Move beyond statistics and admissions websites to truly understand the ethos and culture of a school.
If you look at a college's website, curated brochures, or carefully choreographed events, you'll find scenes of students lounging on idyllic quads, working closely with faculty on independent research projects, and talking excitedly with their friends over restaurant quality meals in the dining halls. It can be hard to separate this polished ideal from the authentic campus experience. Unfortunately, some time in the 90s, many colleges mistakenly embraced the belief that they needed to be everything to everyone. Their marketing focused on how they were the same as other institutions, fearing any attempts at individualism might alienate prospective applicants.
As you follow a virtual tour route, sit in on an information session, or explore a college's website, it's difficult to isolate what features make that school unique. For example, take this statement from Brown University:
"Founded in 1764, Brown is a leading research university home to world-renowned faculty, and also an innovative educational institution where the curiosity, creativity and intellectual joy of students drives academic excellence.."
Let's unpack this. At Brown, they have excellent research programs and top faculty. They want students who are intellectually curious and willing to take ownership of their own education. This isn't particularly helpful. Most schools at Brown's level of selectivity say something similar on their website - and their setting, size, ranking, and campuses might look startlingly similar. But if you truly immerse yourself on these campus, you'll find their cultures, philosophies, missions, and attitudes can vary dramatically.
So how you can begin to move beyond the basic to understand the more intangible - and arguably, more important - features of a college?
Reflect on what you're looking for in a college experience. I would create a document with four columns: what you need, what you want but could live without), what you would dislike but could tolerate), and the dealbreakers. These could include things like geographic location, size, setting, the quality of your intended major, whether they have a teaching hospital on campus, diversity, curricular flexibility, and any other number of things.
Begin to explore colleges from a 20,000 ft view. Once you've established your essential criteria, websites like Collegevine, Niche, US News, and BigFutures can be very helpful as they allow you to narrow your search colleges using a number of factors. You can favorite or eliminate a number of colleges. As you build your preliminary list, I would recommend adding between 20 and 30 schools. You can narrow this list later.
Determine your competitiveness. Ultimately, you want your college to be a balanced of safe, target, and reach universities. There are a few ways to determine your competitiveness at a particular school: (1) Your SAT or ACT, (2) your GPA, and (3) your rank or where you fall in your class are the easiest way to do this. Some websites like CollegeVine can do this for automatically. However, be warned that the sub-college you apply to within a university, the major you select, and whether you chose to apply Early Decision or Regular Decision can greatly affect your competitiveness.
Dive more deeply. Once you establish your preliminary list, it's important to start drilling down into the culture, specialties, and philosophy of your prospective schools. There are a few ways to do this:
Use admissions resources. Take the virtual tour, do a virtual information session or a panel, go to the admissions website blogs and FAQs, and check out the list builder/major exploration tool on Kyros. And don't forget to sign up for their mailing lists so you can stay in the loop.
Department websites. Go to the department websites for your programs of interest, read through the faculty research, see if they feature students, or have interesting programs for students.
Google is your friend! A lot of the juiciest information is not accessible from the most colleges' websites. Take your list of essential qualities and Google it. "Diversity + University Name", "UndergraduateResearch" + "University Name", "Student Activism" + University Name", "A cappella" + University Name".
Read about the history and mission. The founding vision, mission, and model have shaped many universities in the US, contributing to their priorities, educational experiences, and sometimes even social environments. For this, I would recommend the about us and mission pages of the universities, but also, wikipedia can be revealing!
Parsing your potential major. Try to understand the school's policies around major choice. How much flexibility do they give you? Can you double major? Or take courses from different schools? Can you change a major? Then look at the course catalogue listing for your major. See what the requirements are and the types of electives you could take. Does it appeal to you and cover the things you want?
Use your connections. Reach out to anyone you might know at your top choice colleges and set up a call to try to get their perspective on life on campus.
Check out Youtube. Almost every college now has vloggers that talk about their experiences on campus, their highs, and their lows. Don't be afraid to try to find student made and run content. Just be sure to take it with a grain of salt, since it's just one person's perspective, and there are many different kinds of experiences at a college.
Read between the lines. A college's key features and specialized programs can be important. But how they talk about those features, what they emphasize, and what they omit can reveal a lot about their philosophies and the way you learn on campus. For example, take a look at the open curriculum of Brown University or Amherst College, and compare it to the strict core curriculum of the University of Chicago or Columbia. This reveals a tremendous amount about each school's unique take on the purpose of education.
Document. Make a file or document for each college to organize your notes. Believe me, if you don't write your thoughts down you'll forget them! Note key features, things that you liked, and what you didn't. This will help you once you start your applications, but it's important for practical reasons too - like crafting your Why X-University? supplemental essays.