As a college counselor, I often hear from families whose sons are just beginning the college selection process who ask, “What schools should my child visit?” They will mention a certain location tied to an upcoming family trip, or perhaps a major that the student or parents have in mind and they would like to consider schools with strong programs in that field. I will suggest a range of schools, yet families generally choose to visit those with which they are familiar or which have the biggest brand names.

More Than a Name

A trip to see a college campus is a great way to encourage a student to picture himself as a student there. It is entirely logical, and there is nothing wrong with approaching the college process in this way, except that it can direct the student to seeing colleges based mostly on the public impression or “name” of the school. The parents or student have heard of the school previously and therefore want to consider it because of that “name,” that impression derived from many sources, which often include family, friends, peers, media coverage, sports news, and college rankings like U.S. News. “Name” doesn’t often reflect what is really happening for students on campus; rather, it is an intangible creation that varies from person to person based on the information to which he or she has access.

Looking at schools based on the “name” skips the most important part of the college process: finding the right kind of learning environment for the student. A “name” offers nothing for the student to grasp when determining if a particular school is a good fit for him as a learner. Instead, it often proves ephemeral; the student can’t explain why he is interested in a school other than it has a good “name,” and that lack of concrete information makes it hard for him to describe why this school is (or is not) actually a good choice for him as a learner.

Getting a Wide Perspective

Rather than focusing on certain named schools, I have found that students and families who have the most success in the decision process are willing to first look at different kinds of learning environments, without the pressure of assuming the student must apply to a particular school. This allows the student to first determine the kind or kinds of college learning environments where he is most likely to find academic success, and then move on to finding specific colleges with that learning environment which he will research and then perhaps apply. As Jeffrey Selingo, Washington Post columnist and author of There is Life After College, shared in a LinkedIn article earlier this year, “prospective students should be kicking the tires of the academic inner- workings of campus” when they seek to find the right college learning environment for them.

How do you look at different college learning environments? It takes some legwork because the student needs to see what kinds of different learning environments are out there, and that means taking the time to see more than one kind of college. As residents of Northeast Ohio, our students have access to explore every kind of college learning environment within a reasonable car drive.

It would be an excellent foundation for the college process if a student had the chance to see a small liberal arts college, a large research university, a school with a heavy focus on co-ops/internships, and a mid-sized school which offers a mix of course sizes and academic opportunities. Depending on a student’s interests, it might also mean visiting a polytechnic or technically-focused college, a conservatory, an art school, a military academy/school, or a college geared specifically to a particular field of study (such as business).

What to Look For

When looking at learning environments, the basic campus visit – a tour and an information session – is just the tip of the iceberg. Students also need a chance to personally observe the learning happening on campus, not just the amazing new gym or the beautiful quad. The easiest way to do this is to ask to sit in on a class (or two) while on campus. If your son has a particular major or field of study in mind, it would be ideal if he were able to observe a class in that subject area, but even an entry-level English or mathematics class should give him a sense of how learning is happening at a basic level on campus.

Here are eight important things for you (and him) to consider:

  1. Is the class a size in which he feels comfortable learning? It can feel a bit like something from Goldilocks: “too big, too small, or just right?”
  2. Is your son comfortable with the format of the class? Is it a discussion-based class? Lecture? Tutorial? Lab? Obviously, not all of his classes would be in this same format, but it is worth asking how many classes for a typical student are conducted in each of the formats.
  3. Who teaches the class: a professor or a teaching assistant? Does this matter to your son?
  4. Does the way in which the professor/teaching assistant interacts with the students fit your son’s capabilities as a learner?
  5. Are students able to ask questions during the class? Discuss the topic at hand? Work in a group with other students? Which of these are good learning modes for your son?
  6. How prepared are the students to engage in the class itself? Are students showing evidence of preparing material for discussion, lecture, or asking questions? Do students present material or direct any of the learning themselves?
  7. What kind of access to the professor or teaching assistant do the students have outside of class? Office hours? Meeting times? Tutorial sessions?
  8. Does the learning situation in this class feel manageable to your son? Does he feel he could be a successful learner in this environment?

Learning is a two-way street, so your son is going to want to look for both what the teacher/class situation offers to students and what the students themselves are contributing to the learning situation. He has to know that he can do what is necessary to be successful for it to be the right kind of learning environment for him.

Beyond the Class Visit

Discovering how students learn on a campus can take lots of different forms. Perhaps your son can talk with a current student about class formats, accessibility to professors, and the study culture on campus. A visit to the writing center, tutoring center, or learning support services office is often very helpful to uncovering how many students use these academic resources and see them as helpful to their learning. Reaching out to a specific academic department can often mean a chance to speak with a professor while your son is visiting campus, and thus a chance to hear about the learning environment from someone who is creating it daily. I find a trip to the library while on tour is an excellent way to observe the culture of learning on a campus. Are students at the library during the day? Are they engaged in individual work, group work, or a combination of the two? Ask the librarians what the typical patterns of study are on the campus, and then have your son think about how he might (or might not) fit into those patterns. All of these options will help your son to see the nature of learning on that particular campus and also help him make some judgments about what learning environment or environments might be best for him.

Accepting the Importance of Fit

What if your son doesn’t feel a school is right for him? If he can share with you why he feels it is a bad fit, then trust him on this. His fit in terms of learning might not be your own, but he is the one who will be the student there and he has to feel comfortable with the learning environment on his future campus. All college learning environments work for some students, but for students in the “wrong” learning situation, it can be frustrating and disheartening to pursue their studies.

When your son has found his learning environment (or environments, as he might feel comfortable in more than one), his college search process will be easier and more directed. Being able to say that he really wants and needs a college with small classes, or that he definitely wants a co-op as part of his major requirements, will give him something concrete to seek out as he researches colleges and eventually formulates a list of schools to which he will apply. He will have a standard with which to measure schools focused on his own learning capabilities, needs, and wants, rather than on the size of the dorm rooms, the football team’s record, or the intangible “name” of the school. The focus of his college search will be the right environment for him as a learner, and that is what I would wish for every college applicant.

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Jennifer Beros, Associate Head of School and Interim Director of College Counseling at University School

Jennifer Beros is the Associate Head of School and Interim Director of College Counseling at University School. She joined the faculty in 2011. Her career in education spans more than 25 years and has included teaching high school history and life skills, teaching middle school social studies and language arts, graduate research, and instruction at the collegiate level. Jen has presented at the national conference of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors and helped to initiate and coordinate many college programs for Cleveland Independent School students and parents. She earned her B.S. in Education, Cum Laude, from Miami University, her M.A. in Comparative Politics from American University, and her M.A. in Education from Ursuline College.