How to Navigate College Websites Like a Pro

Now that many of our students have taken their first round of standardized tests, the time has come to get serious about college research. Spring break is right around the corner, and with that comes school tours and endless questions from parents, counselors, neighbors, and pretty much any adult in a student’s life about where they’ll be applying.

Before putting together preliminary lists, or even visiting schools, though, students need to begin learning more about each institution. The trouble is, of course, that every college website begins to look the same when you explore the undergraduate admissions pages. All of them boast about their passionate students, their commitment to diversity, and their esteemed faculty. None of them does a great job of making clear what truly sets them apart. This is where the detective work comes in.

To form a fuller picture of what a college is really like, students will need to look beyond the “advertising” pages, or those sections of the website designed for prospective students. Instead, we encourage all of our students to take these four steps when visiting a school’s website:

  1. Look for the Common Data Set: Okay, we’ll admit that this one is boring. BUT, before it makes sense to get deep into your discoveries about a school, you’ll want to make sure it’s an option that’s within reach. Plenty of third-party websites provide admissions data, but each individual school’s Common Data Set has the most detailed, up-to-date information. These data-packed documents, which cover everything from admissions percentages broken down by specific categories to the number of faculty who belong to minority groups, are usually housed within the institutional research section of the site. We usually find it’s easiest to just search in a web browser for the school name and “Common Data Set.” Once you’ve found it, pay attention to sections C, which is where you’ll find all the information you would ever care to know about admissions, including the relative importance of various factors, average GPA and test scores of admitted students, and the percentage of students who submitted SAT vs. ACT scores. Be honest, and verify that this is a institution that could be a good fit for you based on the numbers, and then move on to the more exciting steps below.
  2. Dig Deeper into the Academic Departments: Looking at a never-ending list of majors is not going to do any student any good when it comes to comparing colleges. Instead, students should pick a few areas of interest and find out as much as they can about courses, faculty, career support, and extracurricular opportunities within these programs. When working with students, we never simply verify that schools offer a specific major. Instead, we focus on identifying which schools excel in specific academic programs. Take business, for example, which tends to be a favorite. A quick look at Providence College and Villanova will confirm that both schools offer a School of Business. Spend more time on these specific pages, however, and we can quickly identify a difference between the robustness of the programs. PC students have a choice of four majors, while Villanova students have their pick of six majors, three co-majors and four concentrations. If the majors look appealing, take the next step of exploring the course offerings. Ideally, the college will offer a range of electives that go beyond basic survey courses and lectures.
  3. Explore Life Outside the Classroom: Academics are important, but the reality is that you’re not going to be spending all your time studying. Therefore, you’ll need a school that will fit your social preferences as well. Again, don’t stop at looking at lists of clubs and organizations. Instead, keep clicking until you reach specific pages that tell you more about each organization, such as who runs them, when they meet, and what events they’re currently planning. If you can’t find this information on the website itself, try searching on social media sites for Facebook groups or Twitter accounts. If you can’t find anything, chances are that it’s not a very active group, and you may not be able to get as involved in that particular activity as you’d like to.
  4. Follow the Schools Wherever they Are: One factor that’s often difficult to assess from a college website is character. Yes, we can look at the About Us section and memorize the motto, but this rarely does enough to give us a sense of the school’s voice. To get closer to finding out the truth about this, we head to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Snapchat. The posts shared on these sites provide a better look at daily life on the campuses. Boston College’s Facebook page, for example, shares information on upcoming events, videos from recent conferences, photos from students studying abroad, and glimpses of spots around campus that you probably won’t see on your tour.

We know it seems like we just added a lot of work to your plate, but we promise it will be fun. How many other times during the college process are you going to be told it’s okay to spend hours clicking through Instagram in the name of research?


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