Choosing between colleges can be a daunting task. Regardless of what admissions representatives and websites claim, you owe it to yourself to dig deep to determine what your experience will truly entail. So, whether you're still filling out college applications (yes, there are many schools still accepting applications for Fall 2016) or starting to decide between those schools to which you've been accepted, use this list of questions as a starting point to probe deep on everything from what interactions you will truly have with faculty to your experience outside the classroom.
1. How many classes will you have with more than 20 students? More than 50? More than 200? Look beyond the student:faculty ratio to learn the specifics of class sizes for the courses you intend to take during freshman year, sophomore year and beyond. Large lecture halls may look beautiful on a campus tour, but sitting in a large lecture hall is far from an engaging classroom experience. With 300-800 students in large lectures, the professor likely won't even notice if you don't show up. Smaller classes and seminars offer a much more enriching experience, and a better learning environment. We definitely went to the extreme at the Minerva Schools at KGI as lectures are banned and all classes are small with no more than 19 students. Evidence from the science of learning proves that this is the best way to learn.
2. Who will you really interact with, graduate students or professors? Colleges tout the names of their well-known faculty and Nobel Prize winners; but often, instruction and office hours are handled by graduate students. Look into who will be teaching the majority of your classes, and who will be giving you concrete feedback on your progress. Find out if the academic leaders of your university are at the top of their fields and ask how much time they spend interacting directly with students.
3. Do students get off campus and interact with the local community? Getting immersed in the city/community where the university is located is a richer experience than living within a campus bubble. Ask how students systematically get out and interact with the local community, and how they apply what they are learning in the classroom to the world outside the university. Find out if the school goes beyond the typical speaker series to coordinate interactions with government, business and cultural leaders so you get to work side-by-side with leaders to address real issues and challenges.
4. Is this a school that talks about diversity through statistics, or lives it every day? Diversity is recognized and celebrated and many schools talk about their diverse student body. Yet, filling quotas doesn't make for a balanced student body. Look into the international student population and find out how many countries are represented in the student body. Then, ask yourself if this is a place that is reflective of the world at large and one that you will operate in for the rest of your life.
5. Does this school feel like a place where you can be yourself? Friendships made during college often last a lifetime, and enrich your educational experience. Is this a school where you will feel comfortable to be yourself? Does it seem like a place where you can have your own ideas, yet be challenged to grow intellectually and think about different points of view by others with strong thoughts, ideas and beliefs? A college that will help you grow as a global citizen should allow you to get out of your comfort zone while knowing you are supported and encouraged by those around you.
Bonus question: Talk to current students at the college you are considering and ask them how many classes they have taken that were truly awesome. Have they taken classes that changed their lives? College is an incredible opportunity to immerse yourself in an environment that will push you, challenge you, inspire you and teach you to go on and do great things in our world.
They key is don't be afraid to ask tough questions and push back if you get superficial answers. Only with deep understanding can you make the choice that is right for you.