Don't judge a college by its cover | April 3, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - April 3, 2009

Don't judge a college by its cover

by Maria Shen

No one really wants to say they judge by first impressions. Unfortunately, most do. At least, I did. When it comes to people, I at least try to look beneath the surface. When it comes to colleges, it is harder for me to realize that, like people, they too have more than just their rankings. As I talk to any upperclassmen about college, they inevitably say, "It's really not about the college standing - it's about finding the right fit."

Fit: it's a word I hear a lot when it comes to colleges. What is "fit" and how do you find the right one? That's the question for which I can never get a straight answer.

Some tell me it's an instinctive feeling. You just know that you've found the fit when you step on the right college campus. Others rely on more empirical evidence. They are the ones who tell me to maximize my higher education by finding the school that is both economical to go to and offers the right amount of grade inflation to get me into grad school. Neither advice has done me any good.

So, take it from a person who's going through the process right now. Don't rely too much on college pamphlets, Web sites, or word of mouth. Go visit the college. And by "visit" I don't mean go to the campus, take a few pictures with statues, and get a tour. "Visit" means staying overnight. Many colleges have programs where prospective students are paired with a student host. You can stay overnight with them, eat at the campus dining halls, have them show you the campus hotspots and nightlife, and, of course, you can sit in on one of their classes.

I can't emphasize enough the sway current students have over me when I visit a college. They give me the run-down on the college, usually very fairly assessing its pros and cons. They speak from experience, warning me about certain professors or certain bad residence halls. They also alert me of the good stuff I never considered.

For example, one of the colleges I visited had a thriving underground movie-download network. Illegal? Yes. Good for dorm get togethers? Yep. Also, I see potential downsides to the daily life of the college I'm considering. In some residence halls it's impossible to get a cell phone signal and students have to run outside to make a call. Naturally, these aren't the details that make or break a college. However, the commitment of having to dedicate the next four years of my life to the same place does make me want to find out as much as I can before I make my final choice.

One of the most important reasons for the college visit is that it usually leads to a change of heart. I have come to love colleges I wasn't even considering before. On paper, I was not highly impressed by some of the smaller schools to which I applied. They seemed provincial and isolated compared to some of the universities close to busy cities. After visiting, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant atmosphere I found, the friendly faces, and the sheer diversity on campus.

I write this column on the computer of my host's roommate at a small college in Southern California. Later, I'm going to sit in on an International Political Economy class since I've told my host I'm interested in studying International Relations. Afterwards, I'm going to a psychology class, for which I'm told the professor is hilarious. For two days here, I'm able to experience the life of a college student. And I've learned more from staying here than from all the college information I've read, all the Web sites I've visited, and all the current students I've Facebooked.

It seems too obvious to say that one can find out the most about a college by visiting, but so many people make their decisions without ever setting foot on campus. Most people love the campuses they end up at regardless, but going on college visits made me realize just how many excellent schools I would have overlooked. So, a word from the wise(ish): During spring break, go visit as many colleges as you can and make the visits productive by staying overnight, sitting in on classes, and getting a student to give you a personal tour.

Maria Shen, reporting on Generation Y, is a senior at Monte Vista High School. She founded Contra Costa County's Young Bohemians creative writing club and is editor of Voicebox, a literary magazine. E-mail her at