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Tips for Researching Colleges: Avoiding the Swiss Cheese Syndrome.

"Hey MOM! Did you know that daddy long legs are the most poisonous spider on the WHOLE EARTH, and they kill gophers, but they don't hurt us, so that means they are nice."

I was pondering the gopher part for a second, and then for the 50th time today, I did my profound "Ummm--uh-huhh". 

I am used to my 7-year-old’s Swiss Cheese theories.  Information, extrapolation, conclusion. Unfortunately, the conclusions often have a lot of holes in them. 

I figure someday he may realize that the reason daddy long legs spare our lives is not because they are nice. And I don't think they kill gophers (I didn't bother looking this one up on Google, but you can if you want), but I'm not too worried.  It likely won't change his life choices.

When it comes to researching colleges, we largely use the same basic process.  Information, extrapolation, conclusion.  But the stakes are much higher, and it is likely to change your life choices! Using a range of sources that challenge emotional, physical, and logical skills is the best way to ensure you have the most complete picture possible

Below are 5 tips to help you avoid the Swiss Cheese syndrome when researching colleges:

1) Do not use student reviews as your main or first reference.  It’s tempting to think that reading enough reviews from real life students on-line will help clarify if it is a good school or not.  Unfortunately, just like in the reviews of appliances or anything else, there are so many variables. An isolated bad or good experience, a rained out Frisbee game, a new boyfriend, a bad mark on a test. But even more importantly, unlike a toaster, a good school is all relative to the context of the student.  Each student is unique, and each school is uniquely suited to a set of needs and wants.  Student reviews are basically opinions without a context. They can help guide red flags or expectations, but they should be a small piece of the research, backed up with more solid resources. Such as the ones below.  

2) Do use a variety of resources put out by the college itself, including its website, admissions blogs, student run publications, and college sponsored videos. At the danger of being immediately boring, most college websites have included links to virtual tours, videos of fun stuff, and highlights of their best programs and results. But don’t forget to check out their mission statements, research opportunities, and alumni pages. Many have admissions blogs that give valuable insight not only into their school and the process of thinking about and applying to college.  Take the time to read about what former students have done, what majors are offered, and what clubs are active.  Check out photos of the dorms and the dining halls and do some research on the surrounding town.    

3) Do tour colleges. Even if they are not on your radar. There is no substitute for asking lots of questions to the people right there on campus.  Touring different types of campuses; for instance, a community college, a smaller private college, and a large state university, will introduce your student to the reality of college life, and will give her a platform from which to judge her other possibilities.  What is a Student Center and why is it important? What is a quad and what happens there?  How small is a dorm room? How does information spread?  Without a basic understanding of what a college campus is and how it functions, her analysis of any other colleges she explores with non-travel resources will be full of holes!

4) Do talk to students and admissions counselors. Unlike student reviews online, talking to students and administrators who are on campus personally (or by phone) is a great way to get answers. If I am going in as a student of a minority faith, I can request to talk to a student who has navigated that situation.  If I want to know how stressful it is to play a varsity sport and major in psychology at the same time, I can ask to speak to a student who is trying it out.  If I want to know what kind of students are happy here, I can talk to an admissions counselor to hear firsthand.  I often ask students what their biggest pet peeve is.  I will always remember the answer I got once: “The single-ply toilet paper in the dorm bathrooms”. I figured if that was the worst they could come up with, it was a pretty good school.  And I extrapolated that the students had a sense of humor!

5) Do use publications such as the Fiske guide, The College Finder, Colleges that Change Lives, and Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges. You can amend them with websites like, but keep the big search engines in perspective.  They can be overwhelming and suck tons of time from more constructive ways to find your information.  

Finally, if you want someone to help guide your family into solid, accurate information about researching colleges and building your college list, give me a call or contact me at  I will be glad to visit with you!

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