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10 Places to Check Out on Your Campus Tour

Official campus tours are terrific—but they shouldn’t be your only source of information about what life is like on a college campus. Remember, the tour is designed to make the school look as positive as possible. To find out if a college is a good fit for you, and to get a good feel for what everyday life is really like for students, here are ten places to check out on campus.

  1. Classrooms– in session. Sit in on at least one class while you’re on campus. Professors usually don’t mind as long as you ask. Try sitting in on both a bigger class and a smaller one.
  2. Dorms. See if you can get into a dorm and walk around. This is a great way to see where students live– and to ask them questions about what they think of the dorms and the school in general.
  3. The dining hall. See what the food is like, and what the atmosphere is like in a place where students spend oodles of time. If you can, chat with some of the students. Some smaller colleges arrange for a “lunch with students” part of the official tour.
  4. The bulletin boards. You can get a good feel for the politics of a campus– and the involvement level of students–be seeing what’s posted on public bulletin boards.Spend some time checking out the campus
  5. The advising office. Great advising is very important, especially if you’re on a larger campus where students can feel like numbers. Make an appointment with an academic advisor and discuss what services are available to students. Find out what a typical advising appointment is like.
  6. The student center. What’s going on there? Is it pretty quiet? Are there lots of activities and student interactions going on? You can often get a good feel for the college community by checking out this space.
  7. The lawns, and other common areas. Are students lounging around, chatting and doing their homework? Or does everyone go home or to their dorms after class? This is another good way to gauge community.
  8. The library. Wander in and find out what services are available. If the library doesn’t have a big collection, find out how interlibrary loan works.
  9. Parties. If you’re there on the weekend and staying with a friend, by all means go to a party of two. This is more than just fun—it’s a great way to see an important part of campus life.
  10. The town. Don’t forget to spend some time checking out the area around campus as well.

Avoid FAFSA Scams

Need some help filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)? That’s not surprising at all, considering how complex that thing is.

But watch out! There are companies out there who prey on people’s lack of knowledge about the FAFSA and are out there to rip you off. How? They offer to fill out your FAFSA for you—for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

What’s even more troublesome about these companies is that many of them claim they can help you maximize your financial aid reward—through dishonest means, and perhaps even through lying. It’s critically important that you fill out your FAFSA as accurately as possible, or you will lose your eligibility for aid. If anyone suggests that you fudge the form to get a better offer, run.

Here’s what you need to know:

There’s no reason to pay someone to help you fill out your FAFSA because free help is available. If you’re the parent of a high school student, your guidance counselor may be willing to offer you help for free—or if not, he or she can refer you to places where you can get free assistance. In addition, community colleges and organizations often hold free FAFSA workshops to help people fill out their application. And you can always ask a friend or relative who has experience with this form to help you out.

You can also do your FAFSA online, which can be significantly less complicated. Here’s the Department of Education website that allows you to do this.

As the price of college increases, and the process becomes more competitive, it stands to reason that more and more scammers will be around to take advantage of people’s financial uncertainty. Don’t let them fool you. You don’t need to hire someone to help you with the FAFSA.

Financial Institutions Refuse Loans to Community College Students

According to a recent article in the New York Times, some major financial institutions have been dealing with the credit crunch by refusing student loans to students at community colleges, for-profit online universities, and other schools that are considered less prestigious. In some cases, students at these schools have received student loans, but with higher interest rates and less favorable terms. Some banks are more eager to drop students loans than others. In California, Citibank has dropped its student loan program for all community colleges in the state.

Why are lending institutions doing this? It’s all about money, of course. Yes, many of the loans made to students at “less desirable” institutions are smaller—especially loans made to community college student, since these schools are less expensive and only require two years to get a degree. However, students at more elite schools are considered lower risk because these students are (according to the banks) more likely to earn more money in the long run.

Come again?

If this trend continues, the ramifications are quite troubling. It means that the people who need the loans most won’t be able to get them. Many of these people won’t go to school, which will further exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor. And many of these students will go to school and either wind up deeply in debt or work long hours to be able to afford the expense. Long hours at a job may take away students’ ability to do well in school—and at the community college level, this may mean a student can’t transfer to a four year college.

It’s not illegal for banks to reject categories of students for student loans. But the ethics of this are, of course, questionable.

When Should Schools Refuse to Ban Student Activities?

Here’s a news story that caught my eye. At York University–a university in Toronto, Canada–the student union has decided to ban funding for an anti-abortion group on campus. Read the story here:

York U to Ban Funding for Anti-Abortion Group

This is how it works on many campuses: the student government, or some similar student run body, is responsible for distributing a designated portion of student fees amongst student groups. Usually this goes fairly smoothly.

However, because some campus groups are controversial, sometimes this becomes a big issue. Students, and sometimes community members, argue that students shouldn’t have to pay a portion of their fees to fund groups they disagree with. For example, in a number of U.S. schools, conservative students have protested student fees that fund LGBT groups.

Is this a good idea? I tend to think not, for the most part. As long as a group isn’t doing anything illegal, isn’t abusive to other students, and doesn’t promote rhetoric that is outright hateful, why should they be excluded from student funding? Granted, I don’t know much about the pro-life group in question at York University, and if they were being severely disruptive or engaging in illegal activities, perhaps the decision was just. But if all they were doing was spreading their opinion, albeit in ways that might make others feel uncomfortable, why deny them funding?

Of course, not all students agree with the mission of a group—but so what? You can always start another group, like a campus pro-choice group. Part of the beauty of a college or university campus is the opportunity students have to be exposed to diverse ideas. Thus, a student may disagree with the principles behind a student group–but may agree strongly with the idea that it benefits everyone when all have a voice.

Of course, the problem is, where do you draw the line? Obviously, some groups aren’t going to get funding, like a white supremacist group. But what if in response to an LGBT organization, someone started an anti-gay organization on campus? Personally, this seems to me to be quite different than starting, say, a pro-life group that forms in response to a pro-life group. But is it? Whenever you talk about limiting speech) or funding for speech, in this case), you risk a difficult situation.

For the most part, student groups should be funded equally, no matter what. But obviously there’s a line that does need to drawn somewhere– and I don’t know exactly where I feel this should be. What do you think?

Should You Load Up on Extracurricular Activities in High School?

If you’re applying for college, you’ve probably heard that colleges want to see a record of extracurricular activities on your high school transcript. But how many extracurriculars do you need—and can you participate too much?

Yes, you can participate too much—if your extracurricular activities are interfering with your ability to get the best grades possible. While schools are looking for activities, what they’re looking for most is grades. They want to see that you’ve taken the at least some of the most challenging classes available to you in your high school, and that you’ve done well in these classes. And they want to see an outstanding GPA. If you have to choose between an A and an activity, the decision should be a no-brainer.

As for the number of activities, you don’t have to join everything in sight. What colleges like to see is commitment to one or a few activities over the course of a few years. Ideally, they like to see that you’ve taken on leadership positions in these activities. For example, writing extensively for the high school newspaper for four years, and then becoming the editor, looks fantastic, even if that’s your only activity. Belonging to a dozen activities for shorter periods of time with no leadership position doesn’t look nearly as strong.

In addition, colleges like to see activities that relate to other parts of your application, including your proposed major, if you have one. If you’re the editor of your school newspaper and want to major in English or journalism, that looks great.

This doesn’t mean you can’t join activities just because they sound fun, or that you can’t try out a bunch of stuff until you find something you like. However, keep in mind that some extracurriculars look better than others, and that you can overdo it if your grades suffer.

How to Be a Pre-Med Major

Should you major in pre-medicine? Well, here’s the thing: in most schools, you can’t. The so-called pre-med major is actually a set of courses that all students need to take if they want to get accepted into medical school. Students take these classes, along with a major of their choice.

The standard pre-med curriculum consists of the following classes:

  • At least one year of general biology
  • At least one year of calculus (Calculus I and II)
  • At least one year of general (inorganic) chemistry with lab
  • At least one year of organic chemistry with lab
  • At least one year of physics with lab
  • English composition

If you want to get into medical school—which is extremely competitive—you need to have an outstanding GPA. In particular, it’s essential that you get very high grades in the pre-med curriculum. How high a GPA you need depends on the strength of the rest of your application, but 3.5 is generally seen as the minimum.

So what should your actual major be? Does it need to be in a related scientific area, such as biology or chemistry? This is something that experts disagree about. Some say there’s an advantage to majoring in something unique, like French literature or music. Since most med school applicants major in a science related area, this will help your application stand out in a competitive pile of applications. Some argue that there’s an advantage to having a background in humanities or liberal arts since, after all, being a doctor isn’t just about science. It’s about dealing with people.

However, other experts say it’s better to stick with a traditional science major. In med school, scientific knowledge is going to benefit you, so why not get as much as you can as an undergraduate? Moreover, the pre-med requirements overlap with the requirements of just about all science majors, so you can save time with one of these majors. In addition, some feel that because science majors tend to be more demanding, a high GPA in science major looks better on an application than a high GPA on a major that’s easier (or at least is perceived to be easier).

Although opinions differ on whether you should major in science or not, technically it doesn’t matter. As long as you take the pre-med curriculum, you’re eligible to apply to medical school. If you have a stellar GPA in both your major and your pre-med classes, you’ll be in decent shape, no matter what.

Keep in mind that if you want to go to medical school, you’ll be expected to do some serious volunteer work at a hospital, a clinic, or some other medical facility. Schools prefer to see students who have committed to one volunteer assignment over a significant period of time. In addition, many students get some research experience with professors as well, and this also looks great on an application.

One of the most important things you can do is get yourself a good pre-med advisor. Although most schools do not offer an official pre-med major, many do offer pre-med advising programs. An advisor will be able to help you maximize your chances of getting into med school by taking the right classes and getting the right volunteer experiences.

Good luck, future doc!

College Students: Come to Class, Every Day!

Students, need some advice about how to do well in school? Here’s the most basic advice I can give you, which many students choose to ignore: come to class! Come to class every single day, unless you are truly ill (not just a cold) or you have a serious emergency that takes you away from campus. If you follow this simple attendance rule- and pay attention in class, of course- you’re going to do pretty well in school. If not, you’re in trouble.

It’s so tempting not to go to class. I know. I used to be a student, too. It feels exhilarating to be out of high school and to be able to do whatever you want. And there are so many tempting things you can do that are more fun than stepping into that classroom- especially if it’s a lousy class. So what’s the harm in sleeping in, or playing video games, or using that time to study for a test later in the afternoon?

Trust me. I taught college for 14 years. You cannot do well in school—at least not consistently—if you don’t go to all or most of the time, no matter how good a reason you have for staying away.

Sure, you can get notes from someone else, right? Well, yes, but that’s no substitute, even if the fellow student who’s helping you out is a good note taker. It’s really not. You need to be able to go and listen and catch everything that’s said, or the material won’t make as much sense to you.

It’s also important to go to class everyday to make sure you understand how all the material fits together. Professors do not create class periods as stand-alone sessions that make perfect sense if you’ve never attended before and never attend again. Class sessions are part of a series of class sessions, and they all relate to one another. Material in one class session may not make sense if you’ve missed what came before it.

And when it comes to the exam, you’ll be expected to understand how it all fits together. If you just come some of the time, and perhaps have notes from days that you missed, you’ll know lots of little bits of information, but you might not be able to explain the big picture.

So give it a try. Come to class every day, listen, and take good notes. I bet your grades will go up. When I was a student, and I made a commitment to come to class almost every time, I went from decent grades to straight As. For real. Come to class, and see what happens.

Should You Major in Communication?

Communication is one the fastest growing and most popular majors in the United States and around the world, but is it for you? I used to be a communication professor, so maybe I can help you decide.

First of all, it’s important to understand what communication is. This discipline basically does two things. It teaches students to look critically at the social, personal, and political implications of communication processes. These processes include interpersonal interactions, online interactions, political rhetoric, and media messages. Second, the major teaches students how to become better communicators. This happens in classes such as public speaking, group communication skills, and television production.

What many students don’t realize is this: many, if not most, communication departments focus more on the critical side and less on the skills side. While many students are there to learn practical skills, many professors are interested in teaching critical analysis. These can lead to some conflicts in expectations.

Thus, if you take a class about the media, there’s a good chance you’re not going to learn much that will help you specifically in a broadcasting job. Instead, you’ll be focusing more on how the media impact society.

So should you major in communication? This depends on both your personal interests, and what a particular department has to offer you. First, ask yourself this—are you interested in the critical side of communication, or the “hands on” side, or both? Once you figure this out, find a department that matches your interests. If you’re mostly just interested in learning how to be successful in public relations, find a department that emphasizes this (but expect to take classes about the critical side as well). If you’re interested in the critical side, find a department that emphasizes this (but expect to take public speaking and a few more practical classes as well).

On a completely different note, here’s something you should consider before you major in communication: it’s a very popular major! This means that at many colleges and universities, it’s very difficult to get into the classes you need. At the last school where I taught—Colorado State University—many students weren’t getting any upper level classes until their senior year, which means they had to load up on lots of difficult comm classes as they were trying to graduate and find a job. The major’s popularity also means that class sizes can be large, which is a problem in classes where you’re supposed to be learning communication skills. Before choosing this major, talk to faculty members and other students about how difficult it is to get into classes.

Communication is a unique major in that is giving students the opportunity to study communication from a critical, liberal arts perspective, as well as a practical one. If this interests you, take a few classes and see what you think. However, try to find a department that is as skills-oriented or as critical as you prefer, and keep in mind the problems that come with a popular major.

Avoid College Life Drama

Here’s a basic college life tip for you: avoid drama! Trust me. As someone who taught college for 14 years, I saw how miserable many of my students got about situations that just weren’t worth their energy. And looking back on my own college years, I seriously cringe when I think about the ridiculous soap operas I found myself a part of—none of which were the least bit important in the grand scheme of things.

College friendships are awesome, especially if you live on campus or are involved in campus activities. These friendships can last you a lifetime. Two of my closest friends from college were in my wedding, and I really do feel that I can tell these two people anything.

On the downside, though, college friendships can be way too intense because you spend so much time together, and often live together in a dorm or an apartment as well. There’s so much stress in the life of a typical college student, and it tends to spill out to your social life as well.

So how do you avoid college drama? Well, you can’t entirely, but here are some tips to help. First of all, keep things in perspective. Assure yourself that ten years from now, or two years from now, or even next month, the drama of the week is not going to matter. Yes, it may hurt an incredible amount that your ex is now dating a friend of yours who lives down the hall. Yes, you may be justifiably furious that a so-called friend has told everyone something you wanted to keep secret. But take a deep breath and remind yourself of all the more important things in your life—and don’t focus on these things. They’ll fade away eventually—and will fade away faster if you focus your energy on other things.

Second, avoid drama by refusing to take on anybody else’s. Yes, if a friend wants to cry on your shoulder about her conflict with someone else, listen. Offer sympathy and take her out for ice cream or a margarita. But don’t get involved with trying to “fix” things, and don’t take sides. And if you find yourself in a friendship where the drama just doesn’t seem to stop, maybe this is a friend you shouldn’t spend too much time with.

In addition, a good way to avoid drama is to refuse to gossip. Sure, a little gossip is okay, especially if it isn’t the mean kind. But spreading secrets and saying nasty things behind people’s back will come back to haunt you—especially if you’re in a close-knit friendship group or if you live in a dorm.

One of my best friends from college and I lost contact with each other because of a bunch of dramatic gibberish that I don’t even fully remember. We got back in contact last year, thank goodness. Value your college friendships, and don’t let dramatic nonsense get in the way. It’s not worth it.

Adjusting from High School Academic Expectations to College

Most incoming college students are in for a shock when they first enter a college classroom—even if they did well academically in high school. The set of expectations are quite different, and it takes some time to get used to the changes. Here are the changes you can expect.

First and foremost, you are responsible for your own education. College instructors will be more than happy to answer questions and help you if you stop by their office hours. But they’re not. It’s up to you to:

    • Read the syllabus and know when your deadlines are. In high school, you may have had daily reminders about what to read for the next class period, or that a paper is due next week. Not so in college.This information is all on the syllabus, and you’re responsible for keeping track of it.
    • Take good notes. Although the instructor might use PowerPoint or give you some kind of outline to help you organize your notes, don’t count on it. You need to pay attention and get it all down.
    • Figure out what’s going to be on the test. Yes, you might get study sheets and some information from the instructor about what to study. However, in a college classroom, anything you read or hear about in class in fair game for the test.
    • Get help if you need it. Help is available, but you have to ask for it.

Second, one big change from high school is the amount of time you’re expected to spend studying. Instructors generally expect 2 to 3 hours of time outside of class for every credit hour you spend in class. That means if you’re taking 15 credits, you’re expected to spend 30 to 45 hours outside of class studying every week. Sound like a lot? Not if you want to do well.

Another big change is the difficult level of the reading. Your reading assignments will be longer and more difficult—and you’ll be expected to complete them.

Finally, a big change is your schedule itself. Although you’ll probably have an academic adviser to help you out, no one is going to tell you exactly what you need to take. You get to choose your major, choose your electives, and figure out which classes you need to fulfill the requirements for the school and the major. If you forget to take a class that’s required for graduation, you won’t graduate–end of story. Again, academic advising can help you—but you have to seek this out. It’s rarely required for students to meet with their academic advisors, so take advantage of the help that’s available.

If this sounds overwhelming, it is—but it does get easier if you’re willing to put in the work. Come to college expecting to be a little overwhelmed, and know that you’re not alone.


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