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How to Become an Expert College Researcher

by Will Geiger, on Mar 21, 2019 12:00:00 PM

Although it was the Tuesday after spring break, I could still see snow outside my office window. That’s “spring” in New England for you. At 9 am sharp, Mark arrived at my office for our college counseling appointment. He was sporting a black Northeastern University sweatshirt and had a big grin on his face. After some chit chat about our respective spring breaks, Mark caught me up on his recent college trip to Northeastern.

“Mr. Geiger, I loved the co-op program--it was so cool! I can’t believe that I could spend an entire year getting real work experience!”

I smiled, but this didn’t surprise me. Mark was a very practical person who loved spending his weekends helping out at his family’s automotive business. He made it clear to me that his degree should relate to a specific profession. During this meeting, Mark was hoping to learn more about schools that were similar to Northeastern.

“Well, if you like Northeastern, how about Drexel University in Philadelphia?”

Mark started scribbling in his yellow legal pad.

“Purdue has a cooperative program too!” I added.

He continued to scribble.

“If you are open to Ohio, how about the University of Cincinnati?”

This time, I stopped myself to give Mark time to catch up. I always had to stop myself in these situations, because I could go all day long suggesting different colleges and universities to check out.

Nothing makes me happier than when a student learns about a college they had never heard of. As counselors, we pride ourselves on knowing all about even the most obscure institutions. Want to study sports management in Idaho? Perhaps you are looking for schools with an open curriculum? Want to play Quidditch at the college-level? Your college counselor will point you in the right direction.

I was a history major in college and college counseling was a great way to put my research skills to work. In fact, years of research is the only way that counselors can develop the encyclopedic knowledge they need to help students find their “best-fit college.”

While you may not be able to make a career out of college admissions, here are a few tricks that will help you become a better researcher and build a list of “best-fit” colleges:

1. Ignore the rankings
College Rankings exist for one reason--to sell magazines. Instead, focus on data that is actually aligned with academic quality and student success. These data points include graduation rate, student retention, student to faculty ratio, net price (which is the cost of attendance after financial aid is taken into account), and salary after attending. 

2. Newspapers are underrated information sources
Whenever I visit a new college, I always grab a copy of the campus newspaper and take it to the campus coffee shop to read. The campus newspaper is chock full of insights about what students are talking about at that school. This includes hot-button issues, what they value, and how well students write. Best of all, newspapers give you an unfiltered glimpse into all of this. You can also find the online version of the newspaper if you can’t get to campus!

3. When visiting campuses, focus on categories as opposed to specific schools
This is especially important in the early stages of college research. Even if you are dead-set on going to school across the country, there is value in visiting colleges in your local community if they represent different categories (small liberal arts, large public university, STEM-focused, etc.). Getting out there is important and this will help you figure out which general types of schools are best-suited for you.

4. Above all, ask questions!
What do you think about when I say the word “researcher”? Possibly a solitary person with a stack of books? Perhaps a library comes to mind? Solo research is important, but you also need to get out there and ask questions. Whether you are talking to an admissions rep at a college fair, your friend’s brother who attends a particular school, or a campus tour guide, you need to put yourself out there and ask questions. Research is an active process and you will need to put yourself outside your comfort zone!

Curiosity is a key characteristic as both a researcher and as a student going through the admissions process. In Mark’s case, I was proud that he took the time to learn about what a co-op program would entail. Even though co-ops are a bit unconventional, this wound up driving his admissions process. Embrace the unexpected and don’t be afraid to explore. You might just surprise yourself!

Topics:college admission