Finding the best college: 3 questions to ask

by Interim VP and Dean of Admission Mary Randers,

  • Student giving a tour of campus

As admission officers, we constantly field questions from you and love to help. However, some of the most common questions may not lead to the answers you need. 

So, we’re providing a few alternative approaches to our most popular inquiries — we believe this will help better distinguish which college may be the best fit for you. 

Question 1

Most common question: “Do you have a (fill in academic interest) major?”

Better: What can you tell me about studying (academic interest) at your college?

Even better: When students study (academic interest) at your college, what are some of the distinctive experiences available to them? Common internships? What do alumni who studied (academic interest) commonly do after graduation?

Avoid the typical “yes/no” answer and truly find out what may be interesting about that institution compared to others. Colleges that can talk about distinctive courses or specific research and study abroad opportunities will tell you more about your own possibilities than those who simply confirm a major. 

How well admission officers answer that question also may speak to whether they know their students — will you be known or will you be a number?

Question 2

Most common question: “How much does it cost to go to your school?”

Better: “What types of aid are offered at your institution? What is the average debt upon graduation for alumni?”

Even better: “Cost will be an important part of my college decision. How does your college approach financial aid? Are there any special scholarship opportunities I should look into?”

Total tuition and fees rarely reveal the real cost of attendance at a college. Each family’s  concerns about aid and ability to afford college are unique. So, even if you find out the average financial aid award at a college’s institution, this rarely paints the full picture. 

Often, the average aid award listed on websites works out to be about 50% of the cost of attendance because of variances in award packages from family to family. But other data is more telling, such as: 

  • The average debt a family has to take out over four years
  • The percentage of financial need a college meets
  • Whether special or outside scholarships can be stacked instead of replacing merit aid

College representatives want to make sure you understand the investment in your education. More often than not, they’ll work with you — especially if their school is the best academic and social fit — to make it financially feasible. If you walk away after hearing the tuition and fees alone, you’re missing out not only on more potential aid, but also the right college for you. 

Question 3 

Most common question: “Where is your college located?”

Better: “What do students do on the weekends?”

Even better: “What is life like for students outside of the classroom?  What do students like most about living in (college city)? What do they complain about?”

Life outside the classroom is important to your overall college experience. You’re going to spend the next four years of your life at this college — access to things that matter the most to you will matter a lot in finding the right place to call home. 

Finding out where a college is located — regardless if it’s Los Angeles, California or Vermillion, South Dakota — does not tell you how that campus engages with their own community and the surrounding environment. Do students live on campus or commute in? Will the location allow you to continue pursuing your love of music, the outdoors or community service? Is it easy to get home for the holidays? 

Answers from admission officers can be very telling about the campus climate, but if you get a chance, a visit is best. Prioritize the information you want to gather beforehand then spend time on campus and hang out where the students do. Observe whether they’re enjoying the campus, if they seem to look out for one another and if the campus and surrounding area offers what you need to maintain a good quality of life. 

The only bad questions are the ones you don’t ask. Follow-up if an admission counselor doesn’t provide the information you need — they’ll be happy to answer your question. We all work in college admission because we love talking to students.

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