If you're in the midst of a college search, you've got a zillion questions running through your mind. But what are the most important questions? What are the ten things you've got to find out about a particular school?
That's what we asked Quentin Van Essen, Executive Director of Admissions at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. Quentin helped us narrow down the list to the bare essentials.
So, here are ten questions you've got to ask when checking out a Christian college:
- Why should I attend a Christian college?
Maybe you've already answered this question in your mind, which is why you're looking at Christian schools in the first place. But it's helpful to ask this question of each Christian school you're considering, to hear their particular thinking behind the answer.
"It's a very basic philosophical question," says Quentin. "It comes down to a basic emphasis you receive at a Christian college versus a secular one. As Christians, we believe that all areas of life are under God's lordship. And as his people, we are responsible to redeem the world, and we need to know how to do that. That's the foundation of a Christian college, which teaches from that worldview in every class. It's not just a theory, but a how-to kind of thing—how do I do that as a businessman, an engineer, whatever?
"I think it's important that we as admissions people are able to express that in very common language, not only in terms of academics, but in terms of student life as well."
Quentin says you should ask that question not only in the admissions office, but of students and faculty at any school you're considering. Faculty members "are very excited to talk about that," says Quentin. "And when you talk to students, talk to everybody from freshmen to seniors, because seniors will have the best perspective."
- How does this school exemplify what it means to be a Christian college?
The main difference between the first question and this one, says Quentin, is this: With the first question, you're asking people to tell you. With this question, you're asking them to show you.
Says Quentin, "You need to ask the question in terms of, 'OK, this is what you say. Now how specifically do you carry that out?' That starts with the academic programs, but I think the college has to be able to point to very concrete things they're doing—not just in the classroom, but in student life, service projects, growth opportunities, and so on."
- What are your school's academic strengths?
Quentin says this is an important question to ask because "there's a stereotype that Christian colleges don't always have the strongest academic programs." But he notes that the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), of which Dordt is a member, hired a research company to highlight the academic strengths of the council's 100-plus schools.
"There are times when we need to stress what we are about philosophically as a Christian college," says Quentin, "but we can't forget the academics. And most of our Christian colleges have real academic strengths, and we can offer a top-quality education."
By "academic strengths," Quentin doesn't mean specific programs, like a music or chemistry department. He means things like the quality of the faculty (their educational backgrounds and degrees), internship opportunities, overseas studies, and academic advising and support programs.
Quentin says that admissions officials can answer this question, "and not just to say, 'We're a top academic school,' but to give specific examples and stories." Quentin also recommends asking the college president about the school's academic strengths—and yes, you usually can arrange a meeting with the prez.
- What are your strongest programs?
By "programs," Quentin means not just academic programs, but extracurricular programs as well. For instance, some schools excel in their service opportunities for students.
"Most Christian colleges don't offer the full range of all types of programs you'll find in large public universities," Quentin says. "But we do all have our certain strong points."
Those could include various off-campus programs, whether that's something as close as the local community or as distant as a study-abroad program. Be sure to ask about programs centered around student life and social activities as well, says Quentin.
- How can I grow in my faith here?
"People looking at Christian colleges usually have been part of a youth group or some program to help them grow," says Quentin. "And now they're wondering, How does that continue in college? Christian colleges will be glad to tell you about the things they offer to keep you growing in Christ—things like chapel, praise-and-worship services, and how your resident life staff can help."
Start with the campus chaplain when asking your questions about growing in faith. Then take those questions to students. Ask about small groups for prayer and Bible study. Ask resident staff how they handle situations when a student in the dorm has a spiritual need. Ask what happens on campus on a typical Sunday.
Quentin says incoming students sometimes assume that being on a Christian campus means their faith will somehow grow "automatically." You'll still have to work at it, he says, so be sure to ask what the school offers to help you with that process.
- What is the rate of your job placement and acceptance into grad school?
You might not be looking that far ahead into the future, but Quentin says it's an important question to ask up front.
"Yes, students want to know about academics and student life," Quentin says, "but the ultimate question is, 'What's going to happen when I graduate?' Students need to know what a college's job placement rate is and how the school assists students in finding jobs. Be sure to ask colleges where their grads are ending up in the job market. Ask for specific names of companies and professions. And if you're interested in grad school, ask about that. For example, ask how many of their pre-med students got accepted into medical school."
Quentin also notes that a good follow-up question is to ask about the school's internship programs, and how those programs help with job placement. He says you should ask these questions not only of admissions officials, but also of the college's career development office.
- How can you help me afford your school?
This is vital to ask of each school you're considering, because, as Quentin says, "There's a lot of variation from one school to another, and students need to explore what kinds of scholarships are available at each school." He notes that scholarships go beyond just academics: "A lot of us may have scholarships for other areas as well, like athletics, music, theatre, service, leadership and so forth. And Christian colleges often have scholarships for a particular type of student—like missionary kids, or students from a particular denomination."
While admissions people can answer many of your money questions, you should take them directly to the school's financial aid office. And don't forget to ask students, too, says Quentin. "It's good to hear them tell their story, to hear about their financial packages and how they were able to afford paying for college. A lot of times a student will say, 'I'm going to Dordt cheaper than if I went to a state university, because of the financial aid I'm getting.'"
- What about social life, both on campus and in local community?
Says Quentin, "Students want to know, What is there to do? What happens on your campus? Do we have to go off campus to have fun? So it's important to tell students about student life on campus."
Again, you can start by asking the admissions officials, but the real experts on student life are, obviously, students. So, ask around. Ask for specific examples of what they do for fun. And most important of all, visit the college and spend a night in the dorms. That way, you can actually see what they're doing for fun—plus get a taste of what it'll be like to live in a dorm, possibly for the next four years.
- What's the resident housing like?
The best way to get an answer to this question is to see for yourself. Visit the campuses of the schools you're considering and stay overnight in a dorm. You'll make plenty of observations without actually asking the question.
Quentin says prospective students are always asking questions about the dorm rooms—like, "How big are they?" and "What is (and isn't) allowed in the rooms?"
"Most of our students are coming from situations where they've had their own bedroom at home, and they haven't had to share it with anyone else," says Quentin. "And now they're going to move into a situation where they're not only sharing a room, but probably sharing a bathroom with a whole wing, depending on your style of residence halls. That's a big change for high school students, who are probably used to having their own space and privacy, so they're going to want to know all about the housing."
You'll also want to ask about the rules and regulations of the residence halls.
"When you've got 200 students living in a building, you need rules for the benefit of the whole community," Quentin says. "As part of that community, you have a responsibility not only for your own private area, but for the community at large."
- What makes this school unique?
And emphasize the word unique, says Quentin. Listen for answers that truly distinguish that school from all others—but without criticizing other colleges. "You want more than an old clichÉ," says Quentin, "but very specific things that make that school unique."
For example, Quentin says Dordt officials point out that theologically, the school has its historical roots in the Reformed tradition. "And when we say we have a Reformed perspective, we have to say what that means, and how that makes us unique," says Quentin.
Other things that can make a college unique are the demographics of its student body, its calendar year (offering a short winter term, for example), or maybe an unusual orientation program for incoming freshmen—like a retreat.
Now that you've got your top ten questions, you don't have to worry so much about the other zillion that are keeping your head spinning.
So, start asking!