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How to Read a School Review

Online school reviews can be a great help when picking a college, but your initial reaction might be “too much information!” After all, there are independent college guides, official college websites, and schools reviews written by students. It can be a huge task to take in so much information, let alone decide which inputs are relevant. The trick is to start with some cold hard facts–objective data that can help you narrow down your list of choices quickly and decisively.

Here some key facts to look for when gathering information from colleges or online school reviews:

  • Accreditation status. In order for your degree to carry weight in the job market, it must be from a properly-accredited institution. Accreditation status is determined by private organizations, not the government, but the U.S. Department of Education does list which accrediting agencies it deems to be reliable.
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  • Average SAT/ACT scores. Compare your standardized test scores against the average for the institutions you’re considering. It’s a good idea to choose a school whose average is reasonably close to your scores–that should indicate that you have a good chance of getting in, and that you’ll find the programs neither overly challenging nor too easy.
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  • Total cost after aid. Total cost of tuition (plus room and board) is important, but only after you factor in financial aid as well. You can look at the total cost after need-based aid, if you think you’ll be eligible, and/or after merit-based aid, if you think you’ll qualify for scholarship money.
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  • Total number of students. Some students want the excitement of a big-time college campus, while others thrive in a smaller, more relaxed environment. Look at the number of students at the schools you are considering, and decide which type of environment suits you best.
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  • Average class size. Besides considering the overall size of the school, you need to consider things like average class size and student-teacher ratio. These factors will tell you how personalized–or not–the educational experience will be. These statistics can vary greatly from department to department, so if possible try to find these numbers for the specific major you are considering, rather than for the college as a whole.
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  • Transfer rate and graduation rate. Looking at these numbers will tell you how many freshmen stayed the course, compared with those who dropped out or switched to another college. Don’t be shocked to find that all colleges have a significant attrition rate, but if you see one school with much lower graduation–or higher transfer rates–than others you are considering, it may be a red flag.
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  • Job placement statistics. Any school should be able to tell you what percentage of graduating seniors found jobs, and many can even tell you what the average salary of graduating seniors was. This is another area where you should try to ascertain data about the specific academic department you are considering within the school, because job placement statistics can vary widely from one major to another.
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Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t always tell the whole story either. You may want to read some school reviews for more subjective judgments about the schools you consider, but you can narrow down your reading more quickly after you’ve looked at the possibilities by the numbers.

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