You need to be realistic during the college planning process. There is no â€œperfectâ€ college. I’ve never met a student for whom every classroom experience, every faculty member interaction, and/or every out-of-class experience turned out to be ideal. A good way to approach the colleges you are looking into is to think of each of them in terms of a set of probabilities. And, depending upon your interests and the kinds of experiences you hope to have, you should try to get some sense of the probabilities of satisfying those interests or of having those experiences at one or another of them. For instance, what are the probabilities of being in classes of one size or another, or of getting to know at least some faculty members well, or of undertaking independent research, or of participating in one or another extracurricular activity? These are the sorts of questions you ought to be asking.
There aren’t any quick or easy ways to fully know what a particular college is like, despite the proliferation of commercial publications that purport to give you capsule summaries or the â€œinsideâ€ story. Colleges and universities are dynamic and complex institutions, if for no other reason than the fact that one-quarter of the student body is new each year. While some information is relatively easy to come by (size, costs, course offerings, and the like), many of the factors you may wish to weigh and compare are simply not so easily measured and assessed. For instance, I’d be surprised if on any given day, let alone over the course of four years, any two students at Princeton experience this place in quite the same way. There are many paths, both academic and non-academic, through any college.
Try to avoid falling into the trap of thinking about one or another college solely in terms of a few descriptive adjectives or traits. And remember that any college is going to be at least slightly different than it now is simply by virtue of your enrolling there. If at all possible, you should visit the campuses of the colleges that interest you most, attend classes and chat with students who are currently enrolled. Rather than rely on any single source of information, seek out a number of different sources, always keeping in mind the fable about the seven blind philosophers, each of whom, upon touching a different part of an elephant, described a different animal he thought it to be. So, too, is the same university likely to be perceived, at least in part, quite differently by its various members.
My next post will discuss the high price tag of some selective colleges.