Do Your Homework On College Campus Culture

Farah Weheba
Farah Weheba

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When writing your college essays, you’ll want to demonstrate some attachment to the university. For instance, knowing the college campus culture and applicable academic research is a great start. You also owe it to yourself to apply to schools that align with your personal values, unless you seek to be immersed in opposition. 

Show You’ve Done Your Homework on Your Application

Demo common ground with the university

As an applicant, if you appear to be applying to a school just for the prestige, that could disqualify you. Instead, a few other things will get you further: a meaningful connection to the university; and demonstrating you’ve done your homework about relevant and recent academic research on campus. It’s also better to have a deeper knowledge about a specific university for your own college fit purposes. You want to be at an institution that will help advance your specific academic and research goals. Applying to a university that isn’t relevant to your goals, or involved in activity that furthers your values? That is a disservice to both you and the receiving university. Taking the time to discover real ways that a university could advance your growth is a win-win. 

Some reasons you may want to attend a university could include: 

  • The college campus culture (student activism, inclusiveness, religious belief alignment, well-organized community centers for minority students, etc.) 
  • Classes or specific, unique majors
  • Specific professors or research labs
  • Campus traditions like long-standing community partnerships, athletic rivalries, etc. are less gripping – but could get a mention if meaningful to you!

Value alignment

Are you passionate about reversing climate change? Do you consider yourself a Palestinian rights activist? Are you hoping to join an ROTC program at the college level? Do gender neutral bathrooms and transgender rights make or break your decision? Perhaps it’s important to you that your college’s bookstore swag is produced fair trade and sweatshop free, or made in the USA. Find out about the socio-political leanings of the universities you’re applying to. This will help you be sure you’ll find community and institutional support for your campaigns and belief systems. 

Can you give examples?

In accordance with aligning your college list with your values, you should not be writing misaligned essays for a target college. For example, If you have qualms with organized religion, Notre Dame and Emory may not be the colleges that want to hear about it. Pepperdine may not be the place to advertise your liberal views on the over-policing of drug usage. The university has a very strict drug and alcohol-free campus policy and enforces suspension and sometimes criminal prosecution for drinking on campus. 

Conversely, Stanford University would not be the place to send an essay in favor of abstinence-only education. The university proudly supports sexual health education with a Sexual Health Peer Resource Center – a student-run shop for safe sex supplies and sexual health and relationship counseling. It was established in the mid 90s in response to the AIDS epidemic and educating the campus accordingly. An essay favoring abstinence-only education would be contextually tone deaf for this particular university and its expressed values. 

What is NOT your job as an applicant?

I can’t emphasize enough that it’s not your job to shroud or obscure your values that are in conflict with a target university’s. Rather, you owe it to yourself to seek admission to a university that aligns with your personal values so that your values and essays naturally resonate with the college campus culture. 

If you seek to challenge a narrative you’ve grown up with and want to engage a university that will immerse you in a counterpoint, that’s entirely different; then you’re purposely seeking a contrast in values and that craving to learn about a non-normative perspective could make a great essay topic.

Avoid “listing”

Doing your homework doesn’t mean listing the names of 7 professors you found in the engineering school just to prove you browsed that homepage. Instead, edit yourself and focus. Which one professor is doing research on campus that fascinates you? How do you think you could add to that professor’s research? What are some exciting applications of that research that make you want to jump right in and become a part of that history, and why? How are you uniquely poised to contribute? 

Is there a specific student club doing something inspiring that you can’t wait to join? Perhaps a student-run organization or publication flying under the radar really speaks to you. Consider discussing how you envision your own participation as part of the student body. Knowledge about a student-run organization and positioning yourself in their mission is much more meaningful than vaguely listing the names of several professors or libraries you’ve heard about. 

Starting Your College Search Homework

You can work with an Empowerly counselor and ask these questions to help get you started. 

  1. When should I start thinking about which colleges to apply to?
  2. What should I look for when visiting campuses? (Also see this checklist for tips!)
  3. Can you recommend any college fairs in my city?
  4. Where do I have a regional edge for college admission based on my hometown and state? 
  5. Do you know of any schools with an excellent department of (insert your intended major here) and active groundbreaking research in this field? Which related journals can I read? 
  6. Do you know of any schools flying under my radar similar to other colleges I like?
  7. Do you know any alumni who I can speak to about their college experience? 
  8. Put together a preliminary list of colleges based on the questions above.
  9. Narrow down that list by doing your homework about your common ground with the schools and  how their value systems compare to your own.

In the end, researching your campus thoroughly will help you find your home away from home. Ideally, every student will be able to feel comfortable expressing their views and collaborating with peers. Understanding the college campus culture is the first step to finding that best-fit learning environment.

Questions? Let us know!