I would imagine that for many graduating seniors, one of the trickiest aspects of deciding which college to attend is that students have few, if any, opportunities to set foot on campus to get a feel for the school before they need to decide. And even if you are off doing spring break tours, what you’re seeing is not exactly what school will (hopefully) look like next year. Virtual tours are great and all, but what else can you do to get a better feel for different schools?

If you’re asking what this has to do with paying for college, it’s simple: One of the easiest ways to overspend on college is to take more than four years to graduate. One of the easiest ways to take more than four years to graduate is to transfer. So finding the right fit is a really important piece of the overall puzzle.

Most colleges have become pretty adept at providing resources for getting to know the school. If you’re still scrambling around, a few options for students:

  • Ask the school to put you in touch with a current student– ideally a sophomore or higher since this year’s freshmen might not have a great idea of campus life– to answer your questions about the school. Many schools can try to pair you with someone from your home town or state, which can be especially valuable to students considering colleges a long way away.
  • Join the admitted students group on Facebook. Although these people don’t necessarily know any more about the college than you do, they’ll be your classmates for the next four years. See if they’re people you like and can envision yourself spending the next four years with.
  • Likewise, parents can join the school’s Facebook parents group and get a lot of insider information about how things work. Right now, a year into the pandemic, these groups tend to be pretty active and can help you see how well the school engages with students, families and the larger community.

But it’s not just talking with people; you also need to ask good questions to really differentiate School A from School B. Here are some comments and learnings that stuck with us from our college tours a couple of years ago, none of which was anything we necessarily would have come up with on our own, and all of which you could find out even without a campus visit:

  • Asked about what they didn’t like about their school, one student mentioned that it’s not in a “college town” so although there is a lot going on on campus and in the surrounding community, there isn’t a local off-campus student-oriented gathering place.
  • At smaller schools with D1 sports teams, a significant amount of the social life tends to be oriented around sports.
  • Whatever your sport, whatever your level at that sport, most schools will have a place for you to participate with others at the same level. That may or may not be the case for other activities like performing arts.
  • At a liberal arts college that is working hard to attract a more diverse student body, one of our tour guides who is from a working class family said she struggled initially to fit in because most of her classmates’ families were considerably wealthier than hers and they were accustomed to doing a lot of things in their free time that weren’t affordable to her.
  • A premed student said he chose his school because all the others he considered took great pride in their premed courseload being “weeder” classes, whereas the faculty at the school he chose talked more about helping students to succeed in these difficult courses.
  • Schools have a range of very different retention tools, based on the priorities they see for their student bodies. I was pleasantly surprised to see that even elite schools like MIT and Yale care about student success and tailor their programs to what they see as their own institutional challenges. For example, MIT has a number of initiatives addressed at suicide prevention that seem to start from the point of identifying root causes. Other schools focused more on student-run activities or community-building.
  • Different schools place different value on engagement with their surrounding communities. (And as a Berkeley alum, I’d say that different communities place different value on their local university and its students being in the community.)
  • Some schools see housing as a tool for community building; others use it as a pathway to independence; still others see it primarily as living choices. Some do not permit students to have cars, or limit cars to upperclasspersons.
  • Schools have vastly differing policies on alcohol and drug use by students, ranging from “Good Samaritan” policies where students will never be punished for calling for help regardless of their age or state of intoxication, to zero-tolerance zones or policies.
  • What role does the school see for organizations like fraternities and sororities or other social groups? We’ve seen very small schools with large and active Greek communities and others that shun them.

You’ll notice I didn’t include any questions about campus or class sizes, urban/rural settings, majors, etc. It’s not that that isn’t important. It’s that I hope you already did that research if those criteria are important to you, but of course you can also ask those questions. Finding your fit is often about finding your people, and finding your people usually comes from having access to situations that allow you to interact with people in a way that’s comfortable for you.