Yeah, any college can hand you a glossy brochure and entice you to attend that school. But what questions can you ask to REALLY find out more?
All throughout the college application process, peers and adults eagerly offered their well-meaning input regarding where I should spend the next four years.
“You ABSOLUTELY belong at X. You were made for the East Coast! College is your opportunity to go as far as you can, and you’re adventurous enough to make the most out of that, I can just hear the excitement in your voice!”
“This program, Y, is what you really want, I can see it from the way your eyes light up when you tell me about it.”
“I really feel that you should go to Z. I feel it. I just KNOW that you’re a good fit!”
But when they were probed further about exactly what made me a good fit for a certain program or school, or what solid reasons they had for encouraging me to choose one school over another, I realized that their eager promptings lacked substantial backing and just faded into the corner of my mind as another vote for a certain school.
On top of that, neither of my parents could visit schools with me, and even if they had, they would struggle to understand the admissions panels. When I asked them for advice, I found them repeating the biased observations I had sent home to them during my visits, so their feedback was not ideally informative in light of the huge decision before me.
In the midst of my confusion and growing anxiety as the May 1 deadline approached, I didn’t know who to trust. I took each opinion into heart, but who really knew me best? Who knew the schools best? What factors should be weighted more heavily when I ultimately made my decision? I wanted to take each opinion into consideration — to sift through their words for any personal application to me — but each proved to be more overwhelming than affirming. No answer was the “sign I had been waiting for” to officially sign my SIR (statement of intent to register).
However, this confusion and conflict led me to do some soul-searching to reflect on my own priorities and how I could make the most out of each encounter with a contact from the schools I had applied to. After sorting through many Google Docs filled with questions and observations and reflections, I realized what I had cared about all along and which questions led to the most meaningful answers.
Personally, what I came to appreciate about a school was not its quantitative merits (rankings, number of majors, student:faculty ratio, etc), but its community culture – a school’s various intangible, collective values from which many tangible features are derived, values that determined what kinds of students the school attracted and values that could impact my daily college experience regardless of my specific involvements. I knew that no single visit or conversation would be indicative of MY experience at the school, but that did not invalidate my questions or experiences. I just had to look beyond my individual experience with the school.
And it is this desire to find a community I fit well in that drove all of my interviews and campus visits. While the articles I scoured the internet for offered interesting questions, I realized that I didn’t just want my questions to be answered, but that I wanted my questions to reflect something about me and my values. And soon, instead of relying on overused questions that lead to answers that were not particularly insightful, I started formulating questions important to me, questions that pointed to aspects of my college experience that I really cared about. And those are the questions that proved useful, because not only did the interviewers and admissions officers know that I had done my research and had a personal angle of interest into the school, but he or she could also provide answers that helped me get the most out of that conversation.
For me, these questions served two purposes. First, to get a peek into the community culture of the school, which I realized I valued. However, community culture doesn’t have to be what you value the most in order to ask these questions. Here are some questions that, in my experience, served the second purpose as well: to get the most out of an interaction with someone from a school by asking questions that would reveal information that would be difficult to find otherwise. These questions were returned with responses that revealed aspects of the different campus culture I wanted to grasp and ultimately base my decision on, but can really help you gain insight into so many aspects of student life that you couldn’t learn from just browsing through second-hand information. And now, the new and very exciting project by my friends at UProspie can radically personalize your visit by pairing you with a passionate and informed student who had to make difficult decisions as well, and can speak to your concerns. You can try out these questions as soon as UProspie goes live for prospies!
- What is an aspect of student life that is distinctly important to your experience of the school, but is difficult to convey on paper?
Or, another way to ask this is: What’s an aspect of this school that is essential to the culture of the school but is difficult to convey on paper? You’ve read through the brochures, the websites, the student blogs. But after all that research, what gaps in your knowledge can be addressed during your valuable college tour or meeting with a school representative?
- If you could devote a million dollars to altering anything about your school, how would you spend that money, and why?
This is a clever way to probe your contact to speak about ways they wish their experience was better. Often, what people remember about a conversation is how they felt while answering your questions; you don’t want to make them feel like you’re trying to uncover all the insufficiencies of the school, but you also want to give them an opportunity to honestly not only reflect on the shortcomings of their experience, but how they can be addressed. You’re asking the current student, admissions officer, school rep, or interviewer to speak honestly and in positive, solution-focused terms! You can even follow the question with: “How do you think faculty would respond if students brought up this concern? Has this been addressed in any way already? How many students would be impacted by this change?”
- What are the most common reasons students chose ______ over any other school?
College ranking and reputation. Location and accessibility to a big city. Specific programs and extracurricular activities. Unique career and alumni support systems. Student body size and diversity. Different students prioritize different values! Few people cite global name recognition as a reason they attend my school, and most people brighten up when describing the other reasons they chose to attend, such as the community/campus culture they experienced during their visit. When a huge population of the school identifies something special about the community, that means many people will continue to invest in what they’ve identified as so special by hosting overnight students, eagerly sharing about their decision process/overall college experiences, or building that collaborative community, thereby keeping the community culture alive and strong. When students must choose between different colleges at the end, the reasons to choose a school reflect that student’s hierarchy of values, and it would be interesting to hear more about the most commonly cited strength/ draw of the school.
- What is a tradition that unites the entire school?
Birthday fountainings at Pomona College? Guarding and painting “The Rock” at Northwestern? What could say more about the quirky/creative/ridiculous/fun-loving side of a student body other than its endearing traditions? One alumni went on and on about her nostalgic memories of cheering on her friends as they passed through the main gates of the school twice during their college career — once during orientation and once during commencement — and how the presence of alumni at both events spoke into the tight community built during students’ undergraduate years.
- Were you ever jealous of your friends at other schools when their school seemed to offer something yours didn’t?
Every school has its disadvantages; some are inherent to the location or structure of the school, and others are more subjective and alterable. This question could help you to gain insight into what sort of weaknesses you should realistically be aware of before committing to the school. This also helps you form your list of pros and cons — some cons are unalterable, and other cons are very dependent on one’s subjective experience, so these shortcomings may be treated differently when you weigh one pros and cons for each school and between schools.
- What kind of student would not be happy at ______?
Not all students who attend the same school are the same, and stereotypes may definitely not be true, but there could be a legitimate reason why they are perpetuated! This question worked well when I was visiting a school and could ask many current students the same question and see if there were any commonalities among their answers.
- What’s the best way to prepare for being a learner at ______, in every sense of the word?
Different departments within a school have different ways of evaluating students’ performance, but beyond that, some schools have non-traditional calendar schedules or grading systems tailored towards students who would thrive under them.
For example, Colorado College has a unique system of dividing up the school year: students have 8 blocks a year and typically take one course per block. Students know that they wouldn’t like this kind of pace would probably look for a different learning model.
At The New College of Florida, grades are replaced with narrative evaluations provided by professors, which could translate into more personal and detailed recommendation letters in the future as graduates move onto their professions or graduate school. To support its innovative grading system, the New College of Florida provides the following figures: 86 percent of graduates who applied to a Ph.D. program were accepted, as well as 100 percent of law school applicants. If you’re looking at this school, you want to make sure this is a form of evaluation you see the value in, and can gain a lot from.
Students at Sarah-Lawrence College experience the seminar-conference system that forms the basis of education at Sarah Lawrence College; students learn in interactive classes, called seminars, that typically have no more than 14 students. Conferences are one-on-one interactions between a student and their professor, and students are eventually “graded” by written evaluations, which are seen as the culmination of the dialogue between professors and students over the course of the year.
- What was the most influential in helping you figure out what you wanted to study?
Schools provide different advising systems, core requirements, pre-professional support networks, alumni/career support networks, peer-to-peer advising systems, connections to other institutions, major/career fairs, etc. To tailor this question to the specific school you’re looking into, you can ask about student experiences with the core requirements, academic atmosphere, and how receptive the faculty are to change different forms of advising and support, or other resources for exploration and guidance. What’s so great about this question is that you now know 1) what to take advantage of as a student, 2) what opportunities to look out for as soon as you step onto campus, or, even if you don’t end up committing to this school, 3) similar opportunities at the school you eventually commit to.
- How do you think attending ______ has equipped you in a way that no other school could have?
Give whoever you’re speaking to an opportunity to really zero in on not only an unique quality of the school, but a practical extension of that opportunity to real life. How does the geographic location of the school and the residential community surrounding it impact the student experience? How does a school’s unique proximity to ___ or partnerships with ___ diversity the student experience?
A common interview question is “Why our school?” and by asking this question, you’re also preparing your own eventual answer to this question. By being exposed to others’ answers about how they took advantage of a resource that eventually prepared them for their life beyond college, you can personalize your interest in a school by not only citing one of its unique offerings, but WHY that’s relevant to you and your goals.
If you have good experiences using these questions, great! And if not, I hope they encouraged you to ask more personalized questions to really get at what you value in a school (and don’t worry if you don’t have that figured out yet; this list became more and more refined after many college interviews and campus tours)!
*Disclaimer: after reading this article, you probably realize that the title is ironic and quite misleading, and purposefully so, because it’s not about what questions everyone should ask, but questions to hopefully encourage you to think about why you ask the questions that you do, and examples of questions I think prospective students should ask if they’re also curious about the community culture of their future college!