In the United States, summer is time for a much-deserved school break, family vacations, and for many students – college campus tours.
In fact, some students visit so many colleges over the summer it’s dizzying. When I was an admissions counselor at a university that saw more than 50,000 visitors per year, I often asked groups of students and families at our information sessions how many schools they had already visited. Usually it was a handful or two at most. But one time a girl raised her hand and had a jaw-dropping list of 35.
This is not a knock on the college tour. It can be a valuable tool in helping students decide what school is a good fit for them. But herein lies the challenge: the more schools you visit, the more they tend to sound – and look – the same. The towering residence halls, the multimillion-dollar athletic complexes, the expansive on-campus all-you-can-eat dining halls. When colleges spend record amounts on new buildings and campus improvements, it’s easy to be distracted by this flashy show of aesthetics the more campuses you tour. However, if you want your college experience to actually be educational, and want to ensure you are getting a good return on investment (which you should, especially now that many US colleges are experiencing historic tuition increases driven by inflation), this makes it even more crucial that you ask the right questions when you visit.
So what questions should you be asking? As an admission counselor, some of the most common questions I got were: What’s the food like? How are the dorms? How hard are the classes?
Those are all valid questions. But they are ancillary to the real reason you go to college: learning. So below is a list of questions designed to get you to think more deeply about your college visit experience based on what we know at Minerva Project about how students learn and what skills they need to succeed in the classroom and life. I don’t recommend that you ask these in lieu of the previous questions or even that you ask these directly to admissions counselors or current students, who may not be the best ones to answer them for you. These are questions you should reflect on when you return from each college tour to evaluate whether that school is a good fit and good value.
1. Will I be an active participant in my own learning? At schools with 600-person lecture halls, it can be hard to stay engaged in the classroom. Even if students think lectures are best, research shows otherwise – that students learn the most when they have agency over their learning and the opportunity to engage directly with the professor and other students to arrive at the right answer on their own. At Minerva Project, we know from decades of research on the science of teaching and learning that students learn best using a flipped classroom approach where they digest material ahead of time and then use class time to apply what they have learned using methods such as Socratic questioning and breakout groups. If you are able, get permission to sit in on a class when you are visiting campuses. Observe how students are interacting and who they are interacting with. Or talk to current students and ask them to describe a typical class for you.
2. What will this school do to prepare me for the workforce (or graduate school)? Right now, you’re thinking about getting into college. But at some point, you’ll be thinking about getting out of college and what’s next in your life. Employers are increasingly of the mindset that technical skills can be taught on the job, but the best candidates come to the table with “durable skills,” (also sometimes referred to as “soft” skills), such as strong leadership and communication, as well as problem solving and critical thinking. (A recent LinkedIn survey found that 91 percent of employers believe that those skills are very important to the future of work.) Find out how your prospective college nurtures these competencies by chatting with professors and students, and talk to career services staff to find out how the school adapts its curricular offerings based on what employers and graduate schools are actually looking for. Take a look at the curriculum yourself, see what skills and learning outcomes are explicitly identified, and find out how well students understand those outcomes. (A 2022 report by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, for instance, found that while more colleges have created a set of expected learning outcomes for undergraduates, there is waning confidence among faculty that students understand those outcomes.) Also be sure to ask the career services office at that college for data on job placement and graduate school outcomes, or visit their website and pick through the data on your own. Many schools make this information public and easily accessible.
3. What opportunities for hands-on learning are there? It’s no secret that students learn best by doing, not rote memorization and cramming for tests. Experiential learning allows students to apply concepts they have learned in the classroom in the real world, bridging theoretical concepts with applied practice, and therefore cementing the competencies learned. All kinds of opportunities – research, study abroad, internships, service learning projects – fall under the experiential learning umbrella. Think about at least one or two you’d like to incorporate into your college experience, and then talk to staff in that respective office to find out how students get involved. Are there opportunities open to underclassmen or are they just for juniors and seniors? Are there any prerequisites for getting involved? What percentage of students get involved with the types of opportunities that you want to do and how easy is it to apply? Asking these questions before you enroll will ensure that you end up at a college that is a good fit for you based on your interests.
4. Does the school embrace interdisciplinary learning? The real world does not operate in traditional academic subject silos. Although you may be interested in majoring in Political Science, for instance, if you one day land a career serving as a US Ambassador to Japan, you will need a multitude of skills that go beyond what you majored in during college. An interdisciplinary approach allows students to combine learning from various disciplines to come up with new ways to think about issues and solve problems. Find out what opportunities your prospective university provides for interdisciplinary learning. Will your degree culminate in a large-scale project or thesis in which you apply what you have learned from many courses to solve real-world problems? Does the school support undergraduate research opportunities that allow students to integrate concepts they have learned in different disciplines to solve challenging research problems? Integrating skills from multiple disciplines will not only deepen your learning, it will heighten your career and graduate school prospects after graduation.
Of course what is difficult about answering all these questions is that you’ll need to go beyond the scope of the college tour – have conversations with various people all over campus either in person, virtual appointments or via e-mail. Be a social scientist of sorts: collect your “data,” then reflect on what you’ve learned. Not only will it help you create a smarter list of colleges to which you want to apply, it will also help you hone skills that will serve you well as a student in college.