The Question: What should I be asking when comparing schools I get into?

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Welcome to The Question, where you’ll get answers about life at Brown all year long! I’m Celina Stewart, and I’ll be bringing you insights (and photos!) into my fourth year at Brown and my answers to some of the questions I wish I’d asked before college. 

So here’s the deal: most of you are reading this because you’re obviously considering applying to (or committing to!) Brown. You’ve been told by adults, siblings, friends, and the media that certain things matter in a school: teacher to student ratio, GPA weighted versus unweighted, honors college programs, squirrel to student ratios (my favorite Vanderbilt statistic).

But here’s the reality: when you get to campus, you’ll be looking around like, man, there are a ton of cool squirrels here, but where is my social group? Oh, Brown doesn’t calculate a GPA… how do I apply to jobs in the U.S. government, which demands a GPA (hint: you email them until they submit to your ‘no’)? Even though you may have high expectations for the person you’ll be in college, you’ll soon realize that some core things about your personality don’t change, and if you applied to schools for the person you want to be instead of who you are, you’ll be left with more questions (mainly, where should I transfer?). Hopefully, I can help you ask some of those before you commit.

Most of these suggestions come directly from my observations of questions you all ask when they email me or AABS directly (which, please keep doing- as always, the column is for you so keep asking away!). No question is a bad question, but you might not even realize you should be asking different ones. So, what should you be asking when you compare schools you get into?

I know in high school, a lot of emphasis is put on GPA, and perhaps rightly so to get your foot in the door for admissions. But at Brown? First, we don’t calculate one (you can and put it on your resume, though). Brown calculates honors and awards like Phi Beta Kappa based on the percentage of A’s you get, and allows you to get B’s and C’s (it happens) and make those up with additional A’s. Not to mention, you can literally take any course S/NC for whatever reason you choose. So, for those of you emailing me to ask if we fight over GPA points and whether or not we sleep with our notebooks under our pillows (true story), you’re thinking of MIT, not Brown. It is a fair question. But here’s what you should be asking Brown students (and really students at any college): What has made your coursework valuable to you?

Another thing admissions officers and parents like to tout as the end-all-be-all of an educational experience is the teacher-to-student ratio. Yes, getting time with professors is crucial. However, the ratio a school gives is a small portion of the story. There may be small class sizes, but is the main discussion and grading done by a teaching assistant? Are professors actually accessible? Do you want to take larger sampler courses, or actually don’t want to be in a small class setting? For some classes, especially freshman year, big lectures can let you spend time making friendships or choosing activities. I’m not advocating for skipping class, but different people need different types of courses. What you should be asking: How have you cultivated valuable mentorship experiences or other opportunities with professors?

And then, there are the social questions. Maybe Greek life isn’t for you, but you’re used to being part of a larger group of friends. I didn’t expect to have problems making friends, but at Brown, where everyone is so involved in their individual projects, it sometimes is hard to catch up with even close friends. So, you should ask yourself: What type of social interaction do I like? Then ask around at colleges: What types of communities are you a part of? Do most students study together? Is there free time to have fun?

One thing no one wants to think about are medical and psychological problems, but the truth is, at some point, you will need to see a medical professional. This can be somewhat taboo, but if you ask honestly, most people will probably give you answers. One great thing about Brown is that medical professionals do seem to try to accommodate students’ needs, even if they don’t always get it right. Think about yourself- do your sexual preferences, gender, or other aspects of your identity require you to have specific medical or psychological services available? For example, access to information about birth control, sexual health, questions of identity, desire to have discrete testing or procedures? Certain schools may not offer the same services. So, ask: What services are available? How are sensitive personal topics treated? Will my identity be respected and treated with care, and remain private if necessary?

Finally, think about what matters to you. You’ll probably get into a variety of schools: state universities, community colleges, small private schools, Ivy League schools, maybe even schools abroad (if you’re in the US already). Think about whether student debt is worth attending a school with a hefty price tag, especially if you’re looking to attend graduate school. For some people, an Ivy League school and debt is far more important than saving money. For others, maybe you know you’ll push through and work your way into a great graduate program for less cost. Do you want to have a strong religious community, Greek life, or urban campus? These are small things to consider, but may make the difference in terms of your happiness. Choosing the ‘best’ is great, but something else could be better. Ask students: Was your time at college worth it to you? What would you do differently in choosing a school? 

The biggest thing to remember is this: go with your gut. If you visit, talk to students, or even get a good feel from your admissions interview (heck, if you find one supplement easier to complete than others in your admissions process), those are the schools you should prioritize.

Want more photos and FAQ updates? Check out @thebruinclub on Twitter! Have questions or comments for me? Want more details?  Send an email to celina_stewart@brown.edu and I’ll get back ASAP!

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