year.

Academic learning has more impact when paired with experiential learning. Colleges that have internships and service learning built into the curriculum provide a rich education that connects what you learn in class to the world. Students develop marketable skills that look great on resumes, and these experiences also enhance graduate and professional school applications. While many college websites mention internships, it’s helpful to know exactly where students have done internships and whether they get support from a designated internship advisor or need to find internships on their own.

Some colleges require students to complete a senior capstone project before graduating, and while it may sound intimidating, it is an excellent way to synthesize what you’ve learned in your major, get research experience that prepares you for graduate school and connect your major with potential careers.

Tour guides rarely take families inside a college’s career center. But knowing that a school has a strong career services office that provides career exploration, resume and interview preparation, alumni mentor programs and on-campus recruiting, is just as important as seeing a well-equipped campus fitness facility.

It takes a little more investigation, but looking for these indicators of quality results in a more satisfying and productive college experience.

Success Stories

  • Kim and Paul R., Westlake Village
    "First, I have to say thank you. For being a part of Clare’s journey, and for all your help and guidance these past few years. Paul and I are thrilled she had so many outstanding choices of highly selective colleges to attend (we never thought a home educated student would be so enthusiastically received by Admissions in such a highly competitive applicant pool) ... Once again, our sincerest thanks and …
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