What to look for in a college?

Your fellow readers have some good advice for high-school students.

Photo by Tom Cogill.

Photo by Tom Cogill.

I would recommend students look for a college that not only offers a degree in their targeted field, but courses in their “dream” career. For example, I took classes at U.Va. with an eye toward becoming a zoologist. But I also took creative writing courses. I ended up going on to get an interdisciplinary master’s degree in communications and creative writing and becoming a freelance writer. Now, years later, I've expanded into fiction writing and have my first comic romantic suspense novel (“At Her Command”) on the shelf. U.Va. gave me a taste of my dream career and the confidence to pursue it!
Marcia Anderson (aka Marcia James) (History ’75)

Look for a college where the professors can teach you integrity by their actions as well as the skills you will need for your career. Look for a college where the students have ambitions similar to yours — each person’s strengths can contribute to your overall growth as a person and as a scholar.
Melissa Cook (MS Accounting ’99)

What to look for in a college? 
A community of learners that you want to become a part of and that will become a part of you.
Bill Lipscomb (History ’82)

For undergraduate study, I would recommend that high-school students seek out universities or colleges that provide entering students the opportunity to work closely with their professors. Additionally, these students should look for institutions with a structured/prescribed and ongoing induction/support program for new college students.
Tracey Flemings (History, Government ’94)

Looking back from the middle of the Ph.D., my advice is: you can get a good education anywhere if you really want to. It doesn’t matter that much. Stop stressing. When you visit the school, look for a place where the students are serious but don’t all look stressed and constipated, where the faculty are friendly and willing to talk to you, where the general requirements are minimal, and where the libraries have wonderful oddities hidden in deeply buried shelves. I found U.Va. met these criteria well — but only because I was Echols. The general studies requirements were otherwise too heavy for a degree in hard science.
Frederick Ross (Physics, Mathematics ’05)

I would tell a high-school student to look for the characteristics that fit themselves and not just go for what everyone else is looking for. I knew many people who just applied wherever the “in crowd” was applying. They ended up transferring or not doing well. You really need to look for a place that suits you, a place where you can call home for the next four years of your life. Think about what you want to study, what interests you and what/where you are most comfortable with, and go from there. Areas of study, academic opportunities, up-to-date technology courses and tools, atmosphere and extracurricular activities were all factors in my college choice. The University of Virginia definitely fit the mold. :-)
Laura Dornan Frick (Economics ’05)

I would tell students to ask the following when seeking college admission:
What is the professor-to-student ratio during freshman year classes? How many graduate students teach freshman classes?
How does the college handle drug and alcohol abuse and date rape on campus?
How rigorous is the academic study in electives outside of your major area of interest?
How does the college handle race relations when prejudicial incidents arise on campus and/or in the dorms?
What type of career placement options occur for students who do not maintain a 3.5 to 4.0 GPA?
What is the mission of your university? How successful are you in retaining college loyalty among your graduates?
Shawn Grain Carter (English, Afro-American and African Studies ’82)

Look for a college that will challenge you academically and personally, has several strong core academic departments and has a healthy mix of in-state vs. out-of-state students. Visit the college if you can — you should feel like you want to be there. Look for a college that can provide — if you want it — the full college “experience.” This includes collegiate athletics (that you can root for), intramural sports (that you can participate in), organizations and clubs (that you can join), or simply the academic environment and course of study you want to pursue but not at the expense of being unable to change your mind and select another major or degree. In the end, it comes down to getting the degree you want and from an institution whose reputation reinforces the value of your diploma. College is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and expensive investment that truly pays off. Don’t waste both!
Samuel A. Roth (History ’80)

Having gone through this drill not too long ago with my son (who is now a college sophomore), I feel fairly well prepared to answer. The student needs to decide on some basic criteria for schools: large/medium/small; coed or primarily single-sex; urban/suburban/rural; geographical area of interest; level of competitiveness for admission. Having decided on at least most of these criteria, whittle these down and start visiting, using something like the U.S. News book as a guide. We found in our visit to 12 colleges — U.Va. unfortunately not among them since my son wanted to attend a smaller school — that you really do have to visit and talk with as many people as possible to see what the school is like. One thing we always did was to pick up copies of the student newspaper to see what students seemed to be concerned about. You can also get a measure of the conservative-liberal direction of the school by what's on the bulletin boards. A small college that offers “The Vagina Monologues” is probably not too conservative. Bottom line is that my son chose a small comprehensive college in Pennsylvania barely a three hours’ drive from our home in Northern Virginia and has been quite happy and academically successful there. The small size of the college means that every one of his professors is a real credentialed academic, and he has gotten to travel to Japan with the professor who teaches him Japanese in a class of eight.
James T. Currie (MA History ’69, PhD ’75)

Many people have a tendency to view colleges and universities as being mere stepping stones that will open doors to future endeavors and so they choose to study at an institution that they believe will open the most doors. While it may be impossible to not contemplate such a factor in the decision-making process, high-school students should not have such a narrow view when deciding where they will be spending four years of their lives. When I was at U.Va., I never viewed my educational experience as a means to end, but rather, it truly was an end in itself. High-school students should try and find an institution that will not only challenge them academically and prepare them for the future; they should also look for a school that fosters an environment that makes just being there worthwhile.
Kevin Hakala (Slavic, Government ’06, Law ’09)

Late last winter and early spring, my husband Frederic (Darden ’79) and I spent many days with our then-11th grade daughter, touring college campuses all over New England and the South. We had thorough and exhaustive trips. As we were pulling out of Charlottesville, she began to describe what it would be like “when I come here next fall.” Over the next several months, as we discussed her options, she would always return to the thought of U.Va. Despite my stellar role as devil’s advocate, pointing out potential strengths of other institutions to ensure she had covered all the bases, she never wavered from her vision. Finally I asked how she was so sure. Her response: “Because it just felt right. Everything felt right: the academics, the students, the Grounds, the school spirit, the social life, the size. It all just FELT right.” She applied early decision and will matriculate this fall.
So, my advice (and I am sure she would agree) is to make sure it just “feels right.”
Laura L. Light Guyonneau (Art History, French ’78)
 
I told my kids (one a sophomore at Colgate — the other will begin first year in August at the U) two things:
1) “It doesn’t matter where you go — what matters is what you do when you get there.” 
2) “Pick a school that radiates enthusiasm, pride and school spirit — you will never go wrong.”
Kit Henningsen (Spanish ’74)        
 
I am a fourth-year student graduating in May. With graduation getting closer every day, I would have to suggest that high-school students keep their eyes open for every opportunity that arises while they are in college. While you may be set on one course when you start as a freshman or first-year, there are so many people, groups and activities along the way that may steer you in a completely different, yet just as successful, direction by the time you graduate. Keep your eyes, ears and, most importantly, your mind open and you will do great!
Nick Surace (History ’07)

Figure out what your two favorite academic areas are (math? French?) and also figure out two things that are really important to you besides academics (student government? nice weather?). Then look for colleges that are particularly strong in both your academic and your non-academic areas. Once you find some of those, look at the size of the student body and the location. Where would you be happiest? Do not worry about the cost. Let the financial aid office and your parents figure out whether you can afford to attend. Your job is to figure out which college best matches your interests and preferences.
Susan Sockwell Bendlin (French, Speech Communications ’76)

All I would recommend is “go with your gut instinct.” All the colleges I was applying to had good academics, so I truly believe that I would have done fine career-wise with a degree from any of the schools I was considering. But when it came down to making that final choice, I had to visit each one (some more than once, at different times in my decision process), and just live the life of a typical student at that university, and see whether it appealed to me. Everyday life at U.Va. seemed so vibrant, with a smart, busy and happy student population. There were dozens of choices of extracurricular activities and a real diversity of students. I couldn’t have known that from an admissions booklet, or any number of recommendations from other people. I had to go see it for myself and visualize myself spending the next four years of my life there.
Beth Darrow Condon (Biology, Environmental Sciences ’01)

I tell them to look for a good school that is also a good fit. The good school part is obvious. The good fit part means a place that they like, has programs that interest them and where they think they will be happy and do well.
Dan Cusick (Economics ’70)

I would tell a high school student to look for a place he can study AND play AND relax. A challenging school with a good social scene and good spots to just relax are all essential.
Jarrod Boitet (College ’10)

All the myriad of things the University of Virginia represents.
Bert Sadtler (History ’51)

Picking a college depends on many things — financial situation, distance, academic ability and more. A few other intangibles to think about when deciding on your institution of higher learning:
1) Actual location. Are you seeking a city to explore or a secluded setting to provide adventures in nature? Colleges range across the spectrum, with some allowing accessibility to both urban and country areas. You should be able to walk around grounds and enjoy yourself.
2) Purpose. Why do people attend that particular university? Some places offer competitive programs and intense academics; others emphasize the “college experience,” and some institutions are merely adult day care centers.
3) Activities/organizations. Does the college have varsity sports teams, Greek life, student clubs, athletic facilities, etc that appeal to your personal interests?
These are just a few of many things to consider when picking a college; a student-led tour and then a personal walk around the grounds can provide information that might not be found in a university publication.
Thomas Christopher Rooney (Classics ’08)

Go to a college where you feel comfortable and at home when you visit.
John T. Fisher (History ’86)
 
Look at the extracurricular activities offered at a college. A lot of times people down play the importance of extracurricular activities, but a lot of times this is where students gain leadership experience and figure out what they may be interested in as far as a career.
Crystal Turner (Psychology ’07)

A good sign in looking for school: somewhere where you can visit without your parents and still feel at home.
Nancy Louise Funkhouser (Government ’07)

When I was visiting colleges, my parents would stop students on every tour at every university to ask them what they thought about their college/university. While at the time, I was mortified, and didn’t want others to know who I belonged to, the information gained in these embarrassing encounters turned out to be invaluable. We received many different responses, and I ended up at the school where every student we stopped was passionate about their university and excited to talk about their experience.
Katherine Alford (Economics ’01, MEd Counselor Education ’06)

I would tell a high-school student: Find a college that you feel is a place where you can grow academically, socially and personally. You want a university where you’re excited to get involved and interested in the classes/majors, extracurricular activities and opportunities that are offered. It’s important to find a college that makes you feel comfortable and gives you the sense that you will grow as an individual while being there!
Paige Davis (Psychology ’04)

I would tell a high-school student to attend a non-first-year class of less than 50 students and to see if the students ask questions in the classroom. If they don’t there’s probably little faculty-student interaction outside of the classroom, a big red flag about the quality of education that department offers. And of course talking with a few students in that major about such things would certainly be a great idea!
Clairette Angeli (Chemistry ’08)

First, I’d tell them to look at college from the point of view of the future. Did I get a solid education that furthered me not just in the job market but in my interests and pastimes? Did I have incredible fun without having to get bailed out of jail or do something I would be horrified to tell my parents or my kids? Did I make friends (and perhaps even a spouse) with whom I keep in touch and treasure as those who can keep my most intimate secrets? Did I go to a school that I would be proud to visit repeatedly AND to have my children consider for the same experience in 20-30 years? Would I be proud to say, without the slightest hesitation, that I went to [U.Va.] to anyone who asked?
I can honestly say that U.Va. satisfies all of these questions for me AND my wife of 33 years. Proud to be still in Virginia. And, oh yes, thanks for askin.’
Spencer Brudno, M.D. (College ’73)

If I had to tell a high-school student what to look for in a college, I would say that it would be that intangible (and at times inexplicable) feeling you get from being on the campus/Grounds and around the students and professors of that institution. If you are not drawn into the atmosphere, respected as a thinking being, challenged to explain yourself or excited to be there, then you should reconsider that place as the destination for your next four years. I hope this advice helps in the arduous process that is college decisions.
Era Kryzhanovskaya (College ’09)

As I just happen to have a son who applied to colleges this year ... I would tell them the importance of visiting, because reading about a college and seeing pictures online is just not the same as being there. I would tell them to look for a place that has a good program in what they are interested in but that will also give them many other avenues to explore. Sometimes what we think we want to study can change a lot. Finally, look for a place where diversity is celebrated, where one is free to be themselves, not forced to follow the crowd. We looked at lots of schools in Virginia ... there is really no place quite like U.Va. :))
Amy B. Jones (Psychology ’83)

College is a place, where one learns to challenge the status quo. It is in college one discovers one’s true self, their being, the purpose in life that one has. When looking at a college, picture yourself, 10, 20 or 30 years from now, and ask yourself, do I want to be a part of the world, or do I want to stand out and change the world, make the world a better place, and contribute my thoughts, my ideas, my very being to society. Every place fits for someone, look at the world, and ask yourself, where do I want to start changing the world, and am I in the right place, will I be provided with the right guidance and tools to undertake and accomplish this goal.
Ronald Beavers (College ’09)

In a word, I would tell high-school students to look for “fit” in their college. In order to do this I would tell them that they must first know themselves, what is important to them, where do they see themselves in 5-10 years, and what it is that gets them excited (or turned off). I believe that if they will go through this self-discovery first, then finding a college that “fits” their needs, desires and location is a much easier task with a great chance at success. If they don’t know themselves, then they might as well just use a dartboard!
David Underhill (History ’82)

Look for the freedom and flexibility in a college. After being directed for so many years in high schools, it’s time for you to choose your own lifestyle!
Lau Crystal
 
Quite simply, I would tell them to ask the school, “who is your customer.”
I have attended classes at a number of schools and have degrees from two other universities besides U.Va, and none of the others focused on their true customers ... the students.
Without going into too much detail, the faculty at the other institutions were so wrapped up in their own research and the department leaders were focused on getting additional funding (NIH, CDC, etc) to expand their departments that they could not be “bothered” by the students. At U.Va, the entire staff (from the admins on up) were always willing to help me whenever I had questions or needed assistance, and moreover they did it with a smile or a cordial voice over the phone.
Paul Groniger (ME Chemical Engineering ’00)

I would firstly ask the student about any career aspirations that he might already have. He might then consider a school where a co-op program is offered so that he might make very wise decisions as to his major as well as the choice of courses to be taken. I think that alternating between in-class learning and on-the-job training can be an invaluable experience coupling the pursuit of academic knowledge with the working world. This sort of program can do wonders for a student’s self confidence and can also help steer him towards a career field in a more concrete way. Students who have already had some good first experiences in this kind of work environment also seem to have an enlightened view on the value of the education that they receive in the classroom.
Grace Winston Robinson Vernaton (French, Asian and Mid-Eastern Languages and Cultures ’87)

Real contact with professors who actually have time to talk with you and provide some level of mentoring.
I am not sure how a high-school student can find this out. College recruiters are like salesmen and may tell the student candidate what the student candidate wants to hear.
That faculty-student real interaction is so important (for many students), and hopefully is not defined by professors who simply present topics. Sometimes, grad student-teachers are superior TEACHERS and mentors compared with full professors, simply because they (grad student-teachers) are accessible to undergrads.
A high-school student is often immature, bewildered and feels intimidated during first semester. Frankly that is the attraction that many small and less prestigious colleges have. The student may have a superior experience with a small college. In retrospect, our older son went to U.Va. and was not happy (he was immature, bewildered and intimidated) for two years. Our younger son went to U.Va. and did very well — the difference was in the student. Our younger son ... and I (as undergrad) were determined to succeed anywhere … and we did.
Val Mathews (Physics ’60)

My advice to high-school students for what to look for in a college has always been: 1. start with your interests, i.e., make sure the schools offer what you are even considering studying; 2. consider the lifestyle you want to lead as far as population, setting, sports/activities, etc. for the next 4-5 years of your life; 3. forget reputations; any school can be what you make it (a party school, a place to excel, etc.). I think we put too much pressure and emphasis on students to get into the “right” school and miss the fact that there are honestly hundreds of schools that offer an excellent education and prepare students for the future.
Rachel Wilson (Psychology, MT Social Studies Education ’94)

The best advice that was given to me and that I pass along to future college students is to visit the colleges that you are seriously considering, if possible without your parents. After that, just go with your gut. I was all set to go to another distinguished Southern university, which I will leave unnamed, until I visited the University of Virginia. The moment I set foot on the Lawn, I knew I was home. I have never once regretted my decision. Sometimes instinct is indeed our most valuable asset.
Karen Anderson Singleton, M.D. (Economics ’93)

Three things matter in the college or university you choose:
1. Its commitment to secularity, meaning to science in that field.
2. The quality of the minds you will be guided by in your major field.
3. How clearly you know what that field will be, so that you can take the right courses for your major, and the right courses in addition.
Deprived of any one of these components, you are likely to have a frustrating and otherwise unsatisfactory experience for four years; if half your courses at a college or university are taught well, you will be fortunate and probably ultimately satisfied.
It is the department’s minds who matters, their commitment to intellectual clarity, I suggest, far more than the whole; but in regard to the whole, the intellectual commitment to realism will matter to you, in everything from day-to-day interpersonal experiences and rules of interconnectedness on campus to the justice of the grades you receive and the usefulness of the instructional experience to your planned long-term future.
Robert M. Cerello (MA ’66)

My advice to high-school students would be fourfold: I would say that during the college process you should find a good group of schools and not look at the sports teams, or at where your friends are going, or at the party scene, but rather you should look at yourself, realize that college will be a blast no matter where you are, so long as you are willing to be open with yourself and with others, and choose a college by what you want, I would say that, while the stated purpose for going to college is learning, in the end, learning takes a backseat to personal growth and that it is important to not forget this. I would say that wherever you end up going to college it is important to immerse yourself not only in the culture and life of the college but also in the culture and life of the surrounding community, and perhaps most importantly I would say don’t get so caught up in your studies or your fraternity or your club or whatever that you forget to live.
Heyward Grimball (College ’10)

Having just had a daughter drop out of college, I’d be adamant that any college applicant get and digest that college’s course offerings, literally to the extent of plotting out four years of course selection! I realize that this may sound overly ambitious, but for most colleges it is merely “doing diligence.” My experience indicates that many schools allow more and more of their faculty to teach a favorite subject; that subject is becoming more esoteric each year, and often contributes very little to what might be described as a well rounded education! Example: my daughter decided to leave school to take a 12-week cooking course at Bally Maloe outside Cork, Ireland; the owner is billed as Ireland's answer to Martha Stewart. I asked that she carefully check her course catalog before she left to know what work she’d need to do to finish her degree upon returning. Read: pick your courses! Then I did the same. Much to my surprise, there was no way I could find two and a half years of courses that I thought she might find interesting AND worthy! The catalogue was filled with professor's favorites: too much exotica! Fortunate result: she has found she loves cooking, particularly pastry work, and is headed to pastry school.

In parallel, I find many college applicants appear to have no idea what they want to do with their life after college. By asking the applicant to choose a course of study ahead of time, recognizing many will alter their selections, I am hoping to truly force thought about the future to the fore.

So the real message to students is that they go into each new course with the clear understanding that they are searching for exciting subject matter worthy of a lifetime of endeavor.
Bruce McPherson (Art History, ’61)

A&S Online, April 25, 2007