Any time is an ideal time to test drive a college. Even though the bulk of your undergraduate years will be spent inside the classroom and library walls (at least they better be), knowing the campus and the community where you’ll be spending those four years is important. A good exercise to help you explore a school you’re interested in is to pretend you’re already there.

To begin, let’s choose a college. If you’re thinking of engineering, or chemistry, and have a penchant for liberal arts programs as well, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania might be of interest.

Gather as much information as possible by touring the college's website (in this case: Review the course catalog, research the core requirements and look at the admissions rate.

Next, imagine you’re in Bucknell, nestled in the small town of Lewisburg. You are now living in one of the five college-owned apartment buildings, and you’re finishing up a meal at the award-winning Bostwick Cafeteria, which offers local produce and lots of healthy and vegetarian options. You might take a stroll among the 450 secluded, hilly acres overlooking the Susquehanna River. You might decide to walk by the recently constructed, $8-million, Breakiron Engineering building. The place has the feel of a country club, which isn’t too surprising as it’s the sixth most expensive university in the country.

Now it’s time to choose your courses and consider which of the 50 majors and 60 minors are of most interest. Take a look at the requirements for each major. In this case, the university has writing requirements (all students are required to successfully complete three writing courses) and lots of undergraduate research opportunities; Bucknell will supply a stipend of $2,500 for the most promising ones. 

Exploring the academic environment in greater depth, we discover Bucknell is comprised of two undergraduate colleges: Engineering (650 students), and Arts and Sciences (2,900 students). Additionally, Bucknell has no core curriculum, though the College of Arts and Sciences offers a Common Learning Agenda.

The student/teacher ratio is 10:1, not bad (and not too surprising in light of the generally small class sizes; 93% of the classes have fewer than 50 students.). Furthermore, the quality of the professors is high. About 60% are tenured, and virtually all have terminal degrees (PhD).

The leading departments are engineering, computer science, accounting, economics, and chemistry. The acclaimed professors include Tristan Riley in sociology, Eric Tilman in chemistry, and Nancy White in Economics. You can do a fairly thorough examination of a portion of the faculty at

Finally, the acid test of this exercise is to produce a concise list of the pros and cons of the school, preferably on one sheet of paper.

What have you actually accomplished with this exercise? Undoubtedly, it will hone your expertise on each college you review. Moreover, when you encounter Bucknell’s supplemental application essay question, "What are the three most important things Bucknell's faculty and students should know about you?” you can use your research to create a convincing picture of your taking advantage of its resources. Should you interview at the school or with alumni, you’ll be well prepared. The admissions office will certainly be impressed by your knowledge, and your awareness equates to a high interest level.

The school will know you’re serious, that you care, and that you’ll probably be a dedicated member of its college community. It’s a good way to gain acceptance. It's an even better way to gauge your interest — and that, after all, is what this is all about.

Ralph Becker, director of Ivy College Prep, LLC, and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for seven years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension and has published SAT* Vocab 800 Books A, B, C, & D.

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