College ranking. It's an epidemic.
Everybody seems to have a special list. Even 60second Recap has its list. Sort of.
But, just for now, ignore those lists. Forget about every college ranking you've seen.
The only college ranking that matters is the one you've never seen. The college ranking you're about to create.
Welcome to Step Three. Here's where you pare down your initial college list and rank the remaining schools in order of interest. Let’s discuss the resources that will help you do that.
You’ve probably turned to a few different sources of information as you’ve compiled your list of potential “perfect” schools. Perhaps you’ve used a college guide. Maybe you’ve visited the websites of schools that have piqued your interest. Perhaps you’ve turned to a guidance counselor at your high school, or to the informational tours offered by nearby colleges.
All of those resources—especially in some combination—can provide a good starting point for a college list. By now, you’ve surely compiled one with some choices you find attractive: schools that match your academic interests, offer appealing extracurriculars, and fit the bill both location- and finances-wise.
So how do you determine which of the fifteen schools with stellar economics programs are the best possible places for you?
As I tell my students, Step Three is really about the “feel” of a place. Because in the end, finding the right college match isn’t just about good programs, or facilities that will support your research. It’s about where you feel like you fit in. Where you feel at home.
I’ll get into college visits in a later step. But here’s the condensed version:
If there are a few schools you’re able to see during this early stage of the process, in-person visits certainly don’t hurt. My recommendation, though, is to be strategic about your visiting. Especially if you’re on a budget—or you’re only able to visit a few schools for whatever reason—save the visits until the end, after you’ve been accepted. Then, attend an accepted students’ weekend. Those are, by far, the most effective way to get a sense of a school and whether or not it’s a good match.
At this stage, you’re actually better off using resources that are a lot less expensive (and in some cases, free!) to begin eliminating schools that might seem like a match on paper but just don’t have the right “feel” to be a fit. Below, I’ll walk you through each of these resources and their uses—including one that’s so simple and effective, but which almost no one talks about.
Your College Ranking System: Resource List
The Best College Guide: Fiske Guide to Colleges
Why do I love Fiske? It gets back to my favorite Step Three word: FEEL. More so than any other college guide I’ve used, Fiske goes beyond statistics, details about the college’s amenities, and information about the most popular majors. Fiske Guide to Colleges presents the insider’s view of about 300 institutions, with quotes and information sourced from current students that give a sense of the school’s student body, social life, campus culture, learning environment, and more.
That doesn’t mean that Fiske doesn’t offer those crucial details about acceptance rates, best academic departments, and so on. It does. It even sets those key data points off in handy boxes, so you can take in the information at a glance. But what Fiske really has going for it is the way it telegraphs a school’s feel.
In short, Fiske offers a helpful perspective on its colleges’ personalities. Is XX College a place for free spirits? Fiske will tell you. Is YY College a school for kids who want to study hard but party harder? Fiske will let you know.
As I said, Fiske is hardly exhaustive. But if nothing else, checking out a few of the school profiles it offers will help you figure out what kinds of questions to ask about the other colleges on your list.
Your Window on the College World: Videos of Current Students
Yes, there’s a lot of highly-produced video propaganda coming out of most colleges these days. And it all features laughing students, footage of intense classroom discussions, and glossy shots of the college’s most idyllic scenes. But that’s not the only video that colleges are producing. Go to the Facebook page of many institutions, click on “videos,” and you’ll find surprising insight into real students and a slightly more realistic sense of the college’s environment.
Take Colby College, for example. Their Facebook page offers a handful of “high-budget” videos, showcasing the college’s best attributes. But scroll down further and you’ll find things like short videos of students who are spending their summer on the Colby College campus. Speaking extemporaneously, these students offer a glimpse of the kinds of peers you’ll actually find at Colby. You get a sense of their personality, some of their reasons for attending the school, and a perspective on the kinds of students who thrive at Colby.
Video footage is, at best, a glimpse into the “feel” of a college and its student body. But it’s a free resource you should definitely take advantage of, and which can be the next best thing to satisfying your curiosity about a school in person.
They’re Waiting to Hear From You: College Admissions Officers
College Admissions officers want to hear from you. And frankly, you want to hear from them. Not because hearing from them necessarily demonstrates legitimate interest in you as a candidate (sorry). But because consciously or not, admissions officers can really telegraph something about the feel and attitude of a school.
Take the case of one of my students, who interviewed with an admissions officer at a fairly competitive college. Although her interview went fine, she was completely turned off by the attitude of the admissions officer. Sure, he may have just been having a bad day. But she felt he telegraphed certain things about the school’s personality and focus that she found incredibly unappealing. Later, contact with a student from the school seemed to confirm her worst suspicions. She didn’t end up applying.
There’s the flip side of that as well. Another student fell in love with a college after being treated to a wonderful phone conversation with an admissions officer who was bubbly, enthusiastic, helpful, and well-spoken. As it turned out, this particular officer was also an alumna of the college. My student was immediately drawn in by the “feel” this admissions officer conveyed, and she went on to apply.
Even if you don’t get a strong sense—one way or the other—about a college from being in touch with an admissions officer, you should still consider these individuals a valuable resource. Not only can they provide you with a sense of the school, but they can also connect you with alums or current students, who are available for further conversation. Best of all, this resource is another that’s completely free.
The Amazing Free Resource No One Talks About: College Course Catalogs
Speaking of free, I’ve saved the best for last. While Fiske, current students, and admissions officers can offer a sense of a school’s culture and overall environment, this resource will take you deep into its academic departments. Is a school really as strong in English, or Accounting, or Women’s Studies as it purports to be? Check out the college’s course catalog to find out.
That’s what I did for one of my students, who felt strongly that she wanted to pursue a degree in English. The thing was, she told me, she was tired of “traditional” English courses—in other words, standard classes on American and British literature. She wanted the opportunity to read literature by a wide variety of writers writing from a wide variety of backgrounds.
So I took her college list and began Googling the name of the school + “course catalog.” Once there, I navigated to the section with English courses and began investigating.
While there were other factors that helped this particular student narrow down the schools on her initial list, it turned out that my deep dive into each school’s course catalog may have been the biggest determining factor in the compiling of her final list. We ruled out a handful of schools with English departments that were mind-numbingly traditional. We knocked one school off the list, because while it had a good variety of classes, my student felt that its requirements for the major were completely stifling. One school rose to the top because of its “real world” English classes, including opportunities to learn about editing and publishing.
I won’t lie: Taking a deep dive into the course catalogs of a dozen schools is time-consuming. But the feel it will give you for a school’s academic departments, and the creativity of its teaching staff, is an invaluable tool in your college search toolkit. And like I said: It will help you narrow down your college list without costing you a dime.