Selecting a College: Sitting in on Classes

Touring college campuses is an absolutely essential part of decision-making before choosing a college. This deserves a blog post on its own, but all college advice out there will tell you the same: go check out the campus. Find out what the dorms look like. See some of the classrooms, wander the grounds, and get a feel for the vibe and general experience of the place. Take the tour and hear a carefully-crafted presentation of the university, and then go off the beaten track a bit to see it for yourself.

The best way to get a true feel for a college is to get into a classroom.

Once you’ve actually been present for a lecture, or witnessed an in-class discussion among students, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what it’s like to be part of the academic community of the university. While no two classes will be exactly the same, there will be a lot to learn about the expectations of students and professors, as well as overall style and “vibe.” In particular, you can learn

  • How excited students are to be part of the class
  • How engaging is the professor?
  • If the students take notes, and how
  • The overall “vibe” and culture of the classroom
  • If the students appear to be prepared for class, having done the reading and assignments
  • What kinds of contributions students give to the class. Do they raise their hands often? Do they contribute specific facts from assigned reading, or do they comment with more personal opinions?

College classes are different from high school classes. They are more difficult in some ways, but in other ways the differences are not about difficulty, but rather about different expectations. Opinions may be more or less welcome in classroom discussion.

Studying on the Berkeley campus. April 2014

By visiting college classes you can get a feel for what “normal” might look like in college, and then start getting a sense of how things are in specific institutions. All college classes might have more reading than you’re used to, but how the reading is discussed might be different from class to class. Large lecture courses will probably have minimal discussion, but the professor will often expect you have come prepared with the reading. Other classes might go over the same material, making homework less necessary, except as a study tool. Discussion courses might be set up in a text-focused way, or instead in a more free-flowing debate.

Without sitting in those seats, it’s hard to know what will fit your unique learning style and goals. And without knowing what works for you, it’s hard to make an informed decision about where you should be.

So if you’re heading to a campus visit, do your best to schedule some time in a classroom. Some ways to do that might be:

  • If you know anyone at that school, ask for help. If you’re interested in a different major than they are, ask if they have any friends who can help.
  • Ask your high school guidance councilor. They might have connections, particularly at local colleges, that can help put you in contact with the right person.
  • Ask at the university. Check with the prospective students or admissions department.
  • Ask the department. If you are particularly interested in a certain major, write to their office manager and ask if there is a class you could visit. Particularly if you demonstrate interest and skill in a certain area, they will probably accommodate you
  • (This is the most go-getter option, but will also take some work) Contact a professor. Do this ONLY if you’ve done your research first. If you know of a professor who is offering a class in a subject you truly care about, and you’ve found out that their class is happening while you’re on campus, write and find out if you can observe the class. Be extremely courteous and concise when writing to professors. They are busy and you are asking a favor. But if you signal that you are particularly interested in what they have to offer, they might go out of their way to help you experience their class.

If you do get permission to observe a class, make sure you’re well prepared. Get to the class early, and plan to stay the whole time (if it’s a particularly long class and they have a break, you can probably slip away. Otherwise, it’s important that you don’t disrupt the class by leaving during the lecture/discussion). Be courteous. Introduce yourself to the professor if you get the chance, sit near the back or sides, and don’t do anything distracting (DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR PHONE DURING CLASS).

I recently visited a friend who is a first year student at Berkeley Law. I sat in on one of her classes because I’m interested in her experiences as a student. I was also invited by a friend of hers to visit a first year PhD sociology course. And I immediately got this sense of the distinct campus cultures of those two disciplines. Both were rigorous and demanding, both had highly-prepared, highly-skilled students and professors. But Law demands a close examination and memorization of facts, and all debate must be held in terms of where opinions sit within the legal histories. Whereas in sociology, the students were bringing up both the scholars they had studied in previous classes in the program as well as pulling ideas from their own research, their experiences, and from other disciplines.

Visit campuses as part of your college selection processes. Sit in on classes. Be a silent observer, and pay attention to how you feel. Overwhelmed? That’s almost guaranteed. Bored? That’s not a good sign. Excited, challenged, motivated? That’s starting to sound like a good fit.

If you liked this post, please check out guest post "Small Town, Small School, Big Opportunities," by Rebecca Rothkopf, "Choosing a College: Gut Feelings and Pro/Con Lists," and "Location."