MAY 2018
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How to Pick a College – Part One: Understanding Academics

By Robert LeVine

In this two-part explanation, we explore the best way to evaluate whether a college is right for you.

Most students and families pick a university based upon reputation, rankings, word-of-mouth, online forums, and perhaps a two-hour campus visit. All of those are useful tools, but they are merely variables, not the formula for success.

We recommend a two-part analysis for determining where to study. First, understand the structure of each college’s academic curriculum. Second, appreciate the overall environment that will influence the student.

Just as high schools adopt different curricular structures – IB, AP, British, etc. – America’s universities offer a wide variety of academic designs. I am amazed at how our clients begin the college admissions process believing that a desired university has a top-ranked department, but having no idea what classes are allowed or required. I recall asking a student who was applying to Columbia University, “Do you know about their Core Curriculum?” He nodded his head confidently. Then when I asked whether he knew what courses he would actually be required to take, the look on his face changed to doubt. “Um, no ….”

The inquiry isn’t whether a school teaches well. That’s just a matter of opinion. The correct questions include: What classes will you take? Where will you take them? How are they taught?

The starting point is to recognize when a college requires you to select a major. At some universities, students are urged or required to start a specific academic path immediately. We call this a “silo” curriculum, one which allows students a few opportunities to study outside their major but really forces them to go straight down their desired path. The silo is about depth, not breadth. In other universities, students are not required to select their majors for two years. These schools believe that students should investigate their options in order to make more informed decisions.

But what happens during those first two years? American schools have different ideas about how to guide students.

A Core Curriculum is similar to many high school curricula: there are a lot of required courses, a few electives, and then a major. A General Education curriculum has fewer required courses and more flexibility: select a few courses from a few required areas and fill the rest of the schedule with electives (plus the major). An Open curriculum gives ultimate flexibility and demands very few courses outside the major, often just a writing course. Unfortunately, the terms that our universities use to describe their curricula are inconsistent, so you’ll have to research the actual academic structure of a school, not just the name the school uses to label its curriculum.

Also, be mindful that American schools adopt different academic calendars. Most use a system of two semesters per year, sometimes offering courses during the summer as well. Some use a system of quarters, which splits the 12-month calendar into four parts. Instead of two semesters, there are three quarters plus a summer quarter (when classes may or may not be required or even offered). Some schools use a 4-1-4 system, which usually inserts a one-month intensive experience between two semesters.

Pay attention to how many classes you will take. In semester systems, students often take four courses per semester, for a total of 32 during the college careers. In quarter systems, some universities ask for three classes per quarter (36 overall) while others require four classes per quarter (48 overall).

In addition to the content and number of classes, observe where and how the courses are taught. Studying abroad can be a wonderful experience, but those opportunities vary. Have you checked to see if a university allows you to take courses or obtain a dual degree at another university? Many people are surprised to learn that universities like MIT and Columbia partner with other colleges to offer a Bachelors of Science degree in engineering in addition to the Bachelor of Arts degree at a student’s “home” college.

You should also understand how experiential learning – learning and gaining course credit through internships – can impact your education. Those who learn better by “doing” in Co-op programs will not only gain a more useful education, but also build a resume that gives them a competitive career edge.

Since you are going to pay for your education, investigate carefully the academics you will be purchasing.

Robert A.G. Levine, president of Selective College Consulting Inc., can be reached at (813) 391-3760, email [email protected] or visit

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