Identifying the right college or university can be an exhausting process. Electronic and print resources provide an overview of the academic and social life on a given campus, but for a more personal glimpse of a school it is advisable to connect with alumni.
Here are several tips to help you do so in a manner that will enrich the college-hunting process:
- Determine the status of your college search.
- Connect with new alumni.
- Craft your approach.
- Be realistic and personal.
Determine the Status of Your College Search
If you are just beginning your college search, it may not be the opportune time to connect with alumni. After all, there are thousands of colleges and universities to consider.
However, if you have a rough idea of what you are looking for, start to glean insight from schools’ Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Tumblr pages. When you visit these social media platforms, tune in to the tone, language, photos and recurring themes in the posts of current students and alumni. Also find out what people are saying about the school in news articles and blogs.
Then, based on the information you gather, compile a short list of colleges that interest you. Once you have done that, it will be time to create a more intimate profile of each school.
Connect With New Alumni
Speak first with new alumni, those who have graduated within the last few years. While older alumni can certainly provide insight, the advantage of talking to new alumni is that they will provide more up-to-date information about the institution.
Since most schools maintain Facebook groups for alumni, Facebook is an excellent platform to begin your search. LinkedIn can also be extremely useful since it tends to be “strictly business.” In fact, LinkedIn’s search tools can help you narrow results to alumni whose interests align with yours. If you plan to major in a scientific field, for example, it may be more sensible to search for alumni who hold science degrees.
Throughout your search, you may discover that not everyone is excited to speak with you, has time to talk or even answers you. If you do hear back, though, be extremely polite and thankful. Always try to make exchanges convenient and time-effective for the other person by offering to communicate via email, text, video call or another virtual method they might prefer.
If you would rather avoid the frustrations of contacting alumni independently, you can reach out to alumni organizations at colleges on your short list. Because alumni organizations are designed to be responsive and supportive, you may have better luck going through them.
Craft Your Approach
While you may run into a few dead ends, you will likely find that most alumni are thrilled to discuss their alma mater. For many people, college was a life-changing experience.
Still, it is worth pointing out that we live in an age in which online scams are rampant. Thus, some individuals may become wary when they receive messages from strangers on the internet.
If you use social media to make contact, ensure you have a legitimate-looking profile to increase your chances of getting replies. In other words, use your full name, add an appropriate picture of yourself and include a short but well-written bio.
Your first note to the people you contact should be brief and succinct. Here’s a template you can use:
“Dear [NAME], I am a high school student who will begin college in [YEAR]. I saw on [LinkedIn/Facebook] that you attended [SCHOOL]. I am conducting research on my short list of colleges, and I wonder if you might be willing to answer a few brief questions about your experiences at [SCHOOL]. Thank you for reading.”
You might have to message several people before getting a response, and that’s OK. Remember to use the same template each time so that the task won’t feel so onerous.
Be Realistic and Personal
The goal of contacting an alumnus is not to receive objective information. Rather, alumni will always be biased, and that is perfectly fine.
Your goal is not to gather neutral data but to discover what life is like at a college or even in a particular program or major. To that end, ask open-ended questions such as, “What is your favorite memory of the school?” or “What do you wish the school had done differently?” Simple yes-or-no questions may not get you feedback that is as helpful.
Pay special attention to what an alumnus says about the factors that matter to you but that typically do not appear in official college publications. No school will advertise the disadvantages of attending there, so it is wise to ask about safety, campus culture, friendliness of staff and any other factors a school would probably not discuss openly.
Even though most alumni will paint their schools in a positive light, they will still share a wealth of information that you simply cannot find elsewhere.