College Search: Researching Schools
College fairs can be useful because they allow you to talk to admissions representatives from numerous colleges in one location in a short period of time. They're usually held at high schools or large conference spaces and typically take place during the spring for juniors and in the fall for seniors.
Because there's so much going on at these fairs and many pieces of information to collect, it's important to prepare beforehand and go in with a strategy. If you don't, it's all too easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle.
Before You Go
- Get a list of the colleges that will be represented and decide which you'd like to visit. Then, do some preliminary research about these schools before you go--this way you can ask the representatives informed questions.
- Get a layout of the fair and map out your route. Figure out how many tables you want to visit and in what order you'll see them. Make sure you leave time for just hanging around and browsing a bit.
- Get a schedule of any information sessions. These usually cover topics like the application process, financial aid, and other things to help you in your college search.
- Come up with a list of questions to ask. Try to think of questions that can't be answered from reading about the schools. Don't ask: "What majors do you offer?"--you can easily find this out in a guidebook or online. Instead, you could ask about specific courses that you'd take as part of a major and what the professors are like within that major.
- Your list of questions.
- A large bag for all the material you'll be collecting.
- A notebook and pen so that after you leave a table, you can write down your impressions before going on to the next one. If you don't write things down immediately, the schools may all start to blend together.
- A bunch of self-adhesive address labels so that you don't have to keep filling out your name again and again at every table.
- Your parents. If one of your parents comes with you, you should plan a strategy together. If you have a lot of territory to cover and you're worried about time, you can split up. One of you could go to an information session while the other goes to the college tables. Sticking together can be useful, too. Sometimes your parents will ask questions that hadn't occurred to you.
The most popular rankings are probably America's Best Colleges put out by U.S. News and World Report. Rankings tell you how schools measure up to one another, both overall and in terms of particular departments. They can be a good starting point in your search. For example, if you know you want to go to a school with a good anthropology department, you can consult the rankings to see which schools are the best in this area. It's a lot easier than randomly investigating colleges that might not even have this as a major. You may even come across schools that hadn't occurred to you.
College rankings are also useful to get an idea about admission difficulty and where you stand compared to the average student at the school. They tell you about acceptance and retention rates, test scores of entering students, and overall student-body demographics.
It's important to realize the limitations of rankings. Much more than just academic strength goes into a ranking--the level of alumni donations, for example--so just because a school is ranked in the top ten overall doesn't mean that its academics alone are top-ten quality. Also, overall rankings don't tell you much about specific departments. Even if a school is not ranked highly, it might have several strong majors, and if these majors are what you're looking for, it would be a shame to discount the school.
Don't read too much into the "US News Top 50" college rankings--they don't mean that much. Read guidebooks that talk about what the colleges are really like. Then you can decide which ones are right for you.
How much attention you should pay to college rankings is a point of contention--some people think a lot, some people think less. Our main advice here is to consider rankings as just another piece of information about a college: Don't rely on them too much, but don't ignore them either.
More on: Applying to College
From Choose the Right College and Get Accepted: How to Choose the Right College and Get in to Your Dream School by Students Helping Students. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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