Researching Colleges During a Pandemic


I’ve gotten questions recently about how to research colleges during the COVID-19 pandemic when you can’t visit campuses.

I talked to a mom from Seattle over the weekend, whose daughter was choosing between seven colleges that stretch from the state of Washington to New Jersey.

With merit scholarships deducted, the cost of all these schools for the Seattle family were within a few thousand dollars of each other and were financially doable.

So, she wondered, how could her daughter make a decision?

Researching colleges in or out of a pandemic

Whether we are stuck in a pandemic or not, it’s crucial to evaluate the academic department that a child is most interested in whether that’s biology, economics, English, psychology or any other one.

Below is advice that I shared in the past that explains why you should hone in on the academic department of schools on a teenager’s list and how you can evaluate them.

You can take advantage of nearly all the advice you’ll see below from the safety of your own home.

How to evaluate academic departments

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. A university could brag about the nationally renowned economists on its faculty, but the professors could have zero interest in teaching undergrad econ majors.

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.

Every 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….

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, which can save you tens of thousands of dollars or more.

Your membership guarantees you access to the course for life.

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  1. That is excellent information. I look forward to sharing it with my students and parents. As a professional school counselor, I too, get asked that question dozens of times per year, What is the best college for my son/daughter? My answer is always, it depends.