Whenever I meet with new students, the first question I ask is why they want to go to college. Responses tend to lean heavily toward the importance of earning an education and getting a degree. But what does that really mean? And how should students go about determining the breadth, depth, and quality of the academics at an institution of higher learning?
When deciding where to apply and then choosing from multiple offers of admission, there is huge value in assessing an institution’s academic offerings. College visits, conversations with faculty and students, and research on a college’s website are avenues through which prospective students and their parents can determine the best academic fit.
First, you should begin to read up on the academic offerings. Start with the major:
- What majors are offered? These listings can usually be found on colleges’ websites and printed materials. Tours and information sessions may highlight the school’s most popular or unique majors.
- When must a student declare a major?
- When declaring a major, does the student choose an academic advisor, or is one assigned?
- Are students able to take coursework in major areas of study before committing to the major, in order to determine if the discipline is a fit?
- How difficult/easy is it to change a major once a student has declared?
- Is there a thesis required for graduation in the major?
Consider the physical space on campus. These may seem trivial, but there are lessons you can learn from your college visit and a quick review of the facilities:
- Note the age and condition of academic buildings. Has the institution invested in updates to older buildings or begun the addition of newer, more modern structures?
- Do classrooms, lecture halls and labs have ample space? State-of-the-art audio visual and lab equipment? Smartboards? Internet connectivity for students? What do you need to learn best? Be sure your schools have these amenities.
You’ll certainly want to understand how much faculty interaction you will have on a given campus. Specifically:
- How is academic advising managed at this institution? Are all freshmen assigned academic or departmental advisors to help them make course choices and advise them as they progress through their education?
- What opportunities exist for academic research, and to what degree are they available to students in their first or second years?
- How closely do students and faculty members work with one another? Do professors teach classes or are they largely taught by TAs?
Look beyond the major. In the end, it will represent about 35 to 40 percent of your total coursework in college. What will you do with the rest of your time and how will that stimulate you? Be sure your questions about academics are as broad as the requirements you’ll have to satisfy:
- What general academic requirements must all students fulfill in order to graduate?
- View the online course catalog to determine how much freedom and flexibility you might have within a major or in fulfilling general requirements for graduation. Will the college allow you to take a math theory course instead of Calculus? Can you take a cultural awareness course to fulfill the language requirement?
- What is the college’s policy on double majoring? Combo majoring? Minoring? How many credits and/or which courses might you need to take if your goal is to study across more than one major? What will this do to the other course requirements and how will it affect your electives?
Finally, take stock of things that aren’t found in the print materials that might make a big impact on your academic success:
- What resources exist for students who need tutoring or help with writing? Some campuses have academic resource centers where students can find tutors and/or writing centers to help with term papers or to help students get acclimated to college writing.
- What is the overall emphasis on learning and academic success, and does it fit your personal goals for academic achievement? Do you want an academic atmosphere that is more competitive, or more cooperative? What percentage of your college experience do you imagine you will devote to academics? How does this match the vibe you get from campus visits and researching the college?