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Researching colleges is an important step in the application process. Students want to find schools that fit their interests and strengths well. In order to find such schools, students need to visit the schools they are thinking of applying to. But before they can visit campus and compile a list of schools to apply to, they need to do some research first. Read on for why doing research ahead of campus visits is important, where to do that research, and what students should look for as they research colleges onlineWhat sorts of information should students look for, and where should they look for it?

Students should explore whatever interests them about college. By exploring a wide variety of college offerings—academics, social life, extracurricular activities, sports, etc.—students will be better prepared to assess whether a school is a good fit for them.

Admissions office websites and social media

The college admissions office websites and social media are good places to start. They contain a lot of information and basic facts about the university, such as how many majors it offers, what student-to-faculty ratios are, is the school a research university or a liberal arts college, how diverse is the student body, and other elements of the university that the college is proud of. Students should think about what appeals to them and formulate thoughtful follow-up questions to ask once they arrive to campus. For instance, by the time students get to campus, they should know whether or not a college has an economics department and a football team.

Social media from the admissions department and from the school for current students can help students figure out what a school’s traditions are and what special events a college offers. They can also indicate what a school is proud of, what a school looks like at different times of the year, and other information that students can ask about on campus.

Beyond the admissions page

However, students should also go beyond the admissions office website. These websites are meant to present the school in the best possible light. They are useful for gleaning basic facts and information about a school, but if students are really interested in learning about a college, they will explore other websites, too. Websites for current students and departmental webpages (if a student is interested in studying history, s/he will want to check out the department of history page) can help students learn more about academics at school.

Websites for current students

Websites for current students can help prospective students get a sense of what a school’s educational philosophy is. Are there course requirements or do students have complete freedom to choose the classes that they will take? Does the school offer any special programs for freshmen that help students adjust (freshman interest groups—also known as FIGs—and living learning communities)? What about honors programs? While the admission pages may refer to such programs, the pages for students currently enrolled in them can help prospective students see what these programs are actually like since they often provide more details.

Departmental webpages (or the registrar’s website) will give students a sense of the courses offered and the faculty who teach them. By checking them out, students can see which classes and professors are interesting to them. Departmental websites will also give students a clue about what the department offers its undergraduates—for instance, internship opportunities, study abroad programs, undergraduate research, etc. Do students write a B.A. thesis? These websites will often spell out how they think the department offers undergraduates a unique experience and will alert students to possibilities they might not otherwise know to ask about. For instance, political science departments may offer a semester in Washington, D.C. to do an internship or a biology department may offer special research programs for undergraduates. Departmental websites may also include information about study-abroad programs; if not, students should search for study-abroad in the general college website if that is something that they might want to do.

Extracurricular club websites

In addition, school newspapers and extracurricular clubs may have websites that can help students assess which activities outside of the classroom interest them. Once they are familiar with different options on campus, students may be able to make arrangements to attend a club meeting and see firsthand what the experience is like (prior to visiting campus, students will want to consult admissions officers who may be able to help students arrange a visit, or students can email club members directly to arrange a time to talk).

Other school pages

Students can also check the athletics website and Greek life websites if those are of interest.

Many schools have tips on their websites about where to eat and where to stay for campus visitors, and generally they have a page that speaks to recently-arrived students, giving them the scoop on places to eat around town, entertainment, etc. These are also worth exploring.

How can doing research before a college visit help students have a more fruitful visit to campus?

Learn the basics to ask thoughtful questions on campus

By investigating basic facts about the college before heading to campus, students can free up their visit to ask more personal and specific questions; they can also ask about information not included in the recruitment materials or online website. For instance, a college website or brochure can tell potential applicants about how many students receive financial aid, but it will not be able to speak to the specifics of an individual students financial situation. A website can tell students that there are a given number of professors in a department, but it can’t give information about what it is like to be in classes.

Most crucially, would-be applicants can ask current students about their experiences and opinions about the opportunities they have learned about online. What are the classes like? What do students think is the best part of attending the college? What is the campus vibe like? They can also ask the staff more specific and/or subjective questions: What kinds of students do best at the school? What is most unique about the college?

Show staff you know your stuff!

Doing research ahead of time will also allow students to demonstrate to college staff that they have done their homework and know enough about the university to want to go there. If students do not do their research beforehand and proceed to speak with admissions staff, especially in official visits such as interviews, they run the risk of giving the impression that they are not really interested in attending the school because they have not bothered to learn basic details about it.

Can doing online research replace going to visit colleges in person?

No. If at all possible, students should visit campuses in person. Doing research is very important for learning about colleges, but it is important for students to step foot on campus, meet people, ask questions, and get a sense of how they might feel attending college and living in the campus community. The best thing students can do is thoroughly research the colleges before visiting them so that they can ask thoughtful questions. That said, where campus visits are impossible, doing research online and connecting with members of the campus community via email can help students learn more about colleges. This is especially true when students are selecting colleges to apply to. Students should never decide which university to attend without first visiting the schools that accepted them.

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