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College Research

There was a time when prospective college students got information about a school from glossy marketing materials.  The viewbook could be a thing of beauty.  It was the main marketing piece that lined the shelves of high school guidance offices, was displayed fan-like on tables at college fairs, lugged in roller cases by bright-eyed admissions counselors, and mailed to students who actually requested them.  Those were the days.  There was a lot of paper and a lot of work, and a lot of money involved, but it wasn’t all bad. 

Students were able to sit down and read words on a page, look at pictures, and get the basic information they needed to understand what a college was all about.  It could be hard to differentiate one place from another, but at least the basics were there.  At least it was in one place. 

Students approached the viewbook at a time of their choosing.  They had control.  It didn’t interrupt their homework or a conversation with a friend or a moment of self-reflection.

Today, students receive multiple emails and text messages from colleges daily.  It is too much and what is in the best interest of the student has been replaced by what is in the best interest of the college. 

Researching colleges today has become scattered, confusing, and futile for many students.  There are too many places to get information and the easy breezy viewbook has been replaced with websites that are increasingly difficult to navigate and overwhelming for young people who are just trying to learn about the basics.  Students are going to third-party resources—lists, research tools, social media, etc. before they ever hear from the college itself.  It is all about the rankings or the student reviews or the “best fit” as determined by a GPA and ACT score and intended major. 

I’ve been doing this for decades and I am increasingly overwhelmed by all the conflicting information about colleges and the multiple resources out there to learn more.  I miss the days of the viewbook.  I never stopped with the viewbook, but at least I had a place to start.

There are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States and the truth is—they are not particularly unique.  There are some outliers, but colleges are kidding themselves if they really think they are the “only ones.”  I think this is evident in the billions of dollars spent in marketing, promotion, and recruitment.  There are more similarities than differences and trying to find the uniqueness of a school can be an exercise in futility—especially for a seventeen-year-old kid.   

There are millions of college bound students in the United States and the truth is—they are all unique.  For students to research colleges meaningfully, they need to lead with their uniqueness and not go searching for something unique about a college.  It all starts with the students.  What do they care about?  Flipping the script and leading with the student instead of the institution might just lead to more informed college admissions choices—not just for the student but for the college.  How can a college receive over 100,000 applications for undergraduate admission and have any of it mean anything?  Before long, we will end up with hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States and millions of students kept out of higher education altogether if we don’t make some significant changes. 

Change can start with one student at a time.  Taking time to really educate students about the basics, empowering them to lead with what they care about, and encouraging them to apply to fewer schools that are good fits for them are the ways we (parents, educators, consultants) can help make a change. 

Here are a few basic online research tips for students. 

1.      Start with what you care about.  What matters to you?  It might be a specific academic program, sports teams, location.  There is nothing that matters to you that isn’t important. 

Make a list and use it as a guide when you research colleges.  The list should include those things that are important to you. 

2.      The informational video is the modern viewbook.  Watch one.  They are usually on the Admissions page of a college website.  They might all start to sound the same, but at least you’re starting from a point of the basics that will help guide you as you look deeper.

3.      On a college website, search for academic programs.  Don’t stop once you find what they have.  Look at the faculty, news from the program, where do graduates end up, etc.  What is the program like and what is it offering? If you don’t know what you want to study in college—that’s awesome and normal.  See what is listed and click on a few things that spark your interest.  You might learn something new and isn’t that what this is really all about?

4.      Student activities, housing, and study abroad are difficult to distinguish from one school to another.  The key is to determine what a school has that matters to you.  If a school has over 400 student organizations, that doesn’t really matter to one student.  It is just a number.  Same with the percentage of students studying abroad, conducting research, or doing internships.  Numbers are basic ways to market and sell and remember.  The details are harder and infinitely more important.  Keep clicking and stay focused on what you care about.

5.      Only after you’ve gone straight to the source should you go to third parties.  Whether it is the College Board or Instagram, wait to get outside opinions/reviews until you’ve started to create your own based on the information the college is providing. 




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