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CollegeQandA asks: On the college tours, what should I ask?

What are some good questions to ask on the college tours?

It is college tour season.  I participated in my first faculty panel this month.  These panels have professors representing different parts of the school sitting and answering questions from prospective students and families.  This is one small piece of the college tour.  I sit on these panels fascinated by the questions that are asked.  I wonder if the questions I hear are the important questions to ask.

Tour guide pointing to statue

What is the goal of the tour?

The goal is to find out if this is the place that will be a good environment for your next 4 years of learning.  This means you are looking for a welcoming, challenging, engaging, and interesting environment.  So, why then is place X better than place Y?

What would be a good question?

The good questions will have answers that will help you differentiate between different places.  This means the questions should be open ended.  The questions should be related to the learning environment.  The questions should be about personal experiences (the bad and the good).

For example, a question such as: “How big are your classes?” will have many nuanced answers from place to place.  Based on the size of the university (student enrollment) and the type of classrooms (how many large lecture rooms) you can easily guess to this answer.  They start bigger and progress to smaller, but this answer doesn’t give you any idea of the experience.

A better question might be: “How does your college make bigger lecture classes into good learning environments?”  That’s a very tricky question for a professor, and if they aren’t aware that there are different ways of improving learning, then maybe that university isn’t particularly interested in undergraduate education.  “How did you like your lecture with 100+ students?”, will get to a students perspective on the large lectures.

Similarly, “Can you describe a situation where you did a research project with a student/faculty member?”  This is another question that looks into the idea that undergraduates are doing research-like activities at this university.  What is actually being learned and what are undergraduates actually doing?

Follow these questions up with, “Can I get their email to find out more about their experience?” and “Can you name professors/students in your department who have done things like this?”

Questions that delve into personal experiences at a university will go deeper into the experience at said university instead of generalities.  Also, try and talk to people who are not directly involved in the college tours.  What do the non-groomed faces of the institution have to say?

What questions are bad?

The bad questions tend to include superficial questions (how big is the dorm rooms?), mechanical questions (are there internships available?), or too focused on a particular path (how hard is it to switch from major X to major Y?).

The first two questions can be asked via email or a web search and tell you very little about this particular university.  All universities have very similar offerings, will offer similar good rankings, will show how past students have been successful, and will have all sorts of statistics that are in favour of the school.  Therefore, asking these types of questions allows for the toured presentation to talk about things that don’t really matter in respect to what is the university offering to you and how it differs from your other potential options.

The last question is too specific to an upcoming experience (undergraduate degree) that is very difficult to plan out from day one to day 1200.

Credits: photo titled: Guided Tour; by Mads Bødker