One of the most helpful things I do in my job as a high school counselor is visit colleges with my colleagues from other high schools. The guided tours, sitting in on classes, and meeting with administrators and students all give me insights that help me encourage the high schoolers back home.
But of all the activities on these campus visits, none are more informative than hearing from panels of college professors. Often made up of profs from six or eight different departments, these panels show the “human side” of the institution. The professors’ insights are very useful in understanding their schools, their departments, and college life in general.
Fortunately, College Prep Parents (and their college-shopping kids) can get the same sort of help by asking versions of these questions, to professors, when the opportunity presents itself…
- on a college tour
- by emailing a professor directly
- after a pre-arranged visit to a college class
- in a discussion scheduled through the department (or with the professor personally)
- during “professor panels” you encounter yourself (at a preview day, for instance).
What can your student ask when they have the chance? Here are some of the great questions that I have heard time and time again:
What is your favorite thing about your college?
This question, asked to teachers at a college your kid is considering, will reveal something useful about the college experience; rarely will the answers deal with just the school’s facilities or equipment. Perhaps the prof will describe interaction with students – not just in the classroom, but on campus or trips abroad. Some college instructors may speak of a spirit of cooperation that crosses all departmental boundaries and lends a great academic energy to the place. Other instructors will have been drawn into “campus life” as much as their students, and they’ll beam as they talk about the social or spiritual aspects of the college.
A high school student and their family can get a feel for the quality of life at an institution, as professors share how it has become “more than just a job.”
If people major in your subject and don’t teach, what do they do?
Regardless of the field of study, this question can help students think about academic fit. For some fields like Engineering or Physical Therapy, the answer to this question may feel somewhat obvious (but even then, there can be unexpected ways those degrees get used).
For fields like Psychology or English (for instance), answers to this question can provide a realization of what a liberal arts education is all about. “Learning how to learn” may sound like “teacher speak” when heard in a high school classroom. But shared by a professor in the Liberal Arts, this comment tends to carry more weight. Good professors love questions about the relevance of their subjects!
How do you wish incoming freshmen were better prepared?
When you ask this question, you’re likely to get a variety of responses. Not only will the answer teach your college-bound kid something about the professor’s school, but it will also give great wisdom about preparing in general.
One Great Answer to This Question
One common answer to this question is worth reporting, and maybe it can serve as a “bonus point” in this article. On several occasions, I have heard college professor panelists answer along the lines of, “We want students who have failed at something.” “They need to have failed, so they know how to be resilient” is the common sentiment. Professors prefer to work with a student who has been knocked down and gotten back up. I have seen the popular slogan “All Grit, No Quit” in football locker rooms, rodeo arenas, and on T-shirts. There are probably a lot of profs that would like to see it displayed in their classrooms, as well.
College Prep Parents sometimes try to “support” their students by coaching them never to fail at anything. Admonishing our kids with notions like “Someone with your talents should be the best!” or “Anything less than an A is unacceptable” is tempting for most parents. But the truth is that if a student has never made anything but an A, or if they always excel, they may never have been really challenged. They may also not be as well-prepared for college as we would hope.
Each year I fill out counselor recommendation forms for students applying to college. A frequent question asked of counselors is, “How does the applicant respond to setbacks?” If my honest answer is, “I don’t know, because I have never seen them experience setbacks,” then the college knows they are either (1) getting an absolutely perfect student, or (2) they’re getting a student who has never been tested – so their resiliency is unknown, even to themselves.
Whether the professor shares something like this or gives an entirely different answer, your child is bound to hear something really useful when they ask this question.
Why do you teach what you do?
If your student has not seen someone with real passion for a field of study before, maybe this will be their chance.
Whenever I hear someone who is enthusiastic about their subject, and I realize they are committed to it, it gets my attention. When a college shopper observes a gifted teacher in action or hears about their love for their field of study, it can be truly inspiring. Asking a teacher why they teach what they teach can become the highlight of a college tour.
How did you get to be a college professor?
I’m a big believer in helping kids see bigger picture and long-term view academically, whenever possible. When a student sits in Algebra I, they are motivated to learn because they know Algebra II is waiting for them down the hall. In college, students do the work one semester at a time, and while some may look ahead to graduate school, for many the future may seem pretty hazy (especially as freshmen). The truth is, each class is a “brick” that builds their future… but students can’t always see the “blueprint” from where they’re currently standing.
Hearing a college professor’s own story – how one thing led to another, until they were teaching a college classroom – can give the college shopper a little academic vision. It’s never too soon for a student to realize that it all adds up, whether they will someday stand in front of a classroom, a boardroom, a courtroom, or some other vocational venue.