What You REALLY Want to Know about Colleges?

Visiting a college campus can be overwhelming. By the time you (and your parent) sink back into your car, do you feel you know more? Or are you more confused? Try to ‘do your homework’ on some of these issues before (and after!) you schedule your trip!

Below is a list of campus options and characteristics which current college students and professional educators consider important benchmarks in evaluating the educational and developmental opportunities on any campus. Some will be more significant than others for you, but we hope this list will help you to learn more about the schools you visit, and to see each campus deeply, beyond the buildings and the trees.

  • Does this institution challenge your assumptions and take you outside your comfort zone? Will it prepare you for future globalization and for living/working within the increasingly broad diversity of values, perspectives, experiences within your country?
  • What are the opportunities for cross-disciplinary studies – through concentrations/majors?
  • Independent Studies? Group Independent Studies? What supports?
  • What are some of the strongest departments for undergraduate students?
  • If you are interested in, for example, how children or adults learn, will you be able to find relevant classes in many areas/departments, including Psychology? Sociology? Education? Public Policy? Computer Science? Philosophy? Cognitive Science? Modern Culture and Media?
  • What attention/support do students get from faculty in the department in which they chose to major?
  • How is teaching valued vs. research by the faculty? By the university?
  • How easy is it to change curricular choices? Programs? Majors?
  • What opportunities are there for students and faculty to interact outside of the classrooms? (Do they all use the campus coffee shops, lunchrooms, service projects, attend campus lectures, etc.)
  • How does this university value its undergraduate college(s) compared to its professional schools?
  • During college, will there be opportunity for you to do academic work in groups?
  • What are the consequences of taking academic challenges that don’t work?   Of making mistakes, without failing? – are they viewed as learning experiences?
  • Are classes/sections led/taught by other students? Graduate students? Undergraduate?
  • How hard is it to get into the courses you want?
  • What size are the average classes – for first-year students and sophomores? Especially science classes?
  • Is there a requirement or opportunity to do a thesis or a capstone project?
  • What are an undergraduate’s chances of doing research with a faculty member? Summers? Semesters? 1st, 2nd,3rd, 4th year?
  • Are there opportunities to work as a Teaching Assistant? Are in-the-field internships available?
  • Are there Study Abroad opportunities – summers? Semester/year?  What percentage of students study abroad? Where? In what academic year? Support for students abroad? Does Financial Aid ‘travel’ abroad with students?  How many/what programs are based at this school? Issues about transferring credit?
  • Does this college allow its students to Study Away in the USA – summers? Semester/year? Programs? Transfer credit available?
  • What are the resources on campus for Study Skills training? By peers? Professionals? Cost?
  • What is the Academic Advising Program like for first-years? Sophomores? Upperclassmen? Concentration/majors? Who advises – faculty? Professionals? Student peers? How do students rate advising? How do they use it? Departmental support?
  • Are there opportunities to work as a Peer Academic Advisor? Or as a Peer Residential Advisor? If so, must they monitor/report on their constituents? Are there professional/adult/faculty Residential Fellows?
  • Do students mainly live off or on campus, after their first year? How open/closed are the dorms? How do people who do not live in the dorms gain access?
  • What are the students’ major issues regarding safety? What safety measures have been put in place?
  • What percentage of the campus is fraternity/Greek oriented? How big a part do they play in all students’ life?   What’s the general attitude towards ‘nerds and geeks?’
  • What are the creative opportunities? University supported and/or student initiative opportunities in theatre? Music? Dance? Debate? Student government? Service? . . . on and on –
  • What does the weekend social life revolve around? Are there off-campus options? Do students talk about having fun learning, or is fun = partying? What are the alcohol policies, and how are they enforced?
  • How are athletes/athletics perceived? Supported? By faculty? Administration? Students? How are the athletic/exercise facilities for non-athletes?
  • What is the college’s attitude towards taking a Leave of Absence (time off) for personal reasons [medical, family]; for employment, internships, personal development, travel, study elsewhere?
  • What kinds of leadership opportunities are there? Curricular? Co-curricular? Off-campus?
  • What kind of support is there for students interested in applying for scholarships and fellowships during college and after graduation – campus-based, national or international (Danforth, Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, NSF, etc.)? Or for minority fellowships? (Mellon Minority Fellowships).
  • To whom do students turn to learn about graduate study? About professional study? (law, medical, dental, business school).  How do they get recommendations?
  • How strong is the Career Services program? It is available to students in their 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st year of college? Does it help with obtaining summer positions? Internships? Is there any financial help available to the student who has the opportunity to take a terrific but unpaid internship? Who are some of the strongest recruiters on campus? Can a student receive academic credit for an internship?
  • When students come back to this campus for their 5th or 10th reunion, do they look up faculty? Do they visit them in their offices? Their homes? Get invited to a meal or to stay the night?
  • Is this school likely to help you become who you want to be? Are the faculty/departments aware of what graduates will seek to do with their skills? Are they oblivious, tolerant or helpful?
  • Do students at this school say they love it & wouldn’t want to be anywhere else? This is most important!

 (c) College Goals LLC 2015


What is an interview?

We go through our lives interviewing and being interviewed every day. An interview is basically an encounter in which two people, who may not know anything about each other, are consciously working to form an impression of the other. Thus, many of your daily interactions and conversations could be considered ‘interviews’. If you can begin seeing some of these moments as mini-interviews, you will begin to gain greater insight into the way you portray yourself and, therefore, greater control over the way you are perceived. When you are in a conversation, try and imagine how the other person is seeing you and what it is you can and cannot do to influence that perspective. Observe your friends when you talk to them – what are they doing or saying that could give a stranger a negative impression of them, or simply a wrong one?

A successful interview is the outcome of your conscious and thoughtful choices about how you to present yourself to others. Thinking about this process will also help you to better explore and evaluate all of your personal and professional relationships. After all, if you can understand more about how others view you and how you can influence that view, then you can also begin to grasp a little more about why you see other people (or even judge them!) – friends, relatives, teachers, strangers – in the way you do.

Why do colleges do interviews?

As with every aspect of the application process, keep in mind that most American colleges use a holistic evaluation of your candidacy – they consider not only your grades and scores but also look for intellectual depth, social maturity and civic concern. The interview is another chance for you to add more such evidence to your application. Having presented yourself to the admission officers in your essays and having had teachers describe you in their letters of recommendation, the interview is a chance for you to advocate for yourself. You may be offered an interview either before applying to a college or, in the case of the most selective schools, after you have submitted an application. Many schools will offer some interviews on campus, but most will now give you the opportunity to interview with an alumnus closer to home. Whatever the location or circumstances, seek out and accept any opportunity for an interview that you can get!

How to prepare for the interview?

Whether you are interviewed by an alumnus or an admission staff person, he or she will ask questions meant to elicit an impression of you in relation to that college – is this student the kind we want at our college; is this student a good fit for our institution; is this student likely one day to become a good representative alumnus?

But an interview is by definition a dance between at least two people – in other words, you have as much of a role to play as the interviewer does. Prepare for that role! Do not go into it thinking that all you have to do is answer the interviewer’s questions honestly. That is a great start, but probably not enough! After all, when you have a conversation with another person, there is a give and take in which you are not a passive bystander but an equal participant. An interviewer will ask questions to form an impression of you, and your role is to shape that impression while also eliciting information about the college. In short, do not go into the interview feeling like the proverbial lamb being led to the slaughter! Whether or not this conversation will be fun and interesting will depend just as much on you as on the interviewer!

You prepare for the “dance” that is an interview by being ready both to ask and answer questions. At the very least, an interview is meant to give you information about the college and answer some burning concerns you may have about it. And let’s be honest, asking questions is often a great way to help cover those awkward silences that occur in conversations between strangers!

But asking questions is more than the chance to get information and to seem socially gracious. Of the following five behaviors that candidates exhibit in interviews, which one do you think recruiters find most unforgivable?

  1. Poor personal appearance
  2. Overemphasis on social aspect of college
  3. Failure to look at interviewer while interviewing
  4. Doesn’t ask questions
  5. Late to interview

Well, yes – any of these five behaviors can be deadly – but the answer, according to professionals, is #4. So prepare yourself with some (not too many! not too few!) well-considered questions. That way, you can gain some control over the flow of the dialogue, as well as demonstrate your knowledge of and interest in the college. You can add to what you have tried to say about yourself in your essay, and you can reassure the interviewer of the seriousness of your interest in his or her school without feeling that you sound awkward or fake in saying it! Of course, do avoid the other four pitfalls too!

What to do in your interview?

Having prepared some questions for your interviewer and having done the research to answer his or her questions, enter the interview with confidence. During the ensuing conversation, keep in mind the attributes and qualifications that the interviewer is looking for, so that you can demonstrate that you have those by reflecting on your own experiences and by offering thoughtful questions and informed answers. A college interviewer is looking for:

  • Commitment/interest in the college – neither gush with exaggerated enthusiasm nor leave any doubts about your interest in the college.
  • Knowledge about the university’s expectations and unique offerings – do you know what the college has to offer you that is unique and a good fit for you, or are you applying simply because others told you to do so?
  • Your interest in being part of a community of very diverse people – have you been a good member of a team and do you work well with others?
  • Leadership experience – can you lead and organize well?
  • Will you, both as a student and subsequently as an alumnus or alumna, be a good representative of that college in the wider world?

What can you do to help answer these questions in the interviewer’s mind?

  • Show social grace by smiling, shaking hands when meeting, sitting straight and not slouching, saying thank you, waiting for an older person to take his or her seat before you do, not interrupting, and being respectful without being obsequious (look it up – it is good SAT practice!).
  • It is fine to let the interviewer know you are nervous – it shows that you care and gives the interviewer a sense of your ability to handle stress.
  • Be sure to talk about how your goals and philosophy blend and are strengthened by the goals and philosophy of the college/university, and back it up with examples and details … this is where that earlier preparation comes in!
  • Ask the interviewer about his or her own course of study as a way of introducing the academic aspects of the university that interest you – perhaps a particular program you like, a researcher you read about or a professor whose book you use in school? A college is above all an academic institution.
  • You need not hash out all of your courses, grades or activities – the admission office will see these in your application – but it can be good to refer to them in passing as a way of making the point that you are a good fit for that institution and that you have a contribution to make – as a team member, as a leader, as a good citizen. But be a person, not a transcript or a list of activities! What’s interesting about you?
  • When the interview is done, be sure to thank the person for his or her time with a short note (so get contact information!) – this shows your good manners alongside with your gratitude.

What to avoid in your interview?

But there are also behaviors that should be avoided, and some are so obvious that they are easily overlooked!

  • Watch your language! This does not mean simply avoiding vulgar or off-color words and phrases, but also the linguistic mannerisms that teenagers like and adults despise! Excessive use of the word “like,” for example!
  • Avoid familiarity! You are not applying to become the interviewer’s best buddy, but for admission to a university. Moreover, wait until you are invited to address a person by their first name before you use it – older interviewers may be particularly sensitive to this.
  • Listen! Alumni and admission interviewers will share with you their own ideas about their institution and what is most significant about the place. To learn what those ideas are, you have to pay attention. You need not agree with everything, but you do need to show a respectful interest.
  • Do not be rattled by a poor interviewer! Yes, it can happen that you encounter someone who is not particularly adept at the art of interviewing – who talks too much, too little, asks silly questions, plays ridiculous games that are meant to test you somehow. Answer as well and as honestly as you can, and know that the admission officers who read these things will probably read several reports by that same interviewer and develop their own views of how well or how poor he or she does the job. Alumni interviewers are not doing this professionally, and admission officers know and understand this when reviewing the results.

PARENTS, accept and understand this is your child’s moment. No matter how keen you are to chat with the interviewer, no matter how strongly you feel about your child’s achievements, you cannot and should not join in the conversation. Under any circumstances! The interviewer may understandably come to doubt your child’s ability to cope as an independent adult on a college campus, and that assessment will go in their reports.

Interviews matter, whatever other students and parents will tell you! No college will spend resources to set these up if they were irrelevant. Interviews are often conducted by alumni to be fair to those many students who cannot travel to campuses for interviews and often because admission officers are already overburdened. Informational interviews may serve only as an opportunity for you to ask questions. But even these are of value to you – what better way to prepare yourself to answer a college’s question on “why are you applying to us?”

Many colleges, especially more selective ones, offer interviews that are evaluative – that means the interviewer will write a short report on you to be used in the application process. Of course, a 30 minute conversation when you are on your best behavior will certainly not trump what you did, or failed to do, in your classroom over several years, nor should it. But it will give you the chance to “inhabit” your application some more, and another chance to argue that you are a good fit with a college. Bad interview reports are few and far between, and are usually the result of specific behaviors – arriving late, refusing to meet the interviewer’s eye, an inability to say more than yes or no, apathy or indifference, lying! Interviewers usually give students the benefit of the doubt and really enjoy the rare chance of chatting with a bright and interesting young person.

Many interviewers believe that your interest in their alma mater is already evidence of your good judgment! Relax, have fun, and build on that goodwill!

 (c) College Goals LLC 2015


Campus Visits

How to prepare for your visit?

Timing: On the college’s website, search for and check the school’s calendar.   Many schools will have set dates on which you have to sign up for a visit and tour; even those that do not, however, may have days when they have no student-led tours available because of class schedules and school vacations. You should also consider whether or not you want to visit during the term when students are on campus, or in the summer when campus may be quiet. When you have decided on a date to visit, sign up for whatever the college offers. At some schools it may include a tour and an information session, and at others you may also sign up online or by phone for an on-campus interview. If interviews are available, CALL the Admission Office or sign up online. At colleges where none are offered or available, phone and ask if you can meet briefly with the Admission Officer who will be handling the applications from your part of the country/world. Emphasize that you only want to introduce yourself – admission officers may not have time for lengthy unscheduled chats, and if they think this is what you want, they are more likely to say no to a meeting! Regardless, remember to get names and contact information.

Accommodation: On most colleges’ admission websites, under the link for Visitors you may find information regarding ‘Places to Stay’ near the campus. If there is no information on the website, call the Admission Office for useful information about local accommodations. Try to stay overnight as close to campus as possible, so you can visit the campus in the evening and possibly attend an event there – concert, lecture, or sports event. Make reservations in advance!

Directions:  On the same website for Visitors, you will find driving directions, and often a map. PRINT THESE OUT to bring along, but also try and rent a car with a Global Positioning System (GPS) – you will be SO glad you did! Make note of parking areas on campus and take along a supply of quarter coins in case you have to park on a public street. If you are concerned about getting around on your college trip, there are services available that will for a fee arrange your itinerary.

What to do when you visit?

Arrival:  Arrive on campus in good time to find parking and have time to walk to the appropriate location – parking is almost always a problem!   Make your way to the locations for all appointments – Information Sessions, Campus Tours and Interviews – 15 minutes ahead of time, in order to sign in, greet the presenter and catch your breath so that you can be focused when the presentation starts but perhaps have a few minutes to chat with others around you too. Be sure to pick up the business card of the Admission Officer who will be handling applications from your region of the world or country, and also of the presenter, so you can thank him/her as a matter of courtesy but also as a way of expressing your interest. If you cannot get a card, then definitely make note of the name so that you can find an email address in the college’s directory. You may also want to get a supply of postcards from your own town or region and use these instead of emails – it may help you register a bit more strongly as an individual. If registration is available, please make sure you sign in. Many colleges track “demonstrated interest,” and the fact that you visited campus will be strong evidence of your interest.

Interview:  If you do an on-campus interview, it will be conducted by either an Admission Officer or by a well-trained senior student. The interview will be either informational or evaluative, and they are usually offered only to seniors and rising seniors. For more information about the interview process, have a look at the College Goals article on Interviewing.

Admission session:  During most college visits, the Information Session will be the centerpiece of the visit. These are presented by Admission Officers or, sometimes by well-prepared undergraduate students. Attending information sessions will do three things for you:

  • It will answer questions about the college, financial aid and the application process.
  • By listening critically, you will also begin to see what sets one institution apart from another. Many of the words and ideas that Admission Officers use – such as “engagement” and “passion” – are the stock in trade of the admission profession and, while important, have also become platitudes and clichés. Listening beyond these repetitive phrases will not only give you new insight but also good material for when you write the often-required essay on “Why I am applying to your school.”
  • Listening to the questions of other students and parents will also teach you the “language” of admissions and give you some new food for thought.

Some questions to which you may want to get answers from an Admission Officer:

  • What is the acceptance rate for Early Applications as opposed to the total for the season?
  • What percentage of 1st year students return (retention rate)? Graduate in four to six years?
  • What percentage of students goes on to graduate school? Professional schools?
  • When must you declare your major? Can you design your own? How easy is it to switch between different majors? How much of a student’s curriculum will be filled with general education requirements (GERs – required courses outside your major)?
  • Who serves as a student’s advisor? Do advisors change each year? How many students to an advisor?
  • Can students take classes at other nearby colleges/universities (if applicable)?
  • What are the living options on campus? Guaranteed housing for how long? What kind of off-campus housing is available?
  • Is study abroad encouraged? Are students required to continue to pay the full tuition of the college, or can they pay the (often lower) rate of the overseas program?
  • What was the average tuition increase during the past five years?
  • What does the Financial Aid office do with outside scholarships – do these reduce the student’s self-help portion, or is the funding used to reduce the college’s assistance?

You may talk briefly with the Admission Officer after her/his talk, but be sure to leave in time for the Campus Tour.

Campus Tour:  You should also have the opportunity to take a guided Campus Tour which will be led by a very engaging and informative undergraduate who has the amazing ability to walk backward without bumping into trees or people while talking non-stop about the college, the campus and his or her experiences there . . . while also hailing and answering close buddies who seem to be strategically scattered around the campus. For many students, this is simply the most fun and informative part of the visit. These are students who love their school and they are happy to talk about the place and give you a student perspective. Remember to get their names too so that you can later send a thank you card if you wish, but also email them with follow-up questions.

Some of the questions you may want to ask when invited to do so on the tour:

  • What do you like most about your college? What do you like least?
  • What do you wish you had known when you were making your college choice?
  • How would most students here describe a typical student?
  • What are the classes like? Size? Mostly large lectures? Small classes? Discussion groups?
  • Do graduate students or faculty teach introductory classes? Upper-level courses?
  • Is it hard/easy to get into the classes you want to take? Have you ever been locked out of a class, and how did you resolve it?
  • How is the academic advising program for pre-majors? For majors?
  • Do you speak up and interact with students and faculty in your classes?
  • In the last semester, how often have you met with a professor outside of class?
  • Where do students study? Or hang out on campus? Off-campus? On weekends?
  • How important are fraternities and sororities? Or sports?


The college visits can be tiring, but try to keep them fun and exciting too. For many, this may be the last protracted time to spend with your child before s/he leaves for college. Enjoy it! Don’t nag about procrastination, but rather motivate your children with their excitement in the possibilities before them; don’t put a damper on their dreams, but listen and learn about their aspirations for life; don’t argue about their seemingly ridiculous criticism of the college you just visited, but accept that their comments may in fact be a screen for another set of unspoken concerns and anxieties. Above all, enjoy their company and take pride in the fact that this is your reward for those Sunday nights gluing together a school project, the endless cupcakes you made for class events, the early mornings next to the ice rink, and the weekends spent alongside the soccer field!

Have a WONDERFUL time visiting some outstanding educational institution, and carry that excitement with you into the application season!