This week US News & World Report came out with the 26th edition of Americas Best Colleges based on fifteen quantifiable criteria and like every year I can’t help but feel a little bit sad at the thought of anxious juniors and seniors (or perhaps more appropriately- anxious parents of juniors and seniors) running out to pick up said publication. To me, making use of US News (alone) in the search for the “right” institution has always felt a little like letting someone tell you who to marry based on a list of information about tax returns, blood test results, grade point averages and credit card balances. Really, would you ever want to choose a mate because someone told you he had the best “score” based on their list of criteria? I thought not. No, you’d want to get to know that person for yourself. To learn about his values, to eat with him, to find out whether it’s football or letterboxing that fills up his Sundays, to listen- to observe- to engage… And, most importantly, you’d want to get to know his heart.
Finding the college at which you’ll thrive- REALLY thrive, should be a lot like the process of finding a mate (in my opinion). You need to visit (if at all possible). You need to talk to people and to listen. To observe the surroundings and watch the interactions between community members- to get to know a place (and its heart), entirely and unabashedly, for yourself. You need to remember that what you will make of a community will be entirely different than what a classmate or family member made (or is making) of that same community. That the value an institution will add to your life will be directly related to the type of experience you craft for yourself and the energy you commit to exploring the opportunities you are passionate about.
I’m a whole-hearted believer that visiting campuses is the most important part of a student’s college search. A glossy brochure and a well-coifed website are awesome for an introduction to an institution. They can help you determine answers to some very important preliminary college search questions. What type of environment would you like to be in? Do you want an urban school or to have cows in your backyard? Would you like a college the size of Rhode Island or one where you’ll likely live next door to your Philosophy professor (who might know you as Jess, the girl who eats way too much ketchup on her eggs)? A brochure and a web site can give you cursury insights and help you get to know the basics.
What brochures and websites can’t do is allow you to interact. There is nothing that can replace the opportunity to walk, on your own two feet, across the grass of a courtyard positioned between a residence hall and an academic building at an institution you’ve been reading about for months. The chance to watch the class that’s being held outdoors in that courtyard (cause it’s a gorgeous fall day) and to hear the conversations between classmates immediately following the conclusion of the formal discussion. There’s little that will replace the chance to hear from a student about what he loves and hates about the school (the second of those two things is often more telling)- and to watch his facial expressions as he talks to you. The chance to stop and glance at the bulletin boards in the student center getting a sense of what students might be doing this weekend, and what causes are most important to them. Eating a meal in a dining hall, observing a class, touring a recreation center… My list could go on, but I’m sure you get my point. Seeing what is current, engaging in real time, getting to know personalities and character and heart. Synthesize it all with what you know about yourself and the type of environment you want to be a part of and you’ve got a much better sense of whether that school is a good fit. THAT is what a visit can do for you.
I was in a training meeting earlier this week and the topic of US News’s 2010 rankings came up. Our presenter (who I dare say feels as I do about America’s Best Colleges) sighed a bit and simply said, “I call it US Blues and World Distort“. Colleges are not their rankings. They are people, traditions, buildings, spirit, culture, temperature, sounds, history, grass, bricks, mascots, energy… Don’t let rankings get in the way of getting to know those things about a place- if you do, you just might miss “Mr. Right”.
– Jennifer Scott