Here in New Hampshire, the weather is not the only thing heating up as we head into summer. With the impending first-in-the-nation presidential primary, candidates are storming the state—any given week might bring half a dozen of the long list of presidential hopefuls. For many rising high school seniors, picking a new president pales in comparison to their main focus—finding a college. The realities of admission loom large and as students head out on visits this summer they can learn a great deal from the political process and what is known as “bird-dogging.”
True to its hunting origins, used in the American political context, “bird-dogging” refers to activists who pursue candidates, pin them down with direct questions and specific information, and “fetch” their views. Bird-doggers are trained to attend rallies and ask the probing questions that will allow voters to make informed decisions.
This is exactly the approach that applicants should take when investigating a college. Just like selecting our nation’s leaders, choosing a school is an important decision that should not be taken lightly. Asking “softball” questions or accepting surface level answers could lead to a poor match and unwise investment. If you are a student heading out on college visits this summer, here are some helpful bird-dogging tips and examples of how to ask tougher questions:
- Be prepared: Before you even step foot on a college campus, research the people and programs that make the community unique. If you are asking questions during your visit like, “do you have a biology major” then you have not done your homework. Arrive with specific questions that help you dig deeper.
- Be informed: If you are asking tough questions, know why you are asking them and make sure you have a background understanding of the context. If you are trying to get the admission officer to unpack their attrition numbers (how many students leave the school), you should have a sense for how these might compare to national averages.
- Be intentional: Bird-dogging is not a passive process. It requires a plan and a willingness to go beyond the established tour and information session marketed by the college. Visit an academic department in which you are interested, seek out a coach, or ask to speak to the music director. If you have specific areas interests or focus, then actively pursue those who can best speak to the opportunities that exist on campus.
- Be direct: This is not a time to be shy. If you want to know about mental health, substance use, or any other issue, ask about it in a straightforward way that will solicit an honest answer. Don’t beat around the bush.
- Be relentless: If you are asking about a sensitive issue on campus or an aspect of campus life about which the college is not proud, you might get the run-around. Don’t settle for easy, general answers or diversion tactics. If it is important to you, get a response that satisfies your concerns.
- Be reasonable: Know your audience and don’t have unrealistic expectations for the information they can provide you. Your tour guide who is an English major may not know about the research that an astrophysics professor is conducting. Go to the source.
The Right Questions
Every student will have unique questions and they will undoubtedly be different from those that their parents are considering. The effective bird-dogger will know how to probe for answers that tell the real story. Here are a few examples:
- Student/Faculty ratio: You will find that many schools list student to faculty ratios of under 19:1. It is unlikely that this will mean you and 18 friends will be sitting around a table in Introductory Psychology your first year. This number may include faculty who are doing research, those who teach only one undergraduate class, and even those who are on sabbatical. These statistics represent all courses and levels (including advanced courses with two students and introductory classes with two hundred), so while not entirely unhelpful, they certainly do not tell the whole story. Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, encourages students to lean into the numbers. He says, “at Tech the most common class size is 26-33, and around 7% of courses have over 100 students in them. The student: faculty ratio, in contrast, is 19:1.” He tells students:
When you visit, ask questions around class size percentages and ranges. That information will be far more helpful to you in framing expectations and determining what kind of experience you will likely have. Ask current students what their typical class size is, who teaches them (full professors, adjuncts, graduate students), and how accessible faculty are on an individual basis outside of class. Find out how class size varies from first-year to senior year. Is the range higher or lower for the major(s) that you are considering?
- Retention rates: With the national average for students returning to their college for their second year at around 65% in four-year colleges, the first-year retention rate is an important question. But go deeper. If the college has an 85% retention rate, ask why are those other 15% leaving? Is it financial? Is it because the basketball team didn’t make the NCAA Final Four? Are the students that leave disproportionately in certain majors or from out of state? Is it because the school is too remote or too urban or too big? Schools should know these reasons, so ask them to articulate why. Some schools have retention rates below the national average, but they are losing students who are successfully transferring to state public flagships or into specialized programs in the area. These answers provide context beyond the bottom line number. What resources are there on campus for academic student support? Many colleges have invested significant human and financial resources to ensure a positive campus experience. Is there an office dedicated to retention, intervention, and enrichment
- Graduation rate: Don’t just ask “what’s your graduation rate?” Colleges will have a wide variety of answers, and with national averages below 50%, you need to dig deeper. Instead, ask about the four and six-year graduation rates. At those two intervals what percentage have either a job offer or admission to graduate school? This will help you understand their outcomes. You might find that some colleges have a high graduation rate but low placement or graduate school entry. Some colleges have a high percentage of their students interning, working a co-op job, or studying abroad for multiple semesters. You should also ask how the graduation rate varies by major? What percentage of students who double major, study abroad, conduct research, and/or have an internship, finish in four or six years? Your goal should be to learn if graduates are leaving with a broad network and opportunities, rather than if they finished four years after someone hit start on a stopwatch. Often the reason graduates take more than four years to graduate is because they have used their time to gain work experience, contacts, and global exposure that translate to lower loan debt and higher earning potential. At that point, who cares about the clock? You might even ask, do students finish earlier than four years, taking advantage of summer offerings or other special programs that allow them to save money and/or time?
- Safety: Simply asking if the campus is safe is sure to be met by a positive response that includes mention of “blue safety light” call boxes or campus escort services. Don’t stop there. Ask about specific crime statistics (the federal Clery Act mandates that every college maintains and discloses this information). How prevalent is sexual assault on campus? What are the most common safety violations? What is the relationship between campus security and local authorities? At some schools, security officers are armed and members of the city police force. Ask your tour guide about the most recent crime they have heard of? Inquire about notification systems for making the campus community aware of incidents. Pick up the student newspaper, as some publish a police log of crimes each week. A sense of safety and security will be the foundation of a successful college experience, so look beyond the blue lights.
No matter what the question, be a relentless inquirer. Consider the ways you can reframe your questions for more depth of understanding. You are on the hunt for a meaningful college experience that will provide opportunities for growth and success. Like a bird dog, pin down comprehensive responses that will help you make the right match.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project