Friday, May 30, 2008
Educated Advice Columnist
Before starting the pilgrimage this summer to potential colleges, I have some suggestions to make that will save you time and money.
First, do some homework. Forget the “walking” tour and get online and take a virtual tour of the campus if all you want to see are the buildings and the physical layout of the university.
Or ask your high school counselor for a brochure. They are particularly adept at handing out brochures.
Next, log on to the campus student newspaper. They usually have the crime figures on campus and other information that you won’t find in the admissions office. The student newspaper is also one of the best places to get a feel for the nuts and bolts of campus life — social, cultural, political and job recruiting.
Once you’ve done your “pre-campus” research, it’s time to pare down that list of colleges to visit to no more than three or four.
And forget about visiting more than two of them in any one day. Unless the colleges are within a short driving distance of each other, it is almost impossible to glean much useful information on a blitzkrieg tour.
The most you can expect is a canned presentation from the admissions office. Don’t expect them to tell you it takes the average student six years to graduate or that the English class you’ve taken as a chemistry major is not transferable to other departments within the university, much less to other universities, so plan on draining your IRA and 529 account.
But there are other ways to find out about these things. Start with a strategic plan.
I would start by contacting a student who is staying on campus this summer — preferably one from your hometown. Tell him you would like to visit the campus and have him or her give you a guided tour. Inform him that a swanky steak dinner awaits the lucky guide. (Students are always hungry.)
And, ask him to bring along a friend for company. That way you get an additional point of view.
Most students will jump at the opportunity. They will tell you all you need to know, plus a few things that parents never heard about.
A college guide will show you the important things such as where students spend the bulk of their time — the dorms, cafeterias, libraries, Starbucks and bookstores.
Ask them about the social and intellectual life on campus. Ask them about the classes they are currently taking (or took) and what classes and which professors to avoid like the plague in the freshman year.
If you visit the admissions office, lay it on them hard. Ask them about the quality of the science programs, grad school prospects, percentages of graduates who go on to professional schools — law, business, medical — and have them name those schools.
How many graduates went to Harvard Law School from their school? If they don’t have the numbers, that will tell you something in itself — they don’t track the most important data on their graduates.
Set up a meeting with a noted professor in your field of interest. Call the department secretary for assistance.
Next, if you are really smart, you will sit in on a class and get a feel for the college lecture. Check the campus bookstore for a list of classes, or call the various departments that interests you (e.g. physics, math) and ask the secretary for a list of current classes and where they are being held.
This is important because class schedules change at the last minute. Be sure to get the name of the building, classroom number and date and time of lecture.
Visit the campus bookstore. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Introductory classes are generally taught by more than one professor, each with a different teaching style, course requirements (written tests vs. doing a term paper, or a combination thereof).
Above all, check out the book list the professor assigns. Boring books mean boring professors.
Or if they teach English, history or philosophy, watch out for the anal retentives who use a single textbook. The better professors in the liberal arts or social sciences use several books rather than a single textbook edited by committee.
When you get home, use the Internet to Google and find a review/summary of the books being assigned and do a background check on the professor — is he left wing/right wing in his social and political views? (You want an “A,” don’t you?)
You can also get a feel for his biases by the information on his vita and a list of papers and books that he has published.
If he is a member of Amnesty International, for example, you can be sure he will not take kindly to a paper that stresses law and order in Third World countries.
The more you know about the professor, the greater your chances are of getting a better grade. His book lists, grade requirements and vita are a window into his value system.
Smart kids from rich prep schools such as where John Kerry and George W. Bush matriculated — Phillips Academy, Andover — already know how to evaluate the system and arrive on campus with an edge.
Public school kids need to start thinking about the politics of education in addition to their normal studies. Doing your homework before starting your tour means you will know what to look for when visiting the campus.
Doing your follow-up homework when you return means that no matter where you decide to attend college, you will have the advantage.
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