Prep Talk Blog > October 2008

In my last post, I discussed how it is important to consider the distance you will be from your family when looking at prospective colleges. Another important thing to consider when looking at schools is how much there is to do off campus in the town in which the school is located.

When you’re first looking at colleges, it’s very easy to focus just on campus life– what the classrooms are like, how big the dorm rooms are, the faculty-to-student ratio, how tasty (or disgusting) the dorm cafeteria food is, etc. But remember, you may not want to spend every waking moment for all four years on campus. This new city is a place you’ll be living for four years, not just attending class and sleeping in a dorm room, so you need to be sure it will meet your needs for entertainment and social activities.

Some people will do perfectly fine in a small college town. Maybe you grew up in a small town and are already accustomed to it. Or if you think you will be kept very busy with academics, school sports, Greek life, or other campus-related activities, the size of your college town may not matter.

However, if you love going out to clubs and bars, eating at interesting restaurants, attending major concerts, or shopping often, remember that a small town may not be able to provide all that for you. When you are looking at a school in a small town, ask yourself if you will get all the entertainment and satisfaction you need from your campus life or if you do want to be in a city that provides entertainment off-campus. This varies for everybody.

I remember during my college search, I became very interested in several small liberal arts colleges in New England. They looked so beautiful, had interesting majors and minors, were known to have very intellectual students, some had unique grading systems, and so on. But then I did my research and I discovered that many of these colleges were in very rural areas. Some were in very tiny towns, and others in isolated areas miles away from towns (that were tiny).

I grew up in Houston, a very big city, and was accustomed to having endless things to do at all hours of the day and night. I realized I would probably be very unhappy in a tiny little town, especially during cold winter months. Austin was a great fit for me because it is a big city with much to do both on and off campus.

Do some self-discovery and try to figure out what your needs are, and if your potential school meets them. Some colleges and universities, regardless of how big or small of a city it is located in, provide plenty of entertainment for their students on the campus. Some have movie theaters, bowling alleys, eateries, coffee shops, concerts, and more. If you’re concerned about not having enough to do, do some research and find out what types of activities your school does offer. It may be more than enough. After all, you don’t want to get too distracted from your studies!

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It’s a rite of passage for nearly all college-bound kids, but if the NACAC had their way, the SAT would only play a minor role in the admissions game. A NACAC commission, led by Harvard’s dean of admission, just released a report questioning the overemphasis on SAT scores. The committee of guidance counselors and admission officers found that the SAT was an “incredibly imprecise” indicator of success in college and encouraged the U.S. News and World Report to stop using them as a factor in ranking colleges. The magazine’s ranking methods put pressure on schools to admit high scorers in order to maintain or improve their position in the annual list.

Some say that a national, standardized test is necessary to offset grade inflation and compare students from different schools, but in its current form, the SAT does a poor job of predicting how well an applicant will do in college. Worse, it is often an admissions roadblock for lower-income students who often score too low to qualify for scholarships or even application to more competitive schools. Because of the huge test prep industry, the disparity between wealthy and poor test-takers has grown over the years. While some kids can afford to brush up on exam strategies with private tutors, others lack access to even basic manuals. Whether or not you think a national standard is needed, we can all agree that the SAT is hardly a fair game

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I know, I know…you cannot wait to get away from your family and be independent. It’s every high school senior’s dream to finally escape curfews, rules, and snooping parents. But before you head off to a faraway place for college in order to flee what’s familiar, you should consider what it will be like to be so far away from your family and if that is the right decision for you.

If you go to a school across the country, remember that it will take a major road trip or an expensive plane ride every time you want to go home. Depending on your economic situation, it may limit you to visiting home only a few times a year. After spending 18 years with these people, do you think you can handle seeing them only on major holidays?

There is no wrong answer; this is just something to take into consideration. Some people may be very ready for it, while others can’t bear that thought. Not everyone is close to their family. However, even if you don’t feel particularly close to your family, you may not realize how much you will miss them until you are 700 miles away and just want a taste of your mom’s casserole.

If you’re the type of person who can go away to camp all summer and barely miss home, going to college far away may be easy for you. But if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like leaving home or gets homesick, you may be happier going to college at a place where home is not so far away.

It’s possible to find a happy medium between feeling like you’re escaping your family but still close enough that you can go home easily if you need to. I almost went to school across the country, but I was never the type who liked being away from home for long and I realized it would be very hard for me. I ended up going to school about 160 miles from home. That was the perfect distance for me because I was far enough away from home that I didn’t feel like my parents would just drop by and surprise me. However, the car ride home, which took around three hours, was pretty painless and allowed me to spend time with my family whenever I wanted. Some weekends I just wanted a break from college life, needed a home-cooked meal and a free place to do my laundry, and coming home that short distance was easy.

While that was the right decision for me, I had many friends who went to school far away and loved it. They reveled in the freedom and were just fine with the distance, and really didn’t mind the occasional plane ride. For many people, this independence is what they need. If you feel that you need independence but are being pressured to stay close to home, think about what’s right for you. If your instinct tells you that you need a totally new experience far from home, don’t go to college 30 miles from where you grew up.

Then again, staying in your hometown may be right for you. If you are extremely close to your family, or even if you have a family member who is sick and you don’t want to leave them, there is nothing wrong with not leaving your city to attend college.

When you’re thinking about where you want to get your higher education, be sure to consider how close you are to your family and how important it is for you to be near them (or away from them). Remember, if you go somewhere far away and realize it’s not for you, you can always transfer somewhere closer.

Alternatively, if you’re ready for college but not quite ready for the leap of going somewhere far off, start at a school near or in your hometown but live in a dorm or your own apartment. That way you are near your family but still experiencing independence. If after one semester or year you find that you want more room to grow on your own, you can then transfer to a school further away.

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While it may not be a household name, Davidson College is a highly respected and highly selective liberal arts college located in the foothills of North Carolina. The school provides a solid education, but also strongly values athletics; the school competes in 21 NCAA Division I sports.

Davidson is well known for its student-administered Honor Code, which treats its students like true adults by emphasizing responsibility and freedom. These virtues are manifested in self-scheduled and unproctored exams.

Admission here is need-blind, meaning students are judged purely on their character, academic abilities, and accomplishments. A unique characteristic of Davidson is that the school provides 100% of funding for students with demonstrated need, and none of those financial aid packages include loans. They consist only of work-study programs and grants, so students don’t have to graduate with debt.

Here’s what you need to know about Davidson College:

The essentials:
Location: Davidson, North Carolina (19 miles from Charlotte)
Founded: 1837
Religious affiliation: Presbyterian (though the school embraces diversity and all faiths)
Number of students: 1,700
Male to female ratio: 50/50

Are merit scholarships offered? Yes
Is there a work-study program? Yes
Total cost for the 2008-2009 school year? $42,950 (includes room and board because all students are required to live on campus for all of college unless officially excused by the school's Director of Residence Life -– 91% do live on-campus)

Acceptance rate for class of 2012: 25.7%
Early decision for class of 2012: 411 applied, 186 enrolled
What is considered for admission? Rigor (difficulty of high school courses), success (grades), writing ability and personal impact (essays and recommendations), involvement, leadership and service, and testing (SAT and/or ACT)
Average scores for those admitted: 1900-2180 for SAT Combined, 28-32 for ACT Composite

Average class size: 15 students
Student-to-faculty ratio? 10:1
Courses offered each year: more than 850
Majors offered: 20
Minors offered: 12
How many students study abroad? More than 70%

Davidson offers many options for prospective students who are interested in learning more about the college. There are basic on-campus tours and information sessions, but there is also a list of classes that allow prospective students to sit in and observe. Additionally, there is an overnight program where high school seniors can come up to the college and stay for a night with a current student to see what life on campus is like. There are also several open house programs each year.

To learn more about Davidson College, visit

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I still remember that ecstatic feeling I had every time I found a school in one of those huge college books that seemed like a great fit for me. Out came the sticky notes  whenever I saw a place that specialized in arts and film programs, was medium-sized, and was located in a city that seemed hip enough.

One school particularly caught my attention:  Emerson College ( in Boston, Massachusetts. The private liberal arts school’s focus is communication, media and the arts. It sounded fantastic - renowned media programs, cool city, small student-to-instructor ratio, small but still bigger than my high school (around 3,000 undergrads), and so on.

I planned to apply and even possibly attend the school without ever having visited it. It just seemed so perfect for me, especially after reading the information online about all the different academic programs. Then, toward the beginning of my senior year of high school, my father had to go to Boston on a business trip and asked if I wanted to tag along and check out Emerson. Of course I did!

I eagerly anticipated the campus visit; until I arrived….and realized there wasn’t one! Set in an extremely urban area, the school didn’t have a typical campus. There were a few different buildings in the city, and some schedules required a walk through a park in order to get from one building to another. There were no student courtyards or large areas designated to just the school. Much like other colleges in very urban areas, such as New York University and George Washington University (in Washington, D.C.), I would have had to sacrifice a large campus for being right in the mix of things. For some people, that is an easy compromise, but I quickly realized that wasn’t something I wanted to give up.

I toured the classrooms, media rooms, and dorms just to get a taste of things, and it was all lovely. When I was in those buildings, it felt so collegiate and exciting. But when I walked outside, it just didn’t feel like “college” to me. I envisioned a large, rolling campus with malls covered in socializing students. I didn’t see that there. 

Immediately, I was grateful that I visited Emerson in person. While it seemed like a wonderful school, it would have been tragic to get accepted and go and not realize it wasn’t for me until I got there. After that visit, I made sure to go tour all of the other schools I was interested in applying to. I was able to rule a few more out, and count a few more in. I ended up enrolling at the University of Texas, a larger school than I thought I’d attend, but it had a very large, social campus with a very collegiate feel and fantastic film program, not to mention the incredible sports programs!

Even if it’s a bit expensive to visit a college far from home, it will help you make the best choice for your next four years. There is a large range of months you can go see a school, so go whenever airfare is cheapest. You can also find some friends who are looking at schools in a similar area and plan a road trip together. Many high schools allow seniors several days off to tour colleges; ask your counselor about this.

  • To make the most of a college visit, do the following:
  • Try to go during a school day during the school year so you can see what the campus feels like on an average day of class.
  • Sit in on a class (or a few) and see what the dynamic is like.
  • Sign up for a tour so you can see all the facilities.
  • Ask for a meeting with someone from the admissions department to get the inside scoop on what the school is looking for.
  • Ask if you can meet with an RA from a dorm and see what the dorm rooms look like.
  • Eat in the cafeteria and see if the food is edible.
  • Hang out in the student union and see what kinds of on-campus activities are available.
  • Approach a few students around campus and ask questions. Most people will be more than happy to help you out.
  • Scope out what kinds of things there are to do in the area. Fun bars? Great restaurants? Cool comedy clubs? Nothing at all?

If there is a school you are strongly considering attending, it’s truly ideal to visit the campus in person and get the visceral experience. How does the campus make you feel? Can you see yourself walking up and down these courtyards and halls every day for four years? Are the dorm rooms big enough? Is there enough to do in that city or is it too big?

Good luck!

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Don Munce