Editor’s note: A version of this column was first published on the Minerva Project blog.
In the United States, summer is time for a much-deserved school break, family vacations, and for many students — college campus tours.
In fact, some students visit so many colleges over the summer it’s dizzying. When I was an admission counselor at a university that saw more than 50,000 visitors per year, I often asked groups of students and families at our information sessions how many schools they had already visited. Usually it was a handful or two at most. But one time a girl raised her hand and had a jaw-dropping list of 35.
This is not a knock on the college tour. It can be a valuable tool in helping students decide which school is a good fit for them. But herein lies the challenge: The more schools you visit, the more they tend to sound — and look — the same. This makes it even more important to ask the right questions when you visit.
So below is a list of questions designed to get you to think more deeply about your college visit experience based on what we know at Minerva Project — flagship partner of Minerva University (CA)) — about how students learn and what skills they need to succeed in the classroom and life. These are questions you should reflect on when you return from each college tour to evaluate whether that school is a good fit and value.
1: Will I be an active participant in my own learning? It can be hard to stay engaged in 600-person lecture halls. Even if students think lectures are best, research shows otherwise — that students learn the most when they have agency over their learning and the opportunity to engage directly with the professor and other students to arrive at the right answer on their own. If you are able, get permission to sit in on a class when you are visiting campuses. Observe how students are interacting and who they are interacting with.
2: What will this school do to prepare me for the workforce (or graduate school)? Right now, you’re thinking about getting into college. But at some point you’ll be thinking about getting out of college and what’s next in your life. Employers are increasingly of the mindset that technical skills can be taught on the job, but the best candidates come to the table with “durable skills,” (also sometimes referred to as “soft” skills), such as strong leadership and communication, as well as problem-solving and critical thinking. Find out how your prospective college nurtures these competencies by chatting with professors and students, and talk to career services staff to find out how the school adapts its curricular offerings based on what employers and graduate schools are actually looking for.
3: What opportunities for hands-on learning are there? It’s no secret that students learn best by doing, not rote memorization and cramming for tests. Experiential learning allows students to apply concepts they have learned in the classroom in the real world, bridging theoretical concepts with applied practice, and therefore cementing the competencies learned. All kinds of opportunities — research, study abroad, internships, service learning projects — fall under the experiential learning umbrella. Think about at least one or two you’d like to incorporate into your college experience, and then talk to staff in that respective office to find out how students get involved.
4: Does the school embrace interdisciplinary learning? The real world does not operate in traditional academic subject silos. An interdisciplinary approach allows students to combine learning from various disciplines to come up with new ways to think about issues and solve problems. Find out what opportunities your prospective university provides for interdisciplinary learning, such as a large-scale project or thesis where you apply what you have learned from many courses to solve real-world problems.
Of course what is difficult about answering all these questions is that you’ll need to go beyond the scope of the college tour — have conversations with various people all over campus either in person or via virtual appointments or e-mail. Be a social scientist of sorts: collect your “data,” then reflect on what you’ve learned. Not only will it help you create a smarter list of colleges to which you want to apply, it will also help you hone skills that will serve you well as a student in college.
Alison Herget is a higher education program manager working on the Minerva Baccalaureate for the Minerva Project, a NACAC member. She previously served as an associate director of international admission at Villanova University (PA) and Brandeis University (MA), and as an admission officer at the Pennsylvania State University.