“That is easy,” some may say in response, “I can tell you a lot of information about a college.”

What they usually mean is that they can give you statistics about a specific college, such as its location or history, and information about its faculty or the admission process.

With the internet putting so much information at our fingertips, facts and statistics about colleges are easily obtained these days. Moreover, there are many great college guidebooks that can tell you everything you want to know about a school.

Except one thing—is the college right for you?

I am an Independent Educational Consultant, and I certainly know a lot about different colleges. But even if I would tell you all I know, even if you would memorize every bit of data about the school, the answer to that question could still evade you.

Truly knowing a college, not just facts, and choosing the right one for you goes way beyond just passively taking the advice of anyone—even somebody as informed as me.

Why Is It So Hard to Truly Know If a College Is Right for You?

There are several basic reasons:

College is something to be experienced

College is one of those life experiences which you cannot really understand unless you actually attended a college, perhaps even for a few years. In other words, you cannot judge a college’s personality unless you experience it first hand. Unfortunately, the technology to jump forward in time does not yet exist.

College cannot be judged by school rankings

Far too many people focus solely on the name of a school, its location or its ranking in popular college lists. But that is not a very reliable way of really getting to know a college. There is no way of judging a school simply by taking a quick look at statistics and rankings. Relying on what you think you know about a college will not tell you if it is a good place for you.

College is not a product or commodity

Choosing a college is not like buying a new pair of jeans or a new car. It is a rite of passage into adulthood, not a commodity. If you only think of a college education in terms of the end results—either a diploma or the prestige of graduating from a school with a particular name—you have missed the point of the college experience. Really knowing a college is not any of those things.

Woman in library with head downTo get to know the personality of a college, you have to get past the surface knowledge. You must dig deeper—past the name of the school, past the SAT scores—and really think about how happy you would be there.

What practical steps can you take to achieve this?

4 Things You Can Do to Truly Know a College

To honestly acquaint yourself with a college, take these steps:

1. Know yourself as a student

Of course, knowing yourself as a person is important. But knowing yourself as a student is the beginning of enlightening yourself about whether a college is right for you.

By the time you are in high school, you should be able to honestly answer questions such as: How serious are you about school? What works for you? What does not? Are you a small school person, content with a tight-knit learning environment? Or a big school person, who wants the most exciting experiences, like football games and large classes? Why do you feel either way?

2. Forget everything you think you know about colleges

To look beyond the surface, you need to forget about the names of the colleges, forget about their locations, and forget about what you think you know about them. Instead, open up your mind and start fresh.

This could be very hard because a lot of well-intentioned people—family, friends, college counselors—may tell you their opinions on different colleges or locations. Listen politely and ask questions. But at the end of the day, forget everything you think you know and take the next step.

3. Put in the time to do thorough research

If you do not do research, you will end up relying only on what you think you know and what others tell you. Coming to an accurate understanding of what exactly a particular college is all about is too important to simply leave in the hands of others. You have to absorb and internalize the information you dig up yourself.

How can you best use your research time to get a flavor for a college?

  • Spend time reading college reviews (there are a lot of great guidebooks available), individual college websites, and social media information.
  • Sign up for the college’s mailing list and read those emails; see if anything stands out to you.
  • Talk with the representatives of a college when they come visit your city or high school and listen to their presentations.
  • Go to college fairs (although this can be tricky because sometimes these events are so crowded with people that having a deep interaction with the college admission officer may be difficult).
  • Visit a college campus, walk around and check it all out, take the tour and information session, listen and participate, ask questions, talk to other students, or perhaps even meet with a professor if possible. (Note: Having gone with your sibling on such a tour some years back does not count, you have to do it for your own college search, too.)

The bottom line is, if you do not put in the time, you will not get beyond a surface level understanding or truly know a potential college.

4. Keep notes on your research results

Whatever you do for your research, whatever information you gather, you have to write it down. Do not just type it out on your tablet or phone. Do not wing it or think you can remember. Physically take notes, with pen and paper.

Research has proven that taking handwritten notes is better than typing notes on a digital device. It makes a deeper impression. This helps you remember the information longer and allows you to process it better.

I could tell you many stories of students I have helped, who went back to their handwritten notes (I insist on pen and paper) months and months later, only to get another great epiphany on whether a college was right for them. And all of it was based on the fact that they took great research notes and were reviewing those results once more.

If you would like more help with investigating if a college is right for you, please contact me. As mentioned at the outset, I am an Independent Educational Consultant with many years experience, and I realize that getting to truly know a college requires a lot of work and in-depth research.

For that reason, I utilize a special exercise with those who seek my guidance. An exercise that involves looking at various different colleges in an unbiased, objective way and evaluating them solely on their qualities, not their names or locations. It would be my pleasure to guide you through this exercise and help you to find the college that is truly the right one for you.