Part One of this blogpost (November 30) outlined the essential factors students should consider as they embark on their college search. Now that those broad strokes have been taken, let's look more closely at how to evaluate the academics at colleges.
Ask Yourself: Do you have a favorite subject or long-time passion, or do you enjoy many subjects and don't feel ready to choose a major yet?
Some students know what course of study they wish to pursue in college, but most apply as "undecided" and rather begin their freshman year exploring options. If you already know what you will major in, your website research will be narrowed to that department and everything it offers. Some colleges have separate webpages for each of their individual schools (engineering, business, arts & sciences, etc.) and it is important to look for your intended major here so that you understand the requirements of each particular school. [Key tip: make sure you are looking at the undergraduate departments, not the graduate program.]
For students who are not yet certain, it is especially important to review all of the majors and minors a college offers to insure that there is more than one that appeals to you. Here too, it is advisable to explore the majors/minors within each school. You may find areas you never considered studying and decide to investigate these further.
In either case, take notes on what appeals to you as you surf the websites and jot down questions. Then open the conversation with that department by emailing your questions to the department chair or even a specific professor. In your email, ask if the person can put you in touch with a couple of students majoring in that field so that you can ask some first-hand questions of current students. Do not be afraid that you are bothering these "important" people; you will be pleasantly surprised how many of them reply directly. If they cannot respond, they will forward your query to someone who will.
Ask Yourself: What type of learning environment is best suited for you? Do you prefer smaller classes with lots of discussion time or do you work better in a lecture setting taking lots of notes?
Most colleges list on their website the student to faculty ratio; the smaller the ratio, the greater number of small classes. Many schools will also include the percentage of classes under 20 which also gives a good sense of class sizes in general.
Aside from class size, you may wonder about your classmates themselves. One benefit of being in a "better" school is being surrounded by strong and motivated students who make discussions more interesting and collaborative projects more successful. Furthermore, since professors must often tailor the level of their classes to the students in them, chances are better that you'll enjoy a more challenging curriculum with brighter classmates.
Pay Attention To: the "extras." Some colleges have an Honors College within them for top students which is worth investigating. Other schools have a "first year experience" with a broad variety of courses that may be particularly helpful for students who need to figure out their prospective major. The variety and strength of the internship opportunities and even study abroad programs can also tell you a great deal of what a college has to offer.
Stay Tuned ~ next week's blogpost, Part Three, will offer good ideas for making the most of your meeting with the college counselor at your high school. This can be particularly important if you are in a large high school where the college counselors are responsible for hundreds of students. You want the school counselor to get to know you!