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Tips for Finding an Academically Challenging College

Yesterday’s post regarding the new book, Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa raises some alarming questions about what students are learning in college.  While you can take steps to ensure that you are getting the most out of your college education, how to you find a college where students are academically engaged in the first place?

My clients often ask me if I feel they will be academically challenged at a certain school.  The answer is “yes”, if you take the initiative to take challenging courses and study.  However, there are some schools that are known to have a more academically challenging environments than others.  When researching schools, it is important to look at certain aspects of the academic environment in order to get a feel for how challenging the school will be and how academically motivated the students are.  Here are some tips to help with the research process:

  • Look at the curriculum.  When looking at schools, a lot of students automatically look at the male to female ratio, the size and location.  They don’t really take the time to dig into the academic side of things.  Look at what type of curriculum is offered.  Will you have the opportunity to do research?  Are the courses integrated across disciplines? Are there hands-on opportunities to learn outside of the classroom?
  • Research academic departments.  In addition to the curriculum, it is important to really look into the academic department of your intended major (or several departments if you have no idea what you want to major it).  Read the faculty profiles.  Remember that what the faculty are researching and writing about will more than likely be the topics they are covering in their courses.  Look at the special events that are begin sponsored by the department.  Do they have any cool speakers coming to campus?
  • Read the course catalog.  I don’t know of any colleges that are still publishing their course catalogs, but you can undoubtedly find it on-line.  Read through the course descriptions of the courses required for your intended major.  See if you can find sample course syllabi on-line.  How many pages of reading are assigned?  What are the grading procedures for the course? Will you mainly be graded on participation or exams? How many exams will you have?
  • Don’t forget the library.  When visiting a school, don’t forget to stop by the library.  Research librarians are a great resource for questions regarding whether or not the students are academically engaged.
  • Contact a professor.  Don’t forget to try to visit with a professor or sit in on a class while on campus.  Often times, the admissions office will help you set up these opportunities.

Katherine Price

Educational Consultant

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