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Seven Questions to Ask Colleges

By Tom Nicholas

March 4, 2013

Last updated June 1, 2019

As spring rolls around, the college search process progresses toward campus visits for many high school sophomores and juniors, even as it progresses into its final stages for seniors, who will soon be considering where to enroll. There are lots of potential questions to ask of colleges when visiting campuses and narrowing down your list. I’ve been asked thousands of different questions by prospective students and parents throughout my time in admission, and I thought this would be an appropriate time of year to share some of the most perceptive ones I’ve heard. Here are seven questions to consider asking of colleges – questions that get past some typical misconceptions and reveal a little more about what a college has to offer.

1. “What’s the largest class offered at your school?”

There tends to be a lot of focus on average class size as a measure of the personal attention you’ll receive from a college. But small average class sizes can often belie some pretty large introductory courses. If we’re talking in terms of personal attention, that attention from expert faculty is particularly critical when you begin your time in college. Small introductory courses help you engage with the material in a more comprehensive way, and connecting with faculty early can make your major search much more dynamic and full of possibilities.

The largest class we offer at Richmond has 40 students; however, 98% of our courses, including most introductory courses, have fewer than 30 students. The average class size is 17.

2. “Whose office will I visit during office hours?”

It’s certainly important to know who will be teaching your classes – some of the biggest names touted by top universities almost never speak to undergraduates, while some universities require all faculty to do so – but, to take it a step further, don’t just ask who will be teaching or lecturing. Who will be grading your work, giving you feedback, guiding your academic growth and discovery, engaging you in conversation? If the answer to any of those questions is a graduate student or teaching assistant, you’ll be missing out on one of the greatest opportunities the college experience has to offer: being mentored by faculty experts and accomplished scholars.

At Richmond, all classes are professor-taught – there are no teaching assistants – and all professors have open office hours every week.

3. “How easy is it to change my major, or to double-major?”

Let’s face it: most prospective students have a specific major in mind. The very first question I hear from most high school students is “Do you have a strong __________ major?” But studies show that large percentages of students – the majority of them, at many selective colleges – will change their major field at least once during their time in college. This begs the question, how easy is that to do? If, like most, you discover a new passion at the college level, or a powerful experience like an internship or semester abroad changes your career goals partway through college, can you change your course of study to match? How much time is given for exploration before declaring a major? If the university has multiple schools or colleges, how easy it to move between them? What about double-majoring, if you find you’re passionate about more than one area? These are all critical questions, and they’re not asked frequently enough.

All students enter Richmond undeclared. Few declare a major before their sophomore year, and many will change majors after their sophomore year. All majors and schools are open to all students – you need not apply to any program separately when you apply to the University. Around 60% of Richmond students double-major, and an additional 20% have a major with at least two minors.

4. “How does study abroad actually work at your school?”

This is a much better question than “Do you have study abroad programs?” (most colleges do) or “Do lots of students study abroad?” (a relative question). The real question is what studying abroad actually looks like in practice. What percentage of students study abroad? When do they study abroad – over the summer, during a winter term, for a full semester? Where do they study abroad – on a University-run campus abroad, another American campus, or as an exchange student? What do they study while they’re abroad, and how easily do their credits transfer? Is there financial aid available for study abroad? The answers to these questions will give you a much better sense of how a college views and values international education, and what the experience is actually like for students.

Richmond maintains more than 75 direct partnerships with top universities in over 30 countries. 60% of Richmond students study abroad, most of them spending a full semester immersed as an exchange student, typically pursuing courses that count toward their major fields. All financial aid and scholarships carry with students as they go abroad, and Richmond even provides a travel stipend along with reimbursements for additional expenses like passport and visa fees.

5. “What is your first-year retention rate?”

Retention is an oft-overlooked figure that says a lot about a college. The percentage of students returning for their second year reflects a lot of different things: academic success, personal care and attention from faculty and staff, a good fit, continued affordability and sufficient financial aid, happiness and satisfaction – ultimately, a great overall experience!

With 94% of students who entered in fall 2017 returning for the 2018-19 academic year, Richmond’s retention rate is among the highest in the U.S.

6. “What is your four-year graduation rate – and how much can I do in those four years?”

The national average for college graduation is about six years, so this is a particularly critical question when considering the cost of a college education. Six years at that large public university might not actually end up being cheaper than four years at a private college! The second part of the question is critical if you’re thinking about double-majoring, studying abroad for a semester, student-teaching, completing an internship – any number of factors that might add more time to the tab.

At Richmond, 85% of students graduate in four years. The typical Richmond student will double-major, spend a full semester abroad, and participate in numerous experiential opportunities such as internships and undergraduate research during that time.

7. “What did you do last weekend?”

This is one for the tour guides, not for admission officers. Rather than asking generally what students do on the weekend (and risking a very generic response), get specific and concrete. Ask your tour guide what their last weekend looked like, and how they spent their time.

Richmond’s tour guides are excited to tell you all about their weekend experiences – and lots more about Richmond! You can meet them personally when you schedule your campus visit, or you can e-mail current Richmond students via Contact a Student.

Tags: College Search Admission Tips Why Richmond?

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Tom NicholasTom Nicholas
Associate Director of Admission 

A Richmond alumnus (Class of 2007), Tom has been working and blogging for the Office of Admission since he graduated. He loves his alma mater and the city that shares its name.

Learn more about Tom

Beth Anne SpachtBeth Anne Spacht
Senior Assistant Director of Admission

Beth Anne was a double major at Richmond (English and Latin American & Iberian Studies) and now enjoys helping prospective students discover the best of her alma mater.

Learn more about Beth Anne

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