Ask the College Experts: Evaluating what your experience will be like

During their college search, prospective students and their families often look at numbers — a college’s rank, the number of majors  — and at things, like buildings and campus amenities. 

“And that’s important,” says Carl Steidel, senior associate dean of students. “You should pay some attention to those things.” 

But he says, prospective students should also try to suss out what the “experience is going to be like.”

In other words, when visiting a college — whether in person or poring over social media and online tours — a prospective student should “try to picture yourself in that place,” Steidel says. 

“Not just the physical place, not just imagining the good food that you’ll eat there, but what it will be like actually interacting with the people who are there.”

This requires some imagination, introspection, and self-awareness, says Steidel. “Think about what has worked for you during your academic career so far. For example, do you have close mentors in your high school that you connect with?”

If yes, you might look at a college where you can have really close relationships with faculty and staff. “That might mean a smaller college where those faculty-student ratios are a little bit closer.” 

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On the other hand, if you’ve had success walking a more solo path through high school, “maybe that means looking for a bigger institution where you don’t necessarily need to have those connections quite as much.”

Among Steidel’s responsibilities are Student Affairs programs that help students make connections between their academic lives and co-curricular opportunities. Success in college is “so often about the connections that students make once they get to campus.”

But there’s no hierarchy when it comes to the folks you can connect with. “Just try to make a connection with somebody during that first year, whether your peers in your residence, an academic advisor, the custodian in your hallway, or the person who drives the shuttle.” 

Steidel says that students should also think about their day-to-day lives, and the challenges they face and how they respond to them. To that end, “what does a college have in place to help you succeed? What kind of support team does the college have set up for you in advance?” Steidel asks.

“At Bates, we have an academic advisor. We have a student support advisor. We have residential life staff. Colleges have lots of different ways of supporting students, so try to find the structure and the kind of support network that matches what you think is going to make sense for you.”

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