So, you’re thinking about the next steps in your education: what college/university to attend, what program to study, what your dream job will be. You’ve got a lot of big decisions to make!
When you’re trying to find the right path, you need good information. Education fairs and open houses put you face-to-face (virtually or otherwise) with experts who can answer your questions and provide specifics relevant to your situation and interests.
Still, it can be daunting to approach school admins and program coordinators when you’re still not sure what you’re looking for. To help, we’ve put together a long list of questions to help drive your thinking and stimulate conversation with college and university reps.
First off, don’t worry about asking every one of these questions! Read through the list and make note of the questions that seem most relevant to you, or that strike your curiosity. Muse upon potential follow-up questions, too, as you prepare.
Whenever possible, it’s better to ask “open” questions than “closed.” Open questions are those which require explanation, and typically start with the classic journalistic Ws: “how,” “why,” “when,” “where,” “who,” and “what.” Closed questions are of the “yes or no” variety, and don’t usually demand further explanation.
For example, compare the following questions:
Open: “How much financial aid do you offer to incoming students?”
Closed: “Do you offer financial aid to incoming students?”
Asking follow-up questions is a skill in itself. The best follow-ups are “open” questions, and drill down on specific details. When in doubt, connect the question to your specific situation: grades, background, educational goals, career ambitions, etc. Failing that, you can always ask, “Where can I go to read or learn more about this?” It’s always good to have info in writing.
School info and student life
Questions to ask about the university itself; the campus, student life, and more.
Unique selling points
Ask about what makes the university unique; what are the big 3 facets of the university and its culture that everyone should know? Asking about this up front lets the rep get their sales pitch out early, and will give you a sense of how the university sees (and sells!) itself.
Has the university won any national or international acclaim? Perhaps an award for teaching quality or other professional recognition? Schools like to boast about this kind of thing, but it never hurts to ask, too.
Consider asking about study abroad and exchange opportunities, even if you don’t see yourself taking advantage. You’ll learn a bit about the relationships the institution has with others around the world.
In the same vein, ask about transfer agreements. Some universities have ongoing relationships with other institutions that allow for an easy, streamlined transfer of credits and so on — perfect if you feel like you might want a change someday!
Be sure to inquire about internship and co-op opportunities, too. These will vary by program, but many universities have standing agreements with organizations and companies to help funnel students to get work experience, which can be invaluable as you build your career credentials. How many co-op spots are available each year? What are some of the relationships the university has with companies and organizations?
Student life and vibe
The “feel” of a campus or student body is important and worth paying attention to. Universities generally have a reputation; maybe it’s known as a party school, or a serious, hit-the-books kind of place, or anywhere inbetween. Try to learn what the vibe of the school is.
You’ll also want to get a sense of how many students study on campus, how many live in residence vs off-campus, and how many students are studying primarily online. This info can give you a sense of how lively the place is likely to be, and what sort of community you can expect to build with your classmates.
You can also ask how students typically spend their free time. Are they heading out to the bars (when not locked down), are they taking part in clubs or extracurriculars, are they studying like mad? This will help you get a sense of the community lifestyle of the university, and whether it’ll be a good fit for you.
City / town / village life
No matter where you go, from the biggest downtown university to the smallest rural college, you’ll want to know about the life and culture around the school. From basic amenities to entertainment options, learn as much as you can about the environment in which you’ll be studying.
The cost of living can vary widely in different parts of the world, so knowing how much you can expect to pay in rent, entertainment, transportation, and more, is invaluable.
Disregard if you’re planning to study entirely online, though bear in mind that you may want a change of pace down the line, especially as the pandemic slowly winds down.
If you are planning to study in-person, you’ll want to know about accommodations. Many schools offer residence placements, especially for first-year students: ask about how many beds are available, if rooms are reserved for incoming students, and how much it all costs. Bear in mind you may need a meal plan, a parking pass, and more. Get as much detail as you can to help with budgeting.
Even if you’re not interested in residence, you might want to know about off-campus housing. Schools and student unions sometimes have relations with off-campus housing providers, or can point you in the right direction for student accommodations. Knowing where student apartments can be found in relation to the campus, and what you can expect to pay, is key. Even if you’re in residence your first year, you’ll probably want to move out in your second!
Student supports and services
Student services encapsulate a wide range of offerings, from academic support and writing centres to health and wellness programs. Find out as much as you can about library and lab access, athletic facilities, career placement for new grads, even 3D printing capacity: anything you think might be valuable or useful to you during your time at the institution.
Who do you get in touch with when you need help? If you’re falling behind in your coursework, what intervention strategies does the school have in place to support you? What should you do if you’re feeling overwhelmed and need mental health support? How does the school foster community among its students, especially during virtual learning?
If you’re studying online, much of this will still be relevant, not only for academic and career supports, but also for things like library access. Maybe you’ll be able to borrow ebooks instead — which could save you money on textbooks!
Related to student support is the alumni community. How are things for those who have graduated? Is there a tight network with events and career development for alumni, or will you mostly just get emails asking for donations? (Chances are it’s a bit of both!)
The application process
Ask about the application process! Share details about your own academic history in high school and beyond, if you’re comfortable doing so. Try to find out the most common pathway for students, from application to admissions. How long does it usually take? When can you expect to hear back about an offer of admission?
Ask what admissions staff are looking for in an applicant, and what you can do to sharpen your application. Find out if there are seats set aside for equity-seeking groups, including Indigenous students. Ask about wait lists, too, and how fast (or slowly!) they move, so you’ll have a sense of what to expect if you’re waitlisted.
Questions to ask about instructors, professors, teaching assistants, and so on.
Find out how much of your time will be spent alongside your instructors and teaching staff. Not only in lectures or labs, but in practical environments and office hours. Are teaching staff available to sit down with you and answer questions? Are they responsive to email, can you book appointments? This will vary by program (and individual) but you can get a sense of the amount of time you’ll be in touch with your instructors.
You may also want to find out how much of the instruction is delivered by professors and how much by teaching assistants. It’s common in lower-year studies, especially at universities, for much of your course to be taught not by professors, but by teaching assistants, who are often grad students themselves. You may be curious to learn more about your TAs’ qualifications and the selection process.
Big names in teaching
Are there any superstar instructors on the faculty? Big names who do remarkable work in the field that interests you? Getting to know the academic backgrounds of your teachers-to-be can be a good way to identify whether a school is right for you.
Ask about recent publications and scholarship, especially if you’re in a cutting-edge field like science or technology. If you’re looking more at college or the trades, find out if your teaching staff still work in your field of interest, and what their current projects are.
Finances and financial aid
Tuition and fees
Ask about average tuition costs for different types of credentials. Bachelor’s degrees have different fees from diplomas, and full-time students may pay a different amount of tuition from part-timers.
Find out about ancillary fees, too, and how many are optional. Try to get a sense of how much you’ll be expected to pay for the student union, health insurance, athletic facilities, and more.
And don’t forget textbooks! Will you have to buy a whole new set every semester? Can you get most of what you need from the school or public library? Does the school offer an ebook program instead, to help you save money?
Finally, you’ve also got material fees, depending on your program. From painting supplies to a set of chef’s knives, how much will you need to spend just to have the tools you need to study?
Find out what kind of financial aid the school offers to students in your position. Are there entrance awards for good grades or community service — and are they automatic, or do you have to apply? Is the deadline for financial aid applications the same as for general admission? What percentage of students receive an entrance award of some kind, and what’s the average amount? How many of the awards are renewable (that is, recipients continue getting funding in years beyond the first)?
Bear in mind that a “bursary” is based on financial need, while a “scholarship” is generally based on academics.
You should also ask about incentives for students like yourself, who are in high demand (obviously!) and have many choices for your education. What can the school do to entice you to choose them? Don’t be afraid to play a little hardball here!
Working while you study
Your school of choice may offer a work-study program, research positions, or other ways for you to work on- or off-campus while you study. Ask what sorts of positions are available, perhaps in the library, as a tutor, or even, in your upper years, as a teaching assistant yourself.
Questions specific to how programs and courses are run.
Learn as much as you can about what the requirements are for admission to your programs of choice. Will your current grades and high school courses be enough to get you admitted in the first wave? Is there any flexibility on specific course requirements? What can you do to improve your odds of skipping the wait list?
How much of the program can be done online, and how much is hands-on? How big are the average class sizes, and what’s the ratio of students to instructors? Will you be expected to draft a thesis of some kind, or does the bulk of your grade derive from coursework and assignments?
If you’re looking at a professional designation, as, for example, an engineer or human resources professional, ask if the relevant programs are affiliated with or accredited by a professional organization. Will such an affiliation help you skip the line on future credentials, or will you still need follow-up training to officially practice as an engineer or human resources pro?
Ask about graduates’ employment prospects, too. What percentage of grads are employed in their field within a year of graduation? What are some of the interesting positions grads have found themselves in? How does the typical graduation-to-career pipeline look for your program of interest?
Best of luck on finding the info you need from school reps at virtual education fairs! With questions like these in your back pocket, you’re sure to learn a ton about your prospects.