Hello new readers! To get right down to business since introductions have been taken care of, in the gap between this post and last week’s I’ve had the extraordinary pleasure of visiting George Mason University’s most recent campus addition located in the Middle East! To give some background, in 2005 we opened our first international campus in the United Arab Emirates in the city of Ras al Khaimah, about an hour drive north of Dubai. This campus made George Mason University the first American public university to build a campus in the Middle East, period! In the two years since the RAK (as it’s affectionately known back at home base in Fairfax) campus opened we’ve seen some tremendous successes in both recruiting students from the Middle East to get an American university education closer to home but in also opening programs to bring current Mason students to study and experience the Middle East themselves. I have a lot of thoughts about my time in RAK and hopefully in the coming days I’ll be able to relate them to you, but for now let’s get down to the topic of discussion this week: the benefits and pitfalls of using online resources to do research on schools you might want to attend.
In this day and age there are literally tens of thousands of resources out there find information about any of the thousands of colleges in the United States. This is a good thing. Back when I started in the admissions world (I won’t have many of these “old man” moments, I promise), it was relatively difficult for students and families just to inform themselves about the various colleges in their local area, let alone on the other side of the country. Information was largely tightly controlled by the colleges themselves and by a few publishers who every year released massive tomes filled with information about schools. The internet has turned that old model on its head. Schools today have a very difficult time controlling what information gets out (both “good” and “bad”) about them, which understandably can make college administrators very nervous. Other schools, however, have come to understand the benefits of the information marketplace and are pro-active in getting their own message out there. In many respects, this blog is a perfect example of that. These benefits and pitfalls students and parents should be aware of as they use various online tools to identify and research potential colleges.
The biggest benefit is that everything you need to know about a given school to make an informed choice about whether or not it is the place for you is now available 24/7, 365 days a year. There are places to hear directly from students, there are “independent” groups that analyze various markers of success for given colleges and report vital statistics, and there are forums where students discuss amongst themselves the challenges of the college admissions process. All of them, if used wisely, will greatly aid your decision to apply to a given college or university.
However, the biggest pitfall is that everything you read online won’t necessarily be timely or even correct. What does that mean? Well, when X online publisher of college data gathers its information it usually does so the easiest way possible by finding and reporting information that’s most readily available, which in most cases is old information. Let’s use Mason as an example to demonstrate this. If you use Kaplan’s college profile search you’ll see that they report our application load at a hair above 11,000 freshman applications. Which was true. The latest application numbers are actually about 13,500 freshman applications. That’s a 23% difference, which in higher education is a substantial increase in anything. It also is a decent indicator of the competitiveness of a school’s admissions. Is this their fault? Not necessarily, while we release this information to companies like Kaplan when they request it, they don’t always request it every year. But what it shows is that even the pros who will charge you money to take their advice don’t always have the best information on hand. So if you’re curious, just ask a given school. They might do a little song and dance, but if you press it, they’ll give up the goods.
The fact they’ll probably give up the goods is another benefit to online resources. Schools want to make sure as much as possible that you get the best information from their perspective. With the wealth of both good and bad information out there, schools are now much more upfront with their vital statistics than they used to be. Admissions numbers, average GPA’s, standardized test scores and the like used to be treated like closely guarded secrets from you, the consumer. But with insatiable demand for information today, school’s have to report all of their information. Which ultimately is better for you because you get to make a more informed decision. Now, this doesn’t mean you’ll find middle 50% averages on admissions websites, but it does mean in conversations you have with admissions officers they’ll tend to err on the side of being informative than secretive. This is because we’d much rather you have the correct information than not.
Going back to a theme from the first pitfall, the peddler of information isn’t always upfront themselves. And by this, I don’t mean the colleges. In your various searches you might stumble upon college “matchmaker” type programs that say they’ll find a good fit for you based on your basic vital academic and extracurricular information. What you don’t necessarily know is that many colleges can pay the host of such a tool for “visibility” on their website. This means that when you put in your vital information a school who paid for such visibility will tend to pop up on the top or near it for a given prospective student profile (i.e. 3.3 GPA, 1920 SAT’s looking for a private liberal arts school on the east coast). This isn’t true of all programs, by any means. But I would also caution you to take the results of searches like this with a slight grain of salt. And certainly take anything from someone who wants you to pay fees for their services with extreme cynicism.
That’s an overview of things to watch out for as you use the various search engines available online. I hope it helps guide your search, and just in case, if Mason ever pops up at the top of your matchmaker search, believe everything they say.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll be seeing you.
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