Admissions Officer Insight: Tips to Help Your College Search

Zak talking with prospective students at the QuestBridge National College Admissions Conference, Princeton University, June 2014.


Admissions Officer Corner is a series of posts written by college admissions officers at QuestBridge partner colleges

I probably spend every day of the week giving advice about the college process or talking about Bowdoin College. It’s not only a job, but a passion that I have found in my life. I strive to make sure that students going through the college process find a school (or a group of schools) that best suits them. Often enough, it is Bowdoin, but sometimes it is not. And the only way students can figure out the differences between schools and develop a list of “things” a school absolutely needs to have, is through research. Now the research process will be different for everyone, but below I have tried to highlight the characteristics that I think are included in a comprehensive search process. These tools will help you compare various schools that eventually make it onto your college list.

1) Visit schools. Your parents may be groaning already, or you may be wondering: “How can I afford flying across the country?” or “My family resources are so limited that visiting isn’t possible.” Well, many of the QuestBridge partner colleges (and a lot of other schools as well) have something called “fly-in programs.” These programs are typically FREE for students and involve some type of application process. They allow for students to visit campus, stay with a current student, experience the classroom dynamic, and did I mention that many of these programs are FREE?

2) Go deeper than the websites & promotional materials. Every website and brochure that you receive in the mail (or via email) is going to be an incredible resource for your college search. They provide A LOT of information in a way that is easily digested and allows you to begin figuring out the important factors in your college decision. They’ll touch upon academic disciplines, student led organizations, athletics, alumni, financial aid, research opportunities, and show you a lot of pretty pictures. All of those things are great, but none of them really get at the “culture” or the “feel” of the school. Whether you get a chance to visit different college campuses or not, I would encourage you to talk to as many people as you can from each school. Ask your admissions representative to put you in touch with current students that are either from your area or are studying in an area that you appreciate. Go on each school’s website and get in touch with faculty that are researching or teaching classes in something that intrigues you. If you have a chance to get on a college campus, sit down at a random table and start talking to current students and ask them as many questions as you can. Lastly, try and find alumni that you can speak with and get their perspective on the college/university. I’m asking you to talk to so many people because people are what make your college experience. People will be your roommates. People will teach your classes. People will be there to support you when life kicks you in the butt during college. People will be there to celebrate your achievements. So, get to really know a place. Not just by what college guidebooks, 3rd party websites, or arbitrary ranking systems have to say. The “feeling” that so many students talk about when they arrive on a campus may be intangible, but it becomes tangible when based upon a foundation of research.

3) Develop and be confident in your own opinion. If it hasn’t happened already, the question that you’re going to get asked by your friends, parents, teachers, extended family, siblings, coaches, employers, church members, neighbors,  and strangers is going to be “So, where are you applying to college?” In an effort to be nice, you’ll give them a small sample of your college list and these groups of people will either look very excited, bewildered, or unamused. Many will immediately give you advice or tell you the places that they think are great without even asking about the qualities that you’re looking for in a school. It’ll be hard to not let these opinions sway your thoughts, but this is your journey and your search. Have confidence in the research you are doing and try to not be fazed by too many opinions beside your own. Obviously, your family and guidance/college counselors are incredible resources, but don’t forget that this is still your process. You have to be on the college campus for four years. You have to take classes and be involved in the community. You have to be happy and comfortable and excited about where you are going to school. You. Not them. You.

Regardless of where this journey takes you, you will end up at a great place. The college search process is not easy, but take it as a challenge. Realize that this is an opportunity for you to learn about yourself, reflect on your goals and desires, and most importantly, a space for you to have a little bit of fun. Good luck!

Zak Harris, Associate Dean of Admissions & Director of Travel Planning, Bowdoin College