How to Get Honest Answers from College Admissions Staff

As we get into the season of college fairs and campus visits, you will undoubtedly come across your fair share of college admissions officers.  Remember that these people are not just arbiters of who does and does not get the golden ticket of admissions; they are seasoned marketers, dispatched around the country to convince you to apply.  The more applications they receive for a given number of spots causes admissions rates to decline.  This, in turn, causes their school to climb higher and higher up those coveted college ranking lists (you know them, you read them, too).  And, then, the cycle repeats.  High rankings propels more students to apply which further decreases the acceptance rate.  Repeat.

As a result, admissions officers are well versed in how to answer the most common questions from students and families with a set of “marketing” answers that, frankly, sound very similar from school to school.  So, when talking to admissions, think carefully about your wording and avoid asking questions that lead to boxed answers.

Here are some examples:

Don’t Ask “Are professors accessible?”

Of course, they are.  You will be told that XX% of classes are taught by professors who hold weekly office hours and, in many cases, TAs conduct smaller, discussion-based recitations to ensure students are learning the material and are staying on track.

Instead Ask “When students struggle with a class, where do they go for help?”

Here, you will be able to determine how accessible professors truly are.  Is the professor the first stop or the fifth?  Do they, instead, go to a peer study group, Quant lab or to an on-campus tutor?

Don’t Ask “Is Greek life big?”

You’ll likely get an answer that involves the stated percentage of students who participate in fraternities and sororities as well as some version of “it doesn’t matter if you are part of the Greek system or not.”

Instead Ask “What is the social scene like? Are there parties on campus?”

If the answer starts with Greek life and frat parties every weekend, you know it plays a big role on campus.  But, if the answer leads with clubs, alternative parties (ie. Nonalcoholic events every Friday night) or shuttles to the nearby city center, you will know the Greek scene is less dominant (or, even nonexistent).

Don’t Ask “What are students like at this school?”

In an effort to appeal to a broad audience and elicit the most applications, most schools will tell you they are looking for students who are actively involved in the community and want to make a difference,  This doesn’t tell you much about what they are looking for in a successful applicant or whether or not you will really fit in.  Exceptions are schools like U Chicago or Harvey Mudd that have a very defined culture and are not afraid to risk turning applicants off by proudly broadcasting it.

Instead Ask “Not every school is a good fit for every student and not every student is a good fit for every school.  What kind of student would not be a good fit here?”

By positioning the question in the negative, you are forcing the admissions officer to turn potential applicants away and are more likely to get an honest answer about who they are really looking for in creating the incoming class.

Remember that words matter.  You are likely to get more candid answers when you ask questions that are open-ended rather than those that lead down a familiar path.