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Researching Colleges from Home

Researching colleges is an integral part of the application process. It’s important to feel out a school, preferably in person, to see if it’s a good fit. However, 2020 is not a great year for college visits. Now, more than ever, it’s important to understand the process of researching colleges from home.

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By ALEX LOVELESS

Since the outbreak of coronavirus, colleges have closed their doors, reverting to online systems. It goes without saying that for the foreseeable future, in-person guided tours are out of the question. But this adds an element of complication beyond the concept of applying blindly to colleges that you might not have considered. Many colleges depend heavily on “demonstrated interest” as a metric for admitting students. A college ideally wants every person they admit to eventually matriculate, and the more excited a student seems, the more likely they are to matriculate. A student may demonstrate interest in many ways– opening emails and reaching out to professors, for example. But historically, an in-person campus visit has been a dominant metric for determining this interest. 

Therefore, college research is critical for two reasons. First, it is important to choose the right fit and collect details for your essays. And second, it is an important practice for demonstrating interest. In this article, we will explain methods for researching colleges from home for both of these purposes.

Start with “The Big List”

If you didn’t catch it already, we posted an article on building a college list last week. To recap, the first step of this process is to build what we call “The Big List.” The Big List is going to comprise every school that you could potentially be interested in. Then, you will research further to pare this list down and determine the best fits. 

We recommend that you build your big list by first doing a little Google-fu. Search for “best undergraduate x programs” wherein x represents your field of study. This search will turn up lists with rankings for certain colleges and degrees. Of course, the top schools on this list are likely to be Ivy League, but some of the results may surprise you. Scan through the list and take note of any schools that may be able to accommodate your academic goals while ruling out no-gos based on location, expense, minimum specs etc. In the end, your list should comprise twenty or more schools, which will give you a starting point for your research. 

If you don’t know what you want to study, then you may choose some other metric for building your big list, such as location, student life, or post-graduate starting salaries. That said, we generally advocate applying to colleges with a specific field of study in mind.

“Schools will often check to see how much enthusiasm you have shown towards matriculating and use that data as a metric in their decision. “

Go to the source: official websites

The next step is to research each individual school so that you can eliminate non-options from your big list. First, you’ll want to check out each college’s official website. However, it is important to remember that colleges have excellent marketing teams, just like any other industry. They are presenting a perfectly cultivated profile to prospective students, which may not be entirely accurate. When looking at schools’ official websites, we recommend looking at the pages geared toward current students for a more accurate look at student life and opportunities. Each department is likely to have its own website, which you can check out to see events, news, faculty, and course offerings. While you are investigating, take notes on the things that interest you. You can use these notes later on for your Why Us essays. 

After a while, schools might start to look the same. There are a number of websites that exist to compare schools and to even help you find schools in exchange for your personal information. If you are okay with having your personal data commodified, then these tools can be great for helping you narrow down your list.

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Think quantitatively

After you have a look at the above items, take a peek at the available data and statistics. Schools often make their admissions statistics public, so you can see the percentage of students admitted as well as GPA and test scores of admitted students. Some schools even break down this data by academic program. You can look at this data to determine whether a school falls into a dream, reach, target, or safety category based on your own qualifications. 

Another valuable piece of data to include in your research is “outcome data”. Google “(school name) career outcomes” or “(School name) first destination surveys” to check out data based on starting salaries after graduation, percentage of students in the workforce, etc. You will find that some schools are particularly known for producing highly employable graduates, which is a metric to consider when researching colleges.

Think qualitatively

Getting an idea of a school’s layout can help you visualize whether it’s a good fit. Many colleges are trying their best to post videos of campus tours. However, independent companies also offer fantastic resources. We like YouVisit, which offers campus tours using 360 views compatible with VR headset, if you’re that fancy. You can click around to have a look at school facilities while a virtual tour guide explains what you are looking at. 

But aside from aesthetics, student life is an important consideration for whether a school is right for you or not. It’s best to start by reaching out to current students within your social circles or school communities. Students like this are more likely to give you honest answers to your pressing questions. Then, we recommend moving outside of your network. We recommend CampusReel, which offers short videos made by current students. These videos can give you a powerful glimpse into student life, dorms and other facilities, and the general atmosphere of a school. 

We also suggest checking out Youtube for informal vlogs. Although we cannot speak to the usefulness of all vlogs, we suggest searching for vloggers with fewer followers (non-”influencers”), as they are less likely to be trying to sell you something.

And finally, almost every college will have a subreddit that you can check out. Many of these informal internet communities have content that is immature, offensive, or meme-ish in nature. However, if you are willing to wade through this, you can find a lot of useful nuggets of information from real students. These communities also offer a platform for you to ask anonymous questions and are generally a good way to understand a student population.

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Attend formal informational sessions

After completing the above steps, you should have a pretty good idea of where you are trying to apply. But making your list is only half of the research battle. The next step, as I mentioned in the introduction, is demonstrating your interest. To reiterate, schools will often check to see how much enthusiasm you have shown towards matriculating and use that data as a metric in their decision. 

The second best thing to a campus visit is a formal informational session, of which admissions departments will often note attendance. Since informational sessions are not available in person, schools are offering online informational sessions, which can be just as useful. Think of questions to ask, and take note of who is giving the presentation. You might be able to use this person’s name in an essay later on. There are also a number of virtual college fairs that are ongoing during this time, wherein school officials are offering sessions via Zoom. These are also considered official events, but may be offered by someone other than the school itself.

Try to engage in sessions not only for the school, but also for the department you are applying to. Student groups are also offering online Q and A sessions that you can use to learn about faculty and other opportunities. But in the case of any official session, keep in mind that the information you’re receiving is carefully curated to avoid negative information. 

Reach out to the school

Outreach is a favorable (and often overlooked) aspect of the application process. For any school that you are serious about, but especially at the “reach” level, we suggest reaching out to a regional representative from the admissions office. Even if a school does not regard demonstrated interest in the decision making process, they might when considering financial aid and scholarships, so in any case, it’s a good idea. 

The names and email addresses for regional admissions officers are available on school websites. When you are contacting these people, make sure to inquire specifically about the program you are interested in using details from your research. Demonstrated interest is counterproductive if it looks too general. 

We also recommend reaching out to a faculty member from the department that you are interested in to ask questions. Here is a sample template for such emails: 

Dear Dr. Jones,

My name is (name), a rising senior attending (name of high school), and I’m writing to you to inquire about the (name of department) at (college). After careful consideration and countless hours of research, I am strongly considering applying to (college) for early decision, in particular, for the (name of major). I’ve always had a significant interest in (specific information regarding major and how your extracurricular experience supports this interest – think 2-3 sentences). I believe the (name of department) will provide similar but unique resources that will allow me to dig deeper into my research interests and academic endeavors.

One of my strongest criteria for the university I wish to attend is the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research, so I was hoping that you could answer some questions I have about undergraduate research/internship opportunities within the (name of department) department.

First, (ask a question. Example: after applying for the (name of research program), will archival research be assisted by the faculty member and do these research projects produce research papers that often get published? Second, (example: in order to apply for the (name of internship), are there any courses or research programs that need to be fulfilled in order to show my suitability for the program?) Third, (example: after finalizing a research project through (name of research center), are all students eligible to participate in the research expo and open house, and is that event annual?) Last, (example: can you let me know if there are any research opportunities specific to the (name of) major that I may not be able to find out about on the (school) website?

I know these are a lot of questions but I am genuinely excited to hear back from you and explore diverse research opportunities offered at (name of school). Thank you!

Sincerely,

(name)

Reaching out like this is a great way to begin a dialogue while giving yourself something to talk about on the Why Us and Why Major essays. 

Going forward

Of course, nothing beats an in person campus visit, so as soon as schools are open again, we recommend trying to schedule yours. But in the meantime, researching colleges from home, aside from providing useful information, can help to boost your odds of admission. Do your best to reach out, stay apprised, and build an admissions strategy that fits your unique situation.