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5 Questions to Ask Current Student & Alums About Your Dream College

After a grueling semester of writing (and rewriting) your Common App essay, crafting the right supplement answers to show that you’re the perfect combination of smart, dedicated, and cultured, and taking last-minute SAT subject tests, you’ve finally submitted your last college application. Now there’s only one thing left to do: wait. Applying to college is stressful, and it can be easy to wish that the whole process was just over and done with—especially if you’re dying to get into your dream school. But before you close your eyes at 11:11 and wish that you get admitted into your first choice school, take a look at the list below. Have you asked any of these questions? If not, your dream school might not be as perfect as you think…

Question 1: How effective do you think the advising center is?

Why it’s important: Most colleges have some kind of advising center (or a few that work closely together) to help students figure out what the best major is for a particular career path, choose classes, set academic and career goals, and score internships. Academic and career advisors are kind of like grown-up versions of your high school guidance counselors, except forging a good relationship with your advisors has far more salient effects than just getting a good recommendation for college: college advisors can hook you up with a job in your dream industry. If it’s difficult to develop a close relationship with student advisors or the centers just aren’t that effective, you might want to choose a school where the advising centers really do give you a leg up on the competition when you’re choosing the courses to help your future career or looking for your first post-college job.

Where to get the answers: Checking out the school’s website is always a good place to start; it’ll give you an idea on how the advising centers work at specific colleges. The most relevant information on this, however, will come from current students and recent alums, who will be able to provide information about getting jobs and internships—or about how the school was unhelpful in setting them up for their future careers. Talk to the student leaders on campus tours and student and alumni helpers during information sessions and ask about their experiences. It might seem awkward at first, be feel free to approach current students while on campus tours. More often than not, they’ll be willing to help!

Also, most colleges have an alumni resource center or something similar that puts applicants and current students in contact with alumni to ask these very questions. Search the school’s website to see if this exists at the colleges in which you’re interested.

Question 2: What is the religious climate like? How religious are most students?

Why it’s important: Like politics, religion can make tensions run high. You might want to know what you’re getting into before becoming the only liberal at an ultra-religiously conservative school—or vice versa. According to Jenn, a junior at Columbia University, “I think I would have really liked to know how strong the religious presence is at Columbia before I accepted… It would have been nice to have know what to expect, especially as a very religious person.” If you’re religious, it’s worth asking about religious centers on campus or nearby: are there churches, temples, or mosques within walking distance? Do you need a car or to take public transportation? Are there university-sponsored Bible study groups or a Hillel? These are things you need to know if religion is a big part of your life now—or if you plan on making it one in college.

On another note, religious affiliations can cause campus life to greatly differ from that at schools that are nondenominational. For example, at many Jesuit schools, students are required to take theology classes, aren’t provided with contraception, and are not allowed to sign in opposite-sex guests after a certain time or at all. If rules like these will greatly alter how you anticipate your college experience to be, asking about the presence of religion on campus is definitely worth your while.

Where to get the answers: Scouring university pages about guest policies, student organizations, and services nearby are the easiest way to get the information. Most college websites have a ‘Moving to [insert school/city/town here]’ page to provide you with helpful info that may provide information about centers of worship. Asking current students is a great way to get information about how a school’s religious affiliation plays out in reality, as some college rules might not be as stringently enforced as the website would lead you to believe.

Question 3: How diverse is the student body? How socially segregated is campus?

Why it’s important: Depending on where you’re coming from, diversity statistics might be particularly important in smoothing your transition to college life. “I definitely wish I’d asked more about student diversity, says Kate, a freshman at Gonzaga University, “because transitioning from a very diverse high school to a school where about 80% of the students are white has been somewhat difficult.” Going to a school with a lot of diversity might help you transitioning because it gives you something with which you’re familiar—or something that you’re looking for, if you went to high school in a more ethnically homogenous area. Asking about social segregation—that is, do a majority of students of one race or ethnicity all hang out together—is also pertinent because a school’s diversity statistics might be misleading if students of different races and ethnicities don’t associate with one another. If that is the case, a college that is very diverse on paper might not feel like it is in reality.

Where to get the answers: Most schools are very open with their diversity statistics; they’re often on the ‘High School Applicants’ (or similar) webpages and included in information packets you can request to receive in the mail. Campus tours, and, particularly, overnight visits, give you a glimpse of this. When you’re walking around campus, do you see ethnically and racially diverse groups of friends walking to class, hanging out in front of the library, standing around and chatting? When your host takes you out, does she have mostly friends from one ethnic group? Is this the case with the other people you see around? Ask around and take note of students’ answers. It’ll be helpful to have information to compare when you’re choosing between schools.

Question 4: What are some of the ways you can be involved in athletics? Can you join the sports teams without any experience? How serious are athletic clubs and teams?

Why it’s important: Even if you’re not a recruited athlete, you might still have athletics on the brain when you’re looking at colleges. If you were a high school athlete or are just someone who’s looking for the camaraderie (and burnt calories!) of being on a sports team, asking about the athletics programs at your prospective colleges has the potential to change your decision. Freshman rower Madeleine at Gonzaga University says that she would have asked the other schools to which she applied if she could join a sports team without any experiences, like she has done at Gonzaga. “That could have changed my decision,” she adds.

If you plan on joining any athletic clubs or intramurals, take the time to find about how big of a time commitment and how serious they are. They might far more intense than what you’re willing to put up with—or a total joke compared to what you’re used to. If you plan on making athletics a big part of your collegiate career, it’s best to go in informed.

Where to get the answers: During application season, many schools have athletics-specific information sessions to start a dialogue with applicants about the sports programs at their respective colleges. College websites are often equipped with listings of the varsity sports, intramural sports, and athletic clubs, so, as usual, websites are good places to start. If you have teams and clubs in which you’re particularly interested, try finding their websites or Facebook groups and getting in contact with the captains or other members to find out more info about schedules, practices, and general commitments. 

Question 5: What made you choose this school over the others?

Why it’s important: Finding out why current students and alumni chose a particular college over their other choices can be very telling—especially if certain answers are very popular. If a lot of students you ask cite the school’s location as a major motivator, then you can operate under the assumption that the outside location of the college really affects campus life positively. If current students and alumni cite resources as the school’s most persuasive trait, then the resources that the school’s website boast are “world-class” probably actually are world-class. This question is a great way to gain insight on what drew most of the student body to the college they chose and to figure out what students at a particular school find important. If the most popular answer is the engineering department and you’re planning to be an American Studies major, maybe that’s indicative that that particular college doesn’t have the best liberal arts courses.

Where to get the answers: The only way to get answers to this question is to ask current students and alumni! On campus tours, overnight visits, applicant-alumni Facebook chats, and anywhere else you can think of, ask why people chose to attend the schools that they did. Not only will it help you make your college decision easier, it’s also a super easy conversation starter when you’re trying to mingle with collegiettes on campus.

With APs, extracurricular activities, and making time to hang out with friends, applying to college drains time that most pre-collegiettes just don’t have—a major reason that we sometimes forget to ask the questions that are most important to us. Add these questions to your “must know” list and keep track of these answers in your “College Facts” Google Doc (you do have one of those, right?). You might be shocked at what has the power to change your decisions—and what reaffirms that your dream school is the right college for you after all!

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