US News and World Report recently published an article “36 Questions to ask on a College Visit,” by Lynn O’Shaughnessy, who is the USNWP college counseling maven. This list of questions is pretty good, but it stops short of the mark. (The article from US News and World Report can be found at http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/the-college-solution/2010/10/19/36-questions-to-ask-on-a-college-visit) Most prospective applicants don’t want to ask first choice or second choice colleges uncomfortable questions. They fear they might offend the admissions office and be rejected as a consequence. I’m not sure it actually works like this, but this belief runs through a lot of applicant heads. It must, because I’ve been to a lot of campuses and the quality of questions most students ask (if they ask any at all) are bland, and usually pointless—e.g. how many books are in your library?
After reading Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s article, you’ll definitely have a critical number of questions ready for service. She divides her questions into six different categories: Academics (e.g. “How much time is spent on homework? [Though I’m not sure how well received that question would be during a tour of Cal Tech.])”, Academic perks (e.g. “What are the opportunities for undergraduate research?” [Actually a very good question, especially if you have an interest in pre-med.]), Financial aid (e.g. “What % of students receive college grants?”), Graduation Track Record (“How many students graduate in 4 years?” [A very good question if you tour Cal Poly Pomona]), Academic Support (e.g. “What type academic counseling is available?”), Outside Opportunities (e.g. “What type of internship opportunities are there for students?”), and Student Life (“What % of students live on campus?”).
The most important category is “the Graduation Track Record”. Student retention is one of the more important questions every college needs to be asked often: What portion of freshman return for their sophomore year? If the answer is below 80%, you need to find out why. What is a little concerning about this question, however, is that you can easily find the answer yourself before you even step foot on the campus. The information is readily available on College Navigator (http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/) or on the schools Common Data Set, which can be found by Googling ‘the name of the school’ common data set. By asking it, you’ve shown you haven’t done your homework. In fact, most the questions Ms. O’Shaughnessy poses in this section can be found either on the school website, such as “what does it take to graduate in four years?” or on College Navigator yet again, “What is your four year graduation rate?”
The question under graduation track record that many students really want to know is what happens to your graduates after they leave? If they’re trying to get into law school, what portion successfully gain admittance, and to which law schools? If it’s medical or business school, the same type of question asked by aspiring law students would apply. Another question might also be what type of education does the university best recommend for a student to be really prepared to meet the challenges of today? If they respond that it depends on the student, does this make sense? After all, how many 18, 19 year olds really know what it is they need to know? Certainly the school has some input through a core or distribution requirement. How does the school guide the student?
Of the remaining questions the two that are definitely worth asking, and are on the US News and World Report list, is the opportunity for undergraduate research, and the availability of internships. Often, these two areas are addressed on a school’s website. Often, however, what is on the school’s website rarely matches realities on campus. For that reason alone, asking even the most obvious questions might be a reasonable exercise in its own right. I guess we can always consider the maxim the worse question is the one not asked. Be bold and ask away. Good colleges, like good people, want to tell you what it is you want to know.