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How to research college? The college search always starts in the same place: the Internet. But until you’ve stepped onto a campus—not virtually, but by setting an actual foot onto an actual campus—you can’t really know what type of college you want to attend. We have worked with countless candidates who insisted they only wanted a “big state school”—until they set foot on a small liberal arts college campus. And we’ve had just as many who wanted that intimate setting who ended up falling in love with a mid-size school likeNorthwesternElon University, or TCU.

Approach the college search with the following mindset: “I don’t know what I don’t know.” What your neighbor said, your older brother said, or your religious community believes—throw it all out. It’s meaningless. You have to decide for yourself what type of campus environment suits you best, and you’ll never what schools taste like until you sample the flavor yourself.

David and I have known this for years, but last month we got an up-close-and-personal slap in the face about how easy it is to forget this advice when we went on a whirlwind tour of North Carolina colleges. We did seven very different schools in 48 hours (DukeDavidsonElonWake ForestHigh Point,University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, andGuilford).

 

We’re still exhausted—but it was worth every moment. We went with two IECA colleagues and had a lot of fun. None of us may have the energy of a 17 year old anymore, but nothing stopped us from acting like one.  College tours shouldn’t be somber processions through the hallowed halls of academia. That’s no way to really sample a school.

And touring seven colleges with two other highly intelligent and observant people led to several epiphanies in North Carolina:

1) Everyone has a different take on the same school. Uncle David thought Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, was the perfect environment for a bright, liberal arts-minded, competitive-yet-not-cutthroat student who wanted an intimate environment on a leafy Southern campus that was ready for its Hollywood close-up. Auntie Evan thought it was a great setting for an artsy kid who wanted a traditional college town with cool stores and cafes. One of our colleagues felt Davidson was a prepster heaven custom-made for a private-school student who was a little sheltered (and whose family wanted it to stay that way)—45% of its students come from independent schools. Our other colleague pointed out that, while the student body came from 40 states and 18 countries, 39% came from the Southeast U.S. and wondered if Midwestern kids (at 9%) would feel comfortable. We all agreed to disagree on who the perfect Davidson student was. What does that mean? You have to see it for yourself to decide which one of us you agree with.  And that’s the way it is for all colleges nationwide.

2. Don’t judge the school based solely on the presenter in the information session. There we were at Duke, the crème de la crème Southern Ivy according to US News. We picked up our requisite t-shirts at the Duke University Student Union, walked past the Duke Chapel, wandered through the academic buildings and East Campus housing and then up to Admissions for the info session—and that’s when the whole thing fell apart. I’m not going to say the name of this admissions presenter (because I’m not a mean person), but she was so boring that she could sober up all 60,000 attendees of Burning Man. Trust us. Our colleagues had to keep nudging Auntie Evan awake. How could an info session on one of the world’s most vibrant, challenging, resource-rich academic communities be a better sedative than a 10mg Ambien? Duke should have the best, most interesting, intellectual, interactive info session possible. Yet, all the presenter did was talk and talk and talk at us. One of her personal highlights of Duke’s hometown of Durham was the opportunity to get tickets to Wicked—a Broadway show that opened in 2001 and has toured the country countless times. And she went on and on—it was enough time for Evan’s iPhone to charge up from 20% to 87%.

But here’s the take-away: Duke is phenomenal. The majors, the proximity to Durham (rated one of the country’s best foodie cities in the US), the internships and the research availability—not to mention some of the brightest minds in the world, both faculty and students. The access to grad school and Wall Street. Hello? Duke’s superiority is indisputable. That’s why you cannot dismiss a school based on one boring apple. What you can do is…

3. Talk to random students you meet on campus—not just the tour guide or presenter. Stopping random students walking to class can be intimidating, but we promise you that students love to talk about their school. For the first 20 minutes at Wake Forest, let’s just say it was so white we thought we were in a blizzard. Then, huddled together near the student union (like the football team they turned out to be) was a group of students of color. When Evan made a beeline to talk to them, the other three of us almost fainted by his display of boldness. And Evan cut straight to the chase (which you should feel free to do as well). Evan introduced himself and us, asked a couple of safe questions about these students’ background (like college major, sports, and food), and then cut to what he really cared about: “What’s it like being a student of color at Wake Forest?” None of them batted an eye at the question, and Deacon Devil football cornerback Kevin Johnson had the most eloquent response: “It wasn’t so hard for me, because of where I grew up, but for some of my friends here, it was a real culture shock.” Yet everyone on the team agreed that the quality of the education, the friendliness of the students, and the support of the administration made that initial difficulty both worth it and surmountable. No regrets from anyone.

You won’t get that kind of honesty on a school’s website. And if you did, you shouldn’t trust it until you hear it from actual students on campus.

4) Don’t take your friends’ word for it—or what your mother’s friend’s father’s golf buddy had to say. Sometimes, it feels like the most important part of being an educational consultant is myth-busting. Every year, we hear the same misinformation being spread around communities like a virus: “There’s no Jewish people at Georgetown.” “There’s no Catholics at Brandeis.” “There’s no New Yorkers at University of Texas at Austin.” “Everyone at the University of Colorado at Boulder is a pothead.”

To educational consultants who visit schools regularly, who send a huge variety of students to a huge variety of schools, and who hear back from hundreds of our own alumni (rather than a few graduates of your high school), the above kind of statements is the same as hearing offensive stereotypes like “Brooklyn is dangerous” and “everyone in California is flaky.” Sure, you might have heard about a subway mugging on the G train, but for 20 years, Boise, Idaho, has been a more dangerous city per capita than New York. Commonly held myths about schools are what we call “anecdotal evidence”—kind of like when your uncle told you “Don’t go to China! It’s dangerous. I got sick that time I ate at Lucky Palace down the block.” We promise you two things: One, China isn’t deadly, and two, Lucky Palace has awesome takeout. What happened to one guy, one time, is no way to cast a blanket judgment—especially when you’re investing in four expensive years of your life.

The Two Schools We All Agreed On—And It Took a Campus Visit to See the Light

Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, is where all the stars aligned: Elon has been on our radar for a while, but none of us had visited the campus before. We had heard raves from our candidates who seen it for themselves, but being dubious about anecdotal evidence, we were excited to fact-check their glowing reviews after doing our own Internet investigations.

Elon has a thriving campus social life—there’s something for everyone, from gay athletes to future frat boys to literature lovers. The campus was spanking clean and high tech, with a rah-rah spirit and a leafy campus you could stroll through like a park. With 5,600 students, it’s not too small and not too big; it has excellent programs in business, communications, education, the arts, and even a 3-2 engineering program. Assistant Director of Admissions Scott Christopherson was amazing in his information session—charming, knowledgeable, passionate, and attentive (Duke should snatch him up pronto). Now, Auntie Evan knows why his niece, Julia, has moved this school to the top of her list. (But she’s smart enough to keep going on other campus visits, to make sure.)

Finally, we have to talk about the surprising high point of our trip, High Point University. We went there with very low expectations. After all, we weren’t taking our own advice: We had heard that High Point was a country club for not-so-bright kids, and was investing its considerable resources in “all the wrong things” like fancy dorms instead of quality teaching. And indeed, approaching the gates of High Point was a bit like the approach to Disney World. We hadn’t even gotten past the guard gate, yet we could see the fountains, the EPCOT-like flag parade along the fresh-paved cobblestones, the gleaming-new buildings, and manicured lawns.

We parked our SUV and wandered around campus for a bit before making it to the very welcoming welcome center. There, we chatted with students from all over the country and world—not a tour guide with a memorized speech. They might not have been the top students in their high school classes, but while High Point is not on the Colleges That Change Lives list like Guilford, it is transforming its students in a way we didn’t expect. We met English majors and biochemistry students and seniors who were accepted to top law and medical schools. Indeed, they did love going to a school where you can send your laundry out, upgrade to a deluxe room, and enjoy some of the best campus food in America—but what really mattered to them was their education.

But let’s be honest: Auntie Evan’s favorite person at High Point was the gate guard, Valerie Baxter. The only way to get a true sense of Ms. Baxter is to go and visit. That’s all we’ll say on that. Not even her profile on page 90 of High Point’s viewbook does justice to this larger-than-life personality. Meeting her in person is worth the flight to North Carolina alone. She’s an enthusiastic ambassador of the university, and their most important asset. Give this woman a raise.

Colleges are like “a box of chocolates,” to quote one of our most hated films. Until you bite into ’em, you just don’t know what you’re getting.  Start planning your college trips NOW!

—Auntie Evan and Uncle David

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