How to find out a college's values

Campus visits are the best way of finding out about an institution. In this piece, John Carpenter explains exactly what you can find out from a campus visit that makes them so essential.

The purpose of visiting schools, both physically and virtually, is to get a feel of what the places are all about. When I visit colleges, I tour the campuses, meet with admissions directors, and speak with students. And at each place, the impression that leaves the greatest impact on me is usually the commitment to ideas and the commitment to sharing ideas, especially divergent ideas.  

What that brings back to me is that it's often not enough just to see what a campus looks like and to attend information sessions. If you really want to understand the ethos of a college, you have to talk to people there.  

Finding out YOUR values

Too often, kids don’t think about values as a factor in making college choices. We talk about academics, size, location, and athletics instead. It is much more important, however, for us to consider what we stand for when we're choosing the colleges to put on our list of potential places to study.  

But, of course, before you can do that kind of thing, you have to identify your own values; an easy enough task if you will do it. The problem is that most kids don't do it, or don't even think about doing it. Sure, lots of adults will ask you what's important in your life, and that's a start, but let's go a little further. Let's identify things you feel strongly about. Here's a sample list of possible values: sustainability, political viewpoints, religious or faith-base comfort, intellectual challenge, your personal identity and the freedom to be fully you.  

What about conflicting ideas? Are you comfortable when surrounded by them, or do you prefer being around people who share similar opinions to yours? Will you embrace or reject a place where the exact opposite of what you think is evident at the student centre, or in the classroom, or on the bulletin boards? Will that conflict excite you? Or will that just make you frustrated?

Another way is to think of what you wouldn't want to give up - ever. Suddenly, that list of things is very closely connected to what your values are. And you should try to find a college where what's important to you matches what's important to the college.

So how do you find out what values are important to a college?

Easy - just ask!

Ask the admissions folks what the school's mission statement is and how it's demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. In fact, asking that question will suddenly make you much more interesting to most admissions officers! Ask students and teachers what they care about, what they really like about their school. Then listen. Listen to what people are saying in the common areas. Spend half an hour and have a coffee in the student lounge area and eavesdrop a little. You'll learn a lot about values.  

Understanding what makes a college the kind of place it is really is an important goal. You'll be happier if you're at a school that shares a lot of your own values. You can't get that from looking at a building, but you can get that from talking to folks, so my advice is to talk. And then, of course, let folks talk to you.

That’s what I have learned from the people at the many, many campuses I visit each year. 

And as a result, I usually like many of the places I see, but I'll be honest and tell you that I also don't like some so much.  However, what I don't like isn't necessarily what someone else won't like, so my goal is to be open about lots of things that might not match my values.

You don't have to be so open really. After all, you're trying to find the place that will match or support your values, so it's perfectly okay to take a school off your list if you find a lot of people there who don't think the way you do. What’s important is to know what things you really care about, and then to find a place where you can interact with other people who also care about those same things. 

John Carpenter is an Admissions Consultant at the UWC Costa Rica.

John is the author of  the recently-published Going Geek: What Every Smart Kid (and Every Smart Parent) Should Know About College Admissions - a guide to college admissions for very bright kids and their parents.