To continue the suggestions of under-utilized questions for potential college freshman to consider, we must prompt students to think about how campus size will directly affect their experience.
Small fish in a large pond, or large fish in a small pond? Again, heading off to Penn State, I knew the basic population of students on main campus. What I was not fully cognizant of, however, was how the roughly 50,000 students on campus would greatly alter the academic and social setting, thus transforming the whole experience in unanticipated ways. To my own fault, in the pamphlet and at first glance, student enrollment simply seemed like an arbitrary measure. However, upon showing up to my first lecture for a political science introductory course, the true representation of the campus size revealed itself. My 400+ class involved zero peer interaction, discussion, or engagement. There was no attendance or accountability—which meant you could show up or not, as long as you were present for the midterm and final exam. While some students may thrive on the anonymity of such a setting, it wasn’t until I was immersed in it that I realized that it wasn’t for me.
Guidance counselors and advisors are invaluable resources to help prepare students for the actual experience that a university will present, helping students to better gauge their preferences. Asking questions like, “Do you prefer to fly under the radar of anonymity in class, or are you looking for more personal support from professors and instructors?” “Do you want to see, recognize, and acknowledge classmates as you pass through campus, or do you prefer to encounter, dine with, and meet new people every day?” “Depending on the campus, do you want a quick, walkable commute to your classes, or do you prefer a sprawling walk or bus ride to your lecture halls?” “Do you want to seek out a close-knit group of friends, or do you prefer to fall in naturally with the people that you get to know in the smaller setting?”
All of these questions relate to the day-to-day experiences that students will need to consider before making a decision. Another suggestion, especially with regard to class size, would be to encourage students to sit in on a few classes if possible. A campus tour shows much of the environment, but experiencing classes firsthand allows high schoolers to get a taste of how their education will look. Of course, as students progress and select majors and areas of study, the class sizes will shrink. However, the first 1-2 years of gen eds will reveal the true nature of a large state school versus the small liberal arts environment.
How could you realistically combine your strengths and interests to serve as your leg up in the workforce? This question is difficult for several different reasons. First, it forces students to look critically at their abilities and academic assets. Secondly, this question prompts students to look to the future and anticipate what they might choose as a prospective career, which can be intimidating and stressful. And finally, this question requires students to synthesize two concepts, (strengths and interests), which they may have never thought to combine. The complexity of the question, even if unanswered, helps students to envision how the university will act as a stepping stone toward their development into a self-assured, contributing member of society.
Considering this question also helps students to potentially narrow their post-secondary options. If their strength in math and interest in working with children lead them toward an education major, that student should ensure that their university offers an undergraduate education program. Does the school have a strong math department? Are their teaching internships or volunteer opportunities offered through the university? Would a study abroad program allow for teaching experience overseas? Again, these follow-up questions motivate high schoolers to look more critically at their college options to guarantee that their choices end up checking all of the necessary boxes.
How familiar do you want college to feel? Advisors and guidance counselors will want to ask students about their comfort level regarding the school’s climate, setting, history, demographics, etc. If the school has a reputation for its athletics and Greek life, students may want to consider how much they plan to participate or value those traditions. Are students looking for a serene, lush campus, removed from hustle of the surrounding areas? Or do they prefer a campus immersed in the culture of a thriving city? Do they want to experience cultures, practices, languages, and people outside of their own upbringing? Or do they want to live and study where they feel “at home” and included?
Encourage students to consider which types of school settings and locations will provide them with the most opportunities for growth. Of course, the response will vary from student to student. The goal is for them to envision their ideal college experience and then follow that knowledge.
Finally, not so much a question as it is a consideration: you can always change your mind. Choosing, enrolling, and moving onto campus is not a binding decision. As much as we would like for students to find their niche or match on the first try, this is not always the case. As much as Penn State ended up as a mismatch for me, my time there allowed me to see more clearly what I was looking for in the college experience. Sometimes you have to see what you don’t want before you can realize what you do want. In my case, transferring helped me to appreciate the change of pace, cultural environment, and different class structures that the University of Pittsburgh provided. So as much as we’d like to guide them in the right direction, students should also know that they can always diverge or detour.