Want to boost your chances of having a great college experience, finishing on time and landing a job after graduation? You can dramatically raise the odds by picking the right school – and that doesn’t mean the most elite one that will take you.
Sometimes the reasons college freshmen don’t return for sophomore year are financial, of course. But often the problem is one of dissatisfaction, of feeling disconnected from the college community.
As you research schools, look for programs that aim to help students thrive. For example: “first-year experiences” that bond freshmen quickly to professors and a small group of other students, internships and research opportunities.
“I’d be looking for [colleges] that make some of these mandatory,” says George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.
With so many students bailing after freshman year, colleges have stepped up their efforts to become “stickier.” One way is to bring students together before class begins in a meaningful orientation. Another is immediately putting small groups of students into frequent contact with each other and a faculty member in a seminar or other intensive experience focused on critical inquiry, writing and team learning – the toolbox needed for success in college and a career.
“We look to get students connected early and often to the right people and right resources,” says Bernie Savarese, director of University Orientation and First Year Experience at Ohio State University—Columbus. New students also take a series of classes designed to help them settle in and succeed, with topics ranging from personal finance, time management and study skills to healthy eating and coping with anxiety.
Peer leaders keep an eye on newbies, helping them to establish relationships on campus and supporting anyone who is having trouble transitioning to independent college life. Since initiating the program in 2001, Ohio State has watched its retention rate climb to 94 percent from the low 80s.
No matter where you choose to go, get involved in activities that will help you form ties right away, urges Savarese. “The things you do in the first six weeks of school can pay dividends 10 times going forward.”
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One-quarter of the class of 2014 worked closely with a professor on research while in college, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement. The Association of American Colleges & Universities thinks that fraction is too low and is “really pushing” member schools to do better, says Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement.
“The stuff I’m doing is making an impact,” says Anthony Recidoro, a 2015 University of Washington graduate in biology from Murrieta, California. His research on how zebrafish regenerate lost bone, skin and tails has implications for medicine, he says, and “probably ranks No. 1” among all his college experiences.
New students at UW get a briefing on the research possibilities as early as their orientation, and some 84 percent of undergrads undertake a project. Each spring, more than 1,000 students present their work at a campuswide symposium, and an impressive 87 percent of patent applications filed by the university in 2014 had student input.
When considering colleges, advises Humphreys, be sure to look for places where research opportunities are available to all students, not just honors or other subsets of students.
Employers want to hire people who can write and speak clearly, work in teams, think critically and solve real-world problems. Will you be able to do that when you graduate?
A great way to get some creds while in college is by taking on an internship – or several. That’s what Hannah Sedgwick of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, was looking to do when she zeroed in on American University in Washington, D.C. “AU was my No. 1 choice because of the opportunities of interning,” says the 2015 graduate in communications studies.
Sedgwick, who wants to go into public relations for a large entertainment company, incorporated six gigs all-told into her schedule, including one at Washington’s Newseum and two at nearby Discovery Communications.
Internships are an integral part of the learning experience for almost everyone at American, with 90 percent of undergrads doing at least one, says Gihan Fernando, executive director of the university’s career center.
Experiential learning is so central at many colleges that some, such as Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, fund on-the-job experiences. If your school isn’t an internship powerhouse, consider snagging one on your own.
Writing in the Disciplines
“There is a clear connection between writing and students’ critical thinking skills,” says Michelle LaFrance, director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program at George Mason University in Virginia. Students who spend time perfecting the type of writing required by their disciplines “make better connections with one another and faculty, and they learn more deeply.”
Those conclusions have inspired a growing number of colleges and universities to make writing a priority at all levels of instruction and across majors.
At George Mason, freshmen take an introductory class in which they gain an understanding of audience as they focus on writing and then revising. They later take a course on what it means to write effectively in their discipline.
“My class focused on what it looks like to write as a scientist,” says Joel Mota, a 2015 graduate in biology who concentrated on analyzing scientific research, case studies and journal commentaries, then writing in those styles.
GMU students also take one of 82 writing-intensive courses within their major. As a senior, Mota chose one on animal communication and social behavior that had him stretching in various ways related to science. Besides the three required courses, instruction on communicating well in writing is woven through the curriculum.
As is true with eating vegetables, notes LaFrance, “the payoff is extensive, but not always immediately apparent.”
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2016” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.