The most important homework you’ll ever do


Finding the right college or university takes more than just perusing the national rankings, say experts — it requires homework and thought.

“Instead of asking what, [students] need to ask why … Why am I going to college? That’s an important way to start the process,” said Marty O’Connell, a veteran of the admissions process and executive director of the Maryland-based nonprofit Colleges That Change Our Lives.

“Too often [students] are focused on a list of schools,” she said. “Especially in an economy like this, they need to be asking, ‘What am I going to be doing when I get there?’”

Most prospective students — and their families — can rattle off a list of the top-ranked colleges and universities in the country, known as well for their limited acceptance rate and high number of rejections, O’Connell said.

Students instead should start with themselves: What kind of a learner are they, what goals do they have for college and what are their post-graduation plans? Once those questions are answered, students are prepared to search for colleges and universities fitting their personality and plans.

When students are ready to cull the thousands of higher education institutions across the country into a manageable list, Matthew Denhart, administration director at the Washington-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity, recommends using the Department of Education’s College Navigator.

Students should keep an eye on graduation rates, retention rates and financial requirements as well as researching faculty members and degree programs they may be interested in pursuing, he said.

“In the grand scheme of things, you go to college to get a good education,” Denhart said. “The primary focus should be on the education. Students really need to be asking … school A versus school B, who has the better program? Who has faculty members who I’m interested in or offer the topics I’m interested in? Who has faculty who are recognized in their field?”

Once settled on a reasonably sized list, Denhart recommends not only visiting, but speaking with faculty members, other students and auditing classes. Take the campus tour, but don’t be afraid to ask tough questions, he said.

“You’re investing often times north of $100,000 for four or five years and really — you’re buying the college experience too — but the main thing you’re there for is going to class and learning from teachers,” Denhart said. “That’s the meat of the product.”

O’Connell advises students and their families to drop by campus on a day when classes will be in session. While visiting on a weekend might seem more convenient, it’s not going to be the same experience as showing up on a day when classes are in session during a busy semester. Still, she always recommends dropping by campus at least once.

With research and campus tours under their belts, students should be in a position to apply to about five colleges that meet their needs, O’Connell said. The term “safety school” shouldn’t be in their vocabulary, she said.

“Students ought to approach this process so they’re coming up with five schools that fit them — period,” she said. “I ask students to close their eyes and think about the admissions letter coming through the mail and if they’re excited when any of the five [arrive], because otherwise, it’s not a fit.”

Denhart recommends students look at the college application process from the vantage point of a consumer. With so many colleges to pick from, the pressure should be on the institution to make the case for why they’re right for the student, he said.

“[Students] should strive to get into the best school they can, but what needs to change is assuming that one school is better than the other,” he said. “For example ,you would assume the University of Virginia is better than Virginia Commonwealth University, but we don’t really know that. We don’t know if students learn more coming out UVA than VCU.”

Bottom line: Students preparing for college need to be prepared to do the work. Grab the wall calendar or load up the digital planner and schedule time between school, sports and friends for research, O’Connell said.

“As a culture, we love it when something has a short cut … but it’s not so with college,” she said. “The trick with all of this is that it is time consuming.”