Navigating the Admissions Maze: Ask These Questions to Find Your Target Schools

26/02/202424 minute read
Navigating the Admissions Maze: Ask These Questions to Find Your Target Schools

Embarking on the journey to higher education is a pivotal moment filled with excitement and anticipation, yet navigating the vast landscape of colleges and universities can be daunting. This is where the strategic art of asking the right questions becomes invaluable — empowering your search for ideal colleges and universities that will become your target schools.

In this blog post, we explore the six areas where our admissions advisors think asking the right questions is most crucial: university culture and values, academic programs and opportunities, campus life and extracurricular activities, financial aid and scholarships, career services and alumni networks, and the intricacies of admissions processes and timelines. 

From making sure the ethos of a university is a good fit, to understanding the practicalities of financial aid, the questions we’ve curated shed light on essential but too often-overlooked aspects of college selection.

College Prospecting and the Power of Questions

Most students feel lots of excitement as they begin prospecting colleges and universities. But with so many great universities to sort through, finding the best schools that match your passions and college goals can quickly become a daunting task.

With that in mind, picking the right school to apply to should be part of a comprehensive approach to your admissions planning. But to move forward, knowing what questions to ask admissions officers or admissions advisors is crucial.

In this post, we’re sharing one fundamental strategy to boost your prospecting prowess and get better results for your college search. The strategy? It’s as simple as remembering the power of ASKING SOME ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS!

As Admissions Advisors, our Crimson Education team members often see students and their families stop at a cursory review of a school website. Or they may also take part in a campus tour.

That’s not enough.

Students and families can, and should, be asking more questions.

Asking the right questions will simplify and improve your college planning process and decision making.

With that goal in mind, we asked some Crimson Advisors, including some Former Admissions Officers (FOAs), to share what they think are the most essential questions students and parents need to ask.

These questions are your most direct route to uncovering what you really need to know about prospective colleges and universities. After all, you can’t make a list of target schools without first figuring out which schools really are a strong fit for your passions, preferences, and goals.

“Thoughtful inquiries help students and parents uncover their most important educational values, goals, and interests. These leaps in clarity and introspection will provide a compass, pointing families to potential universities best aligned with their aspirations.”

- Crimson Education Advisor Network

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Asking the essential questions with the added 1:1 support and guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable Advisor will likely prove even more effective, helping you avoid missteps and streamline your admissions journey and turn what might feel like a bewildering maze into an illuminated guided tour!

Here are the SIX KEY AREAS our Advisors believe are most important to ask questions about:

  1. The university’s culture and values
  2. Academic programs and opportunities
  3. Campus life and extracurriculars
  4. Financial aid and scholarships
  5. Career services and alumni networks
  6. Admissions processes and timelines

With these in mind, we’re almost ready to delve deeper into what essential questions to ask for each area…

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But First… WHO Are You Asking?

As you plan for college admissions by prospecting schools, you may encounter any number of people — through intention and by chance — who have some perspective on your college search.

These ‘informants’ can be as varied as relatives or acquaintances who have attended a prospective school — knowledgeable but not likely to be the most objective or up to date! In addition, students and families will typically talk to either a high school counselor, to a private admissions advisor, or perhaps directly to admissions officers themselves, at each prospective school…

So, how should you think about choosing whom to ask?

The best information is typically going to come from:

  1. People with reliable and current knowledge about a particular school — even better if they can be objective
  2. People who are aware of your key interests, goals, and constraints
  3. People knowledgeable about the larger college and admissions landscape you’re targeting (such as US Ivies vs. UK schools, as an example)

With this in mind, the people likely be most informative, typically are:

  • Admissions Officers at the prospective college or university
  • Guidance Counselors at your high school
  • Trained College Admissions Advisors or Consultants backed up by an established and robust admissions advising network
Admissions Officer at the CollegeHigh School Guidance / College Counselor1:1 College Admissions Advisor or Consultant
Understanding the University's Culture and Values Very knowledgeable, but may lack objectivity Not very knowledgeable Knowledgeable or very knowledgeable
Academic Programs and OpportunitiesVery knowledgeable, with most detailed and up-to-date knowledge and dataLimited knowledge or somewhat knowledgeableKnowledgeable or very knowledgeable
Campus Life and ExtracurricularsVery knowledgeable, but may lack objectivityNot very knowledgeableKnowledgeable
Financial Aid and ScholarshipsKnowledgeable, but families may get few specifics without also talking to the school's financial aid officerLittle knowledge or knowledge related to very specific programs and schoolsVery knowledgeable and versed in most pertinent questions families ask about
Career Services and Alumni NetworksVery knowledgeable, including most up-to-date and first-hand insightsVery limited knowledge in all or most casesKnowledgeable
Admissions Processes and TimelinesVery knowledgeableKnowledgeableVery Knowledgeable

As you can see, Admissions Officers, for obvious reasons, are going to be a great first-hand source of knowledge about their own institution. But beware, some school officials may be prone to veer from answering questions to making a recruiting pitch, informative but lacking some objectivity!

High School Guidance Counselors typically have the best intentions, but because they have to advise such a wide variety of students, all with diverse college goals, they’re likely to be less knowledgeable when it comes to what they know about a good number of individual schools. And, US News and World Report finds that most high school counselors have limited time and bandwidth for providing any kind of personalized support:

With hundreds of students to work with, school counselors have limitations. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 counselor-to-student ratio, but says the national average for the 2020-21 school year was 415-to-1.

Admissions Consultants or Advisors, if part of a robust consultancy, will typically be highly knowledgeable and benefit from working with a larger network of admissions specialists — so families are paired with the right advisors and mentors for their personal goals. Finally, an experienced Advisor will have insights gleaned from working across the larger admissions landscape they specialize in (e.g. Ivies, UK universities, top public schools, and so forth).

Some Benefits of Asking a 1:1 Advisor:

  • The information they provide is more tailored to your own personal planning, interests, and goals.
  • You can access them easily and ask them questions about multiple schools, and more easily compare different schools as you ask questions.
  • The information connects to larger puzzle pieces of your college planning services, going beyond school prospecting to support and strategies for making a final list of target schools.

That said, there's little doubt that school Admissions Officers will in some situations have the most first-hand, comprehensive, and up-to-date knowledge to share for some of your questions. But there are some potential downsides too...

Potential Downsides of Relying on Admissions Officers

  • May be difficult to access and have limited time to talk to families
  • May have lots of detailed knowledge about admissions process, but less able to address families questions about other areas
  • May periodically lack objectivity in describing the school they work for
  • Unable to 'evaluate' their school from a critical or comparative perspective
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Essential Questions to Ask

Now that we’ve discussed the people who are most informative, let’s delve into the most important questions to ask, questions that will help you find your ideal target schools.

The questions fall into six areas, covering everything from school culture, to academic programming, campus culture, admissions processes, and more.

For each question, you'll find additional “delving deeper” tips and insights for additional questions that may be highly relevant for your unique circumstances or interests!

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1. University Culture and Values

The culture and values of a university will distinctively color the student experience. Understanding this aspect is a crucial factor for finding a school with values that dovetail with the student’s aspirations for personal growth and development.

What are the university's mission and core values?

This question helps you understand the guiding principles of the institution.

Delving deeper…

Do they have a strong focus on achievement and meritocracy, or do they spotlight ethical values, or altruism and public service? Is their mission to send students into new endeavors with a well-rounded liberal arts education or help students achieve lots of advanced specialization in their major with high industry standards guiding curricula?

In similar fashion, some schools integrate an ethos of social responsibility and/or global citizenship into their educational approach, affirming and modeling the importance of ethical and socially concerned professional practice and leadership.

Whatever is most central to a school’s ethos can be mirrored in the larger campus or academic culture and expectations, impacting the student experience and possibly some academic requirements as well.

How does the university foster diversity and inclusion?

Learning about the university's commitment to creating a diverse and inclusive environment is vital in today's global society.

Delving deeper…

Our Admissions Advisors tell us they tend to encourage students and guardians to look beyond demographic diversity of the student body to discern the school’s larger approach to holistic admissions and their commitments to recruiting students from diverse economic and geographical backgrounds.

You might also look for evidence of faculty diversity, student clubs and activities that support inclusion and spotlight cultural diversity, and school services — in areas such as  counseling, health, and affinity groups — designed to promote inclusion.

What community engagement opportunities does the university offer?

This sheds light on how the institution connects with the broader community, offering insights into its social responsibility and civic involvement.

Delving deeper…

Some schools focus on helping students' achieve their individual  academic and professional goals, and some students and guardians prefer that kind of school culture. Other schools want to affirm and encourage an ethos of public service in the spirit of giving back to the community or helping the less fortunate. For students who share this ethos, these schools may make it easier to connect to community service opportunities alongside like-minded peers.

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2. Academic Programs and Opportunities

The core of your college experience is shaped by its academic offerings. It's essential to understand not just what is taught, but how it's taught, and the opportunities that extend beyond the classroom.

How flexible are the academic programs?

Determine if there is room for exploring various disciplines, if the school offers an open curriculum approach, or if there are one or more required core courses. Also how easy (or difficult) is it for students to change their major after they've enrolled?

Delving deeper…

Based on your interests you may want to ask your counselor about the pros and cons of attending schools with robust and vibrant core curriculum models vs. schools that offer open curriculum approaches, including schools where students can design their own major or find a range of interdisciplinary majors to choose from.

What opportunities are there for research, internships, and study abroad programs?

These experiences can greatly enrich your academic journey, but they’re not a priority for all students of course.

Delving deeper…

A good many schools have programs to help students land internships or enjoy a summer, semester, or year studying abroad. That said, there are lots of variations on just how accessible and abundant these opportunities are. Some schools go beyond just offering these kinds of opportunities. Instead they integrate them as part of core graduation requirements, thus making them optimally accessible for all students.

What is the average class size? The student-faculty ratio?

Smaller classes often mean more personalized attention, which can be crucial for your academic success.

Delving deeper…

Attending a school with a smaller faculty-to-student ratio is a pretty straightforward value proposition for many students and guardians considering different schools.

That said, you may want to balance the weight you attach to this factor with others, such as access to faculty mentors for research projects and the overall quality and qualifications of the faculty teaching undergraduate courses.

Think of it this way, having a truly exceptional professor teaching you in a large lecture hall could easily be as engaging and beneficial (or more) as learning from a less qualified professor in a smaller class setting.

While easy to look up online, we typically recommend students and guardians put the faculty-to-student ratio into perspective. For example, at larger research institutions, the published faculty-to-student ratio may represent a global averaging across undergraduate and graduate classes, concealing the true size of the typically much larger undergraduate classes.

3. Campus Life and Extracurriculars

College is not just about academics; it's a holistic experience. The vibrancy of campus life and the richness of extracurricular activities play a significant role in student enjoyment, enrichment, and development.

What extracurricular activities and clubs are available?

This helps you gauge the breadth and depth of opportunities for personal growth and community involvement.

Delving deeper…

In addition to looking for schools that offer specific extracurriculars aligned with your interests, a large number of student-led clubs and activities may signal a more socially vibrant and engaged campus community overall. The availability of clubs in specific areas — think affinity groups vs. outdoor adventure clubs for example — can also give you insights into the larger school vibe and culture.

How does the university support a balanced student life?

It's important to know how the institution facilitates a balance between academics and extracurricular pursuits.

Delving deeper…

To dig deeper on this topic, take a look at the school’s recreational facilities but also its recreational programming. Some schools may have a great gym, but not lots of programming, while other schools may have recreational program directors and staff that charter buses for student outings, coordinate hiking or backpacking trips, facilitate greater student participation in extramural sports, etc.

Some schools also have more flexibility in terms of theatrical and music programming that is open to non-majors, so a student can audition for a play or an orchestra, for example, even if they aren’t enrolled in or majoring in drama or orchestra classes.

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4. Financial Aid and Scholarships

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of discovering which universities you want to apply to, so a ‘practical’ matter, like financial aid and scholarship offerings, may be something you’re tempted to overlook. However, this knowledge may be pivotal to final decision making, and admissions decisions down the road!

Since financial nuances can be tricky, and unique for international students, many students will want to include a guardian or other trusted adult for these rounds of questions.

What kind of financial aid packages does the university offer?

This question helps you gauge the kind of support you can expect, including grants, loans, and work study options.

Delving deeper…

Some colleges might offer more in terms of need-based aid, while others might be more generous with merit-based scholarships. Understanding the difference and what each college offers can make a big difference in your final decision.

How do scholarships work at the school, and are many offered?

It's important to know both the availability of scholarships and the criteria for maintaining them throughout your college years.

Delving deeper…

Ask about any conditions students have to meet and maintain to be eligible for a specific scholarship you’d be particularly interested in, including the renewal process, if applicable. Some scholarships require maintaining a certain GPA or participating in specific activities. Knowing details like these upfront can prevent surprises down the line and help you take full advantage of the best opportunities!

Are there unique financial aid opportunities for specific programs or majors?

Certain programs or majors might have exclusive funding opportunities.

Delving deeper…

As an example, a STEM program might have dedicated scholarships or grants only for STEM majors. Further restrictions may also apply, such as scholarships dedicated to women in STEM majors, as an example.

If you have a specific major in mind, digging into these details early on can be highly beneficial, giving you time to apply and helping you avoid missteps or missed deadlines.

5. Career Services and Alumni Networks

The end goal of your college journey is to launch a successful career. Understanding what kinds of services and resources a university provides to help you with this pivotal transition should be an important factor depending on your major, career plans, and other interests or goals.

If a university has strong systems in place for placement and recruiting, including any strong industry relationships, pipelines, or recruitment partnerships, this is no small deal, potentially affording you outsized opportunities for quick professional success.

What kind of career placement and career counseling services are offered?

This question helps you understand the level of support you'll receive in finding internships, job placements, and career advice.

Delving deeper…

Look into the specific services offered, such as resume building, interview preparation, career fairs, and recruitment partnerships with various firms and industries. The quality of these services can be a big boon to your success after graduation.

How do students engage with the alumni network and what resources does it offer?

The strength of an alumni network can play a significant role in your professional life post-graduation.

Delving deeper…

A strong alumni network can use membership numbers to attract a range of benefits for its members in addition to being a valuable way to learn about jobs, mentorships, and professional associations. You may want to investigate how robust and active the alumni services, resources, and networks are at prospective schools.

What are the post-graduation employment rates?

Knowing the success rate of graduates landing jobs after graduation can be a strong indicator of the effectiveness of the university's academic programs, curriculum, and career pipelines and recruiting programs.

Delving deeper…

Consider asking about the types of companies and roles where alumni are typically employed. This gives a clearer picture of the career trajectories that the university supports and which kinds of majors or concentrations have the best career placement outcomes.

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6. Admission Requirements and Processes

Understanding admission requirements and process is the final, crucial step in your college selection journey. What’s required to apply, or what are special requirements for international students or transfer students? Is the Common App accepted? How are applicants evaluated and ranked? What are the early admissions policies?  All of these may impact your decision making and can vary significantly from school to school.

What are the key ranking criteria of the admissions process at the school?

This helps you understand what the university values in its applicants - grades, test scores, essays, extracurriculars, etc.

Delving deeper…

Each university might weigh these application components differently. Knowing this can help you tailor your application based on university priorities for selecting students, or for gauging your how competitive your application might be.

Are there any special requirements for specific programs?

Some programs might have additional requirements or optional components, like portfolios or interviews, or may have them but only for specific applicants, majors, departments, or concentrations….

Delving deeper…

If you're eyeing a particular program, be sure to check into specific admissions requirements or conditions — these specifics can help you meet deadlines and prepare a more targeted and effective application.

What are common pitfalls in the application process?

Knowing what mistakes to avoid can be just as important as knowing what to include in your application.

Delving deeper…

This question can uncover lesser-known aspects of the application process and help you avoid errors that could cost you a spot. An experienced admissions counselor can be very helpful here, but many schools also post some practical tips on the admissions pages of their school websites.

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Final Thoughts

From peeling back the layers of university culture to diving into the nuts and bolts of academic programs, campus life, financial aid, career services, and the nitty-gritty of admissions processes, it's quite the maze and quite an expedition through it!

Let's take a moment to look back at the key takeaways from each section:

1. Understanding University Culture and Values: Remember, the vibe of a place matters. Find a university that resonates with your values and aspirations.

2. Researching Academic Programs and Opportunities: Your education should be as unique as you are. Look for flexibility, opportunities for growth, and a learning style that suits you.

3. Campus Life and Extracurriculars: College is more than lectures and textbooks. It's about personal growth, new experiences, and finding your tribe.

4. Financial Aid and Scholarships: Don't let finances be a roadblock. Explore all avenues for financial support and understand the terms.

5. Career Services and Alumni Network: Think ahead! A strong support system for your career journey can set you up for success post-graduation.

6. Admission Requirements and Process: Know what’s expected and play to your strengths. Understanding the process can make your application stand out.

Remember, asking essential questions will help you shape your future, informing the best choices possible in your search for ideal colleges and universities.

Get Connected, Seek Support, Stay Connected…

The college admissions process is your moment to shine, to show who you are, and who you want to become. And guess what? You don't have to do it alone.

Book a free consultation to find out what the rest of your college journey might look like with the support of an elite team of Admissions Advisors.

After considering the results we get for students, and hearing what students and parents say about us, most families realize how powerful 1:1 Advising from Crimson really is.

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