Top Questions for Your Prospective Colleges
Caught up in the throes of the college search process, most teens are far more worried about what their prospective colleges might ask them in an admissions interview than what they, as a prospective student, should be asking of the school’s representatives. We encourage our clients to flip this mindset 180 degrees and shine the interrogation light squarely in the eyes of the admissions rep. After all, you are the desirable high school junior/senior with awesome grades in rigorous courses, stellar SAT scores, and list of extracurricular activities and have fully earned the right to be a discerning customer. Additionally, it is your family/your future self (in the form of loans) that will likely be paying the university more than $250,000 for the privilege of gracing their campus.
What follows are examples of the types of tough questions that we recommend posing to reps at college fairs, information sessions, via email, or during formal admissions interviews. But first, be sure to jot down this list of questions for future reference:
- How does your college help students secure employment?
- What percentage of students obtain internships? How do they find them? What kind of opportunities are available?
- Could you talk about the advantages associated with being part of the college’s alumni network?
- Where do graduates continue their education?
- How does your college differ from other comparable colleges?
Now, we’ll speak to the importance of each question.
1. How does your college help students secure employment?
Essentially, you are asking for real data regarding career services. What is their student-to-counselor ratio? What percentage of students engage with career services? Does this happen in freshman year, or does counseling really only get utilized by seniors? Ask them to provide information on job fairs, networking events, and corporate recruiting on campus. How many/which companies attend their job fairs? Do they track the number of on-campus interviews per year or what percentage of students find employment directly through the efforts of the career services staff? Do they have any formal corporate partners? What percentage of students are employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation?
If the admissions officer provides you with specific data in these areas, take that as a good sign. If they squirm and offer vague assurances regarding the quality of their career services, take that as an indicator of poor quality and walk away.
2. What percentage of students obtain internships? How do they find them? What kind of opportunities are available?
When it’s all said and done, many college graduates cite their internship experiences as the most impactful part of their undergraduate education. While procuring an internship is ultimately the responsibility of the student themselves, some universities do a much better job than others at facilitating the process and connecting their undergrads to meaningful opportunities for experiential learning. For example, at Babson College, 90% of students complete at least one internship; at Case Western Reserve University, 98% of undergrads engage in some type of experiential learning, including formal internships. Colgate University posts 4,500+ exclusive internship opportunities for their students on an online database. Certain schools (not only the most selective ones) regularly place interns at top tech, financial, engineering, and consulting companies, while other colleges generate very few opportunities for their students. Finding out which category your prospective school falls into is of the utmost value.
3. Could you talk about the advantages associated with being part of the college’s alumni network?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70%-80% of all jobs are found through some form of networking. A great source of networking for young people is their college alumni network, yet, not all alumni networks are created equal. Two primary indicators of institutions with strong alumni networks are sheer size and alumni generosity. Penn State has the largest dues-paying alumni network in the country with 172,000 members. Other large universities such as University of Illinois, NYU, Purdue, Indiana, University of Michigan, Ohio State, and UCLA have massive numbers of graduates, but judging how connected they are to their alma maters (and therefore to you, a potential networker) requires more information. Where do most alumni live? In what fields do they work? At which companies are large pockets of alumni currently working? Let the college rep tell you about how alumni from their school can help open doors for you.
4. What undergraduate research opportunities are available?
The opportunity to work alongside faculty as they conduct research and/or participate in a faculty-supervised independent research project can be the highlight of a student’s undergraduate education. Yet, at some schools, such opportunities are primarily reserved for graduate students or hardly exist at all. Ask an admissions rep for data on undergraduate research at their school as it varies greatly from institution to institution.
For example, Johns Hopkins helps 75% of their students engage in research, while at Clemson the number is closer to 50%, but at many universities throughout the country—that figure could be as low as the single-digits. Sometimes, schools will be able to tell you undergraduate research information specific to your intended are of study. For example, at William & Mary, 90% of chemistry majors complete research with faculty and many go on to be listed as co-authors of published research. Take it as a very good sign if you get an answer to this question that includes specific formalized programs as well as the number of/percentage of students partaking in such opportunities each year.
5. Where do graduates continue their education?
For those aiming to one day attend law or medical school, ask how successful graduates of their school have been at gaining admission to such programs. Many schools track data such as: the average LSAT and MCAT scores obtained by their graduates; the overall law and medical school admissions rates for their institution’s graduates versus the national average; and the number of recent alumni who have been accepted to the top law/medical schools in the country. Comparable information should also be available for those pursuing other graduate degrees. For those aiming to one day pursue a PhD, how does their school fare at getting students into doctoral programs in various disciplines? Across all graduate/professional programs, which schools take the largest number of recent graduates? Have recent graduates had success gaining acceptance into elite programs in their field?
6. How does your college differ from other comparable colleges?
This is a more general question than some of the previous ones on our list, but still one worth asking. If you are looking at elite liberal arts colleges in the northeast, you’ll want to know why, Bates, for example, might be a better fit for you than Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, or Williams. Tell the admissions rep about your unique interests, passions, and talents and see how their school might be a fit for your academic as well as your outside-of-class pursuits.
Other “tough” questions that you don’t need to ask
There are plenty of worthwhile questions that you can find answers to without the help of an admissions rep—rather, a simple internet search will do. For example:
- How many classes are taught by full-professors versus adjuncts or TAs?
- How large are classes?
- What academic programs are strongest at your school?
- How much debt does the average graduate have after leaving your institution?
- What percentage of freshman return for sophomore year?
- What are your school’s four and six-year graduation rates?
College Transitions’ Final Thoughts:
Asking questions in the vein of those suggested in this blog will do more to shed light on critical aspects of your college search than the more common generic student-initiated queries that could have just as easily been answered by a college guide or Google. In addition to uncovering key pieces of information about your prospective colleges, asking such incisive questions will likely impress the admissions rep, demonstrating not only your attention to detail but also the depth of your interest in their institution.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).