When researching colleges to apply to, your student may already be reading college websites and contacting the admissions office. Another major source of information is current students at the colleges of interest. After helping your student with gathering the facts—accreditation, cost of attendance, graduation rate, and so forth—guide them in contacting current undergraduates to learn about what it’s actually like to attend the college. This guidance will also prepare your student for conducting informational interviews with, for example, alumni when they’re ready to learn about careers and particular companies.
How to Contact Current Students
To find current college students, your student can start with the admission office. Some colleges have student ambassadors who work at the admission office and communicate with prospective students.
Another great place for your student to research is student organizations at their colleges of interest. Your student can identify the organizations they’re interested in, and then contact the student officers if their contact information is provided.
Additionally, many colleges have a social media presence via official accounts. Your student can visit the official social media pages of the colleges of interest and send direct messages to current students who are interacting with the college and the public on the platform.
Guide your student in crafting short, respectful messages to current students. The message should include a brief introduction and a request to chat with the current student over the phone for about 20 minutes or to ask a few questions over email.
- How they found the current student
- Brief introduction
- Request for a phone call or to ask questions over email
I was looking at student clubs at yourcollege, and I found that you’re the president of Students for the Environment. I’m John, and I’m a high school sophomore in Denver. I’m starting to explore colleges and would love to learn about your experience as an undergrad at college. Would it be possible to talk over the phone for about 20 minutes? Or may I email you a few questions?
8 Questions to Ask Current College Students
Setting up the opportunity to ask questions is the first step. The next step is to ask the questions. Coach your student in asking the below questions along with follow-up questions.
- What are some of the most popular majors at your college? Why are those majors popular?
Though you can find information about the top majors by looking at college profiles, this question is a good way for your student to learn about why a major is popular. Are students just going with the crowd, focused on a certain career, or choosing a major that is particularly rich in resources at the college of interest? Follow-up questions to ask include ones that aim at the student experience in those majors.
- What are your classes like?
College education has not changed much since I was an undergraduate many years ago. Many classes at medium-sized and large universities are still lecture-based and have over 200 students, even at Ivy League schools. This question will help your student find out whether the colleges they want to apply to offer the types of classroom experience that match them. Is classroom learning connected with the outside world? Do most classes have 30 or 300 students?
You may be wondering, “Why can’t I just look up the faculty-to-student ratio?” That number is misleading. For example, a school could seem to have a lot of instructors, but they might have a lot of star faculty members that teach only one class a year and devote most of their time to research. As a result, the faculty-to-student ratio looks good, but undergrads take classes with at least a couple hundred students. This phenomenon is common in the most prestigious schools.
- Do you get to interact with your professors?
Professors are a great asset to a college, but at some institutions, a professor’s main job is to do research and attract funding rather than spend time with students. In those places, professors see teaching as a nuisance. At other colleges, professors are hired to focus on teaching and working with students. Current students know the real deal and would be happy to discuss their experience with prospective students.
- How are student advising and support?
Once in college, students need academic guidance and support to take care of their mental health. Help your student learn to identify colleges that will provide the support necessary for them to succeed and be healthy. Guide them in looking for colleges that emphasize student advising and support services. Most, if not all, colleges have advising and support systems in place, but that doesn’t mean all colleges are proactive about helping students.
Follow-up questions might include: How often do you meet with your academic advisor? Does your advisor actively reach out to you? Do you know where to go if you need help? Do college staff members and professors proactively try to help you, or are you expected to do everything on your own?
- Are there research opportunities?
Working as a research assistant (paid or unpaid) provides a great opportunity to learn about a field of interest while being mentored by a professor. Colleges of all sizes provide research opportunities, although medium-sized and large institutions provide a lot more choices. However, those large institutions also have more students competing for research spots.
- How do students at your college find internships and jobs?
College is a huge investment, and the hope is that your student will attend a college that will set them up for future success. Guide your student to ask about the type of help students get from the career services office and other on-campus resources. It’s a bad sign if a college expects students to find an internship or job on their own with few resources from the college. Another bad sign is hearing current students say that students are generally unsuccessful in landing career opportunities.
- Which activities or organizations are you involved in?
Just like in high school, it’s generally a good idea to participate in extracurricular activities (but remind your student to not over do it). Student organizations are usually a good way to make friends. Your student can ask questions to learn about how vibrant the college community is.
- What’s the social life like?
High school students often don’t realize that they’ll live at their college and not just go to school there. In addition to academics and extracurriculars, help your student think about the social life. Is their college of interest a party school? Is that what they want? Does Greek life dominate? What do students do for fun?
Certainly, gathering facts and statistics is a necessary part of researching colleges. At the same time, direct communication with current students provides a rich layer of information that published facts don’t always capture. Contacting current students is time consuming, so encourage your student to focus their efforts on the colleges they are most interested in or unsure about. Being equipped with knowledge will reduce uncertainty in the application process and help your student make choices that are best for them.
Lan Ngo, Ph.D. is the founder of Your College Advisors, which offers resources to help families and students find affordable colleges that are a good fit. Lan has worked in the field of education for over a decade, and has published academic articles and presented her work at conferences. You can find Your College Advisors on Twitter: @YCAdvisors.