By: Caroline Koppelman
When Jane first stepped foot on the campus of the school she would ultimately attend, she fell in love. It looked the way she imagined college should look: ivy-covered buildings, students sprawled out on the lawn, historic looking statues. She found the information session with the Dean of Admissions comprehensive, providing a glimpse into the academic and social scenes of the school.
Jane applied and got into the school. When she started as a freshman almost a year later, though, she realized that there was a lot she didn’t know about the school. She didn’t realize that most of the kids came from a few states of the east coast, if not a few schools. She also didn’t know how big a role money played in the social scene. Even the academic side of things had surprises. The distribution requirements, described when was applying as a way to get students to push the boundaries of their education, were difficult to fulfill, and often required taking boring intro-level classes. It took a lot adjusting, but Jane found friends, a major, and a social scene.
There is undoubtedly a way to avoid the initial culture shock when you get to college. The reality is, tours and info sessions are designed to make you love a school, not to explain its idiosyncrasies and flaws. And frankly, except for the unique design of each campus, schools of similar caliber pretty much all seem the same when described in an information session. To truly understand a school and its students you should track down a student who isn’t giving an official tour--someone you know who goes there, or even a random kid in the dining hall--and ask them some key questions:
What is your least favorite thing about the school?
This is the most important question you can ask. It’s pretty easy for people to name their favorite thing about the school. What’s harder is to take a minute to think thoughtfully and critically about a place that they (hopefully) love the majority of the time. Hearing what someone doesn’t like about a school will give you a more holistic and honest understanding of the place you might spend four formative years.
What do students do for fun on the weekends?
Are students jetting off to ski on the weekends and dropping big bucks on fancy dinners out? Are they going to friends’ houses, watching movies, and eating popcorn? There’s no right way to blow off steam, but it helps to know what to expect.
How do you spend your days when you’re not in class?
Remember, most students are in class at most three hours a day in college. Is this a school where people are spending every free minute studying? Is going to the gym a popular activity? Think about how you like to spend your free time, and try to get a sense of if there are people at the school with interests similar to yours.
Do you usually eat in dining halls or off campus?
Questions like this, about the minutia of everyday life, provide another glimpse into the school’s culture. Dining halls are an important setting for making friends freshman year. They’re also an equalizer: most freshman are on a meal plan, but if people who can afford to eat out are choosing that instead, you may only get to meet a certain type of person depending on the choices you make.
Do you spend time off campus?
Going to college in a new place presents an awesome opportunity to explore. If you’re in a city there are often lots of museums and concerts; if you’re in a more rural area you can go hiking or swimming. At some schools though, students tend to stay local, rarely venturing outside the boundaries of campus. If you want to take advantage of what’s around you but your classmates want to watch Netflix, that’s something you probably want to know.
If you take the time to ask these questions to a student who doesn’t really have any incentive to make you like the place, you’ll go through the college process with a better understanding of the places you’re touring, as well as what you are trying to get out of your college experience.