* Understand the basic educational program and how it is structured. Is there a core curriculum? Typically the core (or general education requirement as it is sometimes called) consists of classes lower classmen must take. Find out what classes satisfy the requirements. Some colleges offer a structured core, reflecting the belief that a liberal arts education should focus on root intellectual skills in a wide range of subjects; other schools are more flexible and allow the student to define the course of study. Decide what appeals to you and why.
* Get acquainted with the intellectual climate of the campus - does it lean more toward competition or collaboration? Is it more rigorous or relaxed?
* Learn about the teaching format in classes you will take as a freshman. Think about this in light of the ways you learn best (e.g., lectures versus small group seminars or a little of both). Do full-time professors teach and advise first year students? Do you want professors to teach all your classes? Are you comfortable with the professors teaching a foundation class and students breaking up into small discussion groups led by graduate students?
* High standards often equate to higher levels of learning. Find out what standards and expectations are set by the college. Are there pass/fail options to ease the transition from high school to college? This may be particularly important for students with learning disabilities or at universities with an especially challenging curriculum.
* Frequent assessment and prompt feedback still rank among the best strategies for helping students learn. Find out how the college measures up. Do the professors provide grades, evaluative reports or both?
* Learn about how and when students can access faculty. Are there regular office hours? Are professors available after class; do they respond to email messages? How does the advising system work? Will it give you enough support to be successful?
Here are some strategies to learn more about the schools you are applying to:
* Read several guidebooks and compare reviews. If you find conflicting information, ask an undergraduate admissions officer at the college to clarify.
* Talk to advisors who know colleges well enough to add to your information base.
* Talk to students who attend the school.
* Use the web and dig deep. Go beyond the marketing of the college's website. For example, review the electronic course catalogue to gather information about the depth of course offerings in areas that interest you; check out special seminars and guest speakers; read the school's newspaper to get a feel for "hot button" issues, often reflective of student body's political and social orientation. "Google" the college and find news articles about the college.
* Email a member of the faculty who is teaching a class or doing research that interests you. Ask a well-thought out question. Do you get a response in a timely way? If you get no response at all, think carefully about applying to that school.
* Contact your regional admissions representative and ask a question or two that you could not easily find answers to yourself.
* If possible, visit the college and arrange an interview. College selection is a two-way street. If you have done your research, you will shine in the interview and learn more about the school.
Although the holidays are almost here, you still have time to follow many of these suggestions. You are going to spend at least four years at college so you should be selective. If you better understand what you are looking for in a college, you will increase your chances of acceptance. The "Why our college?" question gives you a unique opportunity to demonstrate that you and the college are a good match.
Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and certified college admissions advisor. Her goal is to help students and their families understand the admissions process, research college and career options, create a customized college list and submit a strong and cohesive application. She is familiar with local high schools and has guided three daughters through the college admissions process in addition to more than 300 clients. Dr. LaScala is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, and HECA and earned a certification in College Admissions and Career Planning from University of California at Berkeley. Contact her at (925) 891-4491 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the second in a six-week series of blogs about applying to college by admission advisor Elizabeth LaScala and Teen Wire high school senior Daniel Morizono - showing both sides of the coin, so to speak. Topics will cover everything from pressures to apply early, to parental involvement, to dealing with acceptance, rejection and the hated wait-list option.