Digging Deeper When Researching Colleges


When researching colleges, many families gravitate to what they call “great schools” without having any idea of whether these institutions merit their reputations.

In reality, no college or university is a monolithic entity that is uniformly excellent, average or mediocre. That’s why just picking schools by relying on general impressions, U.S. News’ actual rankings or a campus tour won’t be adequate.

Kevin Carey, a preeminent higher-ed commentator, wrote the following excellent article in The New York Times that states that the real differences in teaching quality happens at the teacher and department levels.

The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion

A university could have a tremendous English department that regularly places graduates in top PhD programs, but it could also have a business department that produces weak graduates that regional industries spurn. A college could have a fantastic theater department with a pipeline to Broadway and regional playhouses, but a mediocre chemistry department saddled with poor lab facilities.

When researching collegiate candidates, it’s extremely important that you drill down and look at the kind of education that students are getting in an academic department(s) that interests your child. Here are some things you can do:

Step No. 1:

Visit the academic department website and read everything you can. Once on the website, look for information like this:

  • Department’s vision/mission statement.
  • Undergraduate advising.
  • Department’s description of its undergraduate education.
  • Graduation outcomes – graduate and professional schools, jobs.
  • Number and background of professors in department.
  • Number of undergraduates in the major.
  • Undergraduate research opportunities.
  • Internships opportunities.
  • Faculty awards – especially best teacher honors.
  • Undergraduate awards such as Goldwater, Rhodes and Fulbrights.
  • Departmental newsletter.
  • Student organization devoted to this major.

Example: Check out the Physics Department at North Carolina State University to discover what a model academic website looks like.

Step No. 2:

After identifying a promising school, your child should reach out to one or two professors and ask them intelligent questions about the major including those listed below. It should cause concern if the professors don’t respond to your child’s email.

Ask professors for names of upper division students in the department. Contact these students and ask questions about the major including:

  • Describe the access that students have with their professors.
  • Is access limited to office hours and, if so, are they sufficient?
  • Do the professors make you excited about learning?
  • On a 1-10 scale, how would you rate the professors in this department? Why?
  • How easy or hard is it to find mentors among the faculty?
  • Have you or other students experienced difficulties finding faculty to provide recommendations for med school, grad school, jobs?
  • Are you assigned a faculty advisor?
  • How would you rate the rigor of the work?
  • Does the faculty make an effort to keep students progressing in the major or do they treat lower division classes, in particular, as a means to wash out students?
  • What are typical class sizes for lower division and upper division classes?
  • On a 1-10 scale, how would you rate the academic quality of the courses? And why?
  • How much opportunity is there (if any) for undergraduate research?
  • What kind of internship opportunities are there?
  • What do students with this major do after graduating from this school including grad school, jobs and nonprofit work?
  • What support is there for students wanting to attend grad school and what grad schools are students attending?
  • Is it possible to double major or have a minor with when pursuing a major in this department?
  • How easy is it to switch majors?
  • Is it possible to study abroad with this major?
  • What questions haven’t I asked you that are relevant?

Step No. 3:

Ideally students should visit colleges and universities that make the final list before applying. An in-depth campus visit can help determine if a school would be an appropriate choice.

During a campus visit, a student should make sure to arrange a visit to the department(s) that interests him or her. The student and parent(s) should talk to at least one professor in the department, as well as students in that major and also those not in this academic major.

Bottom Line:

It’s crucial that families look beyond the reputation of a school when evaluating college choices. At this time of year, I get lots of emails from parents who are agonizing about which college or university their child should attend. These parents typically share the names of the schools on a child’s final list and ask me which is the best institution.

I can’t answer that question anymore than anyone else without doing a lot of digging. When you consider that about a third of students, who attend public and private four-year colleges and universities, end up transferring to other schools, you can appreciate why this hard work is absolutely essential!!!

Learn More….lab

The best way to cut the cost of college is to become an educated consumer. You can learn how by attending my popular online course, The College Cost Lab.

I’m about to launch The College Cost Lab. Sign up now and you’ll get access to the class beginning on Memorial Day weekend! Lynn O’Shaughnessy

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  1. Our challenge is finding the right school from a tiny list of schools that offer my daughter’s intended major. There are only 5 within 1,000 miles of our home. 2 are right here, and one is her top choice. With so few options, how do I ensure the best package?

  2. These are all great questions and tips. I have 2 girls that are in college now and I can tell you doing your Homework for the right fit is soooo important. Both girls are flourishing in their respective colleges. My youngest just finished her freshman year and going to the professors and students in the major was critical for her making the right decision when we were looking. She was looking at big public universities because of her major(Animal Science- Prevet).The school she was set on has a great name academically but when we attended acceptance day and she asked questions of the professors she was given vague answers and they were not “supportive” of the prevet major. When she emailed professors and students other questions they did not get back to her. We attended another big public university acceptance day and the professors were engaging and answered all questions, the students were very forthright and answered all questions about the program truthfully. She decided on her own that the second college was definitely that way to go as opposed to her first choice because in her words “If they won’t answer my questions before I get there, what is it going to be like when I’m a student?! My major will be hard enough without all the confusion of not knowing which classes to take to complete a degree.” I can safely say she made the correct choice. URI has been an amazing fit and she has already been exposed to so many opportunities in her major that she will definitely be well prepared for what ever she chooses to do.
    My older daughter has also been successful in her very small college where she has built amazing relationships with her Professors and will continue to challenge herself in that environment.

    1. Hi Valerie,

      Thanks so much for sharing the experiences of your daughters! That was so smart of your daughter who reached out to professors and students in the major she was interested in. I hope more students start doing this because it is so critical for college success!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. Thanks for the excellent aggregation of tips, Lynn. My students who have taken the time to reach out to faculty members have, without exception, been well-served by doing so and have gleaned some good training for the kind of self-advocacy which is invaluable once on campus. I’ll make some copies of this piece and distribute!

  4. Hi Lynn,

    Been a couple years since visiting your site. Our daughter is now happily finishing her second year and we are now starting the college search for our son so back again. I found this week’s blog very interesting since our daughter volunteers as a student ambassador to prospective students both for her major department and for her living-learning community. Which is what I wanted to add. Many universities are creating these living-learning communities where students in similar degrees live in the same dorms. These communities have special tutoring sessions, classes, and social events meant to support one another. So to add to your list, besides visiting the department, students and parents should visit the living-learning community if available to see how the university supports students when not in class.

    Besides the list of questions above, which are very good, she gets a lot of questions from parents, such as:

    a. What computers/software will they need? This one is becoming more critical because many departments have preferred computer and software combinations for their majors based on what software programs are used in that major. This is a major expense that it pays to get right. Related questions are printers/printing/copying and how much homework is done on line?
    b. Similar to above is how are textbooks done — buy vs rent; new vs used; campus bookstore vs internet; as well as software key codes required (for a parent who hasn’t bought textbooks in a while this is a new, unexpected large expense).
    c. What support is available if a student is struggling in class? (Academic success center, tutoring, etc)
    d. Safety. I know it’s not a direct academic issue, but this is a major concern for many parents.
    e. And this one surprised me when I heard how often parents asked — how do students do laundry?