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How Can I Figure Out a School’s Culture Without Visiting the Campus?
Having “Fit” with a College
When you are deciding on colleges to apply to, you will likely consider a number of factors—academics, available programs, rigor, and so on. You should also make sure you have what is called “fit” with the school you ultimately choose. “Fitting” with a college means that you are similar to the type of student who tends to attend the school in question, and that you in turn can see yourself there and feel comfortable with the school, faculty, and other students who attend. Having a mutual fit with a college is very important, since not only is your college the place where you will spend four formative years, but also the foundation of your adult life, where you will learn skills that may help shape your career. Read What Does It Mean to Have a “Fit” with a College to learn more about the importance of meshing well with a school.
As we describe in College Visits: When (and If) to Make Them, one of the best ways to gauge how you will fit in at a college is to visit the campus. Doing so will allow you to experience the culture of the school, since you will be able to meet current students, possibly sit in on classes, and experience the setting and overall vibe of the school. However, not all students are able to visit colleges that may very well be a good fit due to distance, financial constraints, or other factors. If this is the case for you, read on to learn how you can figure out a school’s culture without actually visiting the campus.
Learning More About a College
Talking to Alumni
There are a number of ways to learn more about a college’s culture without physically visiting the school. First, if you know any past or current students, start by talking to them. If you don’t know any, ask your guidance counselor if there are any alumni from your high school who attended or are attending the college in which you are interested. It may take a bit of networking, but asking around may eventually lead you to a student who is willing to talk to you about campus life.
College Websites and Promotional Materials
A relatively easy, but no less important step is to visit the school’s website and sign up to receive print and email information. While promotional materials come from the school itself and are therefore going to paint the school in the best light possible, you will still be able to figure out a lot about what the college prioritizes and the kinds of people who attend. For instance, you might see a heavy focus on athletics, which might be appealing if you’re a sports person. On the other hand, if you see an emphasis on Greek life and find it unappealing, this school may not be the right fit for you. Be sure to pay attention to pictures as well, because you’ll get a sense of what the campus looks like and whether or not you can see yourself there.
Many schools have discussion boards where prospective students, current students, and admissions representatives discuss the college and its culture. If the school doesn’t have its own board, check out some general discussion boards that have threads for individual schools.
Many colleges have admissions representatives come to local college fairs. If there is a college fair in your community or town, be sure to visit to see if you can talk to a representative from the school in which you’re interested. Sometimes representatives visit individual high schools as well, which may be especially beneficial, since there will probably be fewer attendees and you’ll have a better opportunity to talk to the representative personally. Check out How to Make the Most of a College Fair for tips on maximizing the benefits of this opportunity.
It is also a good idea to schedule an alumni interview. Remember that this is not only an opportunity for the admissions committee to learn more about you, but also a chance for you to learn more about the school. Check out 4 Interview Dos and How Much Do Interviews Matter? for more information on making the most of college interviews.
Questions to Ask
If you have the opportunity to meet with students or talk to representatives from a school on your list, you should come prepared with questions to ask them. Just what you ask may vary depending on your priorities.
Make a list of what is important to you in attending a college. For instance, you might focus on studying a particular niche, being around likeminded people, or joining a certain activity or sports team. Use these priorities as a basis for the discussions you have with school representatives and current or former students. Try not to ask questions that can be answered by taking a cursory look on the college website—this will give the impression that you haven’t done your research. (For instance, avoid asking if the school offers a particular major, because it is likely very easy to find that information to find on the website.)
Some questions you might ask include: “What kinds of things do you do on weekends?” “What restaurants are nearby?” “What clubs are available in a certain field, and are they student-run?”
If you are able to do so, you should certainly visit a school that is a top priority for you. This not only demonstrates your interest to colleges (read more about the importance of demonstrating interest in How to Express Interest in a College), but also gives you a sense of whether or not you can see yourself there. If you can’t afford to make a college visit, there are some options to help you pay. We discuss a couple of these options in Approaching the Cost of Visiting Colleges as a First-Generation Student.
Sometimes, however, you just won’t be able to visit the schools to which you are applying. In that case, you need to gather as much information as you can about the college and its culture in order to make an informed decision. Following steps like talking to current and former students and representatives and attending all events related to the college can help get you there. For more help honing your college list, check out these posts:
Looking for help with your college applications? Check out our College Application Guidance Program. When you sign up for our program, we carefully pair you with the perfect admissions specialist based on your current academic and extracurricular profile and the schools in which you’re interested. Your personal specialist will help you with branding, essays, and interviews, and provide you with support and guidance in all other aspects of the application process. Learn more about the program here.