How to Read a College Website


College websites can be valuable tools for students seeking information about colleges or graduate schools. However, because college websites are marketing vehicles for universities, they cannot be taken at face value. Students must learn to read between the lines to understand what a college is really like.

The first thing to realize is that colleges and universities create websites for one primary goal: to entice candidates to apply. Selective colleges – even public universities that you might consider to be “backup schools” – don’t offer admission to every candidate. They all have more applicants than they need to fill their classes.

Why do colleges want to lure more applicants when they already have more than they can admit? Increasing the number of applicants means increasing selectivity. When a larger number of students apply for a limited number of spots, the possibility of receiving an offer of admission decreases. Higher selectivity (a lower acceptance rate) results in greater prestige. Greater prestige leads to increased alumni donations. Because money from alumni is critical to university economics, colleges work hard to attract more applicants. For this reason, Stanford, Harvard, and most other highly-selective colleges have been on a mission to lower their acceptance rates. The efforts work. Harvard received over $1 Billion from alumni in 2016 alone.

Applicants often have a hard time deciphering what college websites really mean. Each university speaks in its own dialect. What a liberal arts college considers to be “leadership” may not be the same as a religious college or a military academy. Applicants need to read beyond their own perspective to better understand what schools are trying to communicate. Think like the website author, not like a reader.

Why did the college place certain ideas before others? Why did they use their specific words and phrases? Look carefully to see subtle language differences within a website. Compare what is stated (and not stated) in one admissions website with the words and structure of other colleges’ websites. Looking for differences will help you understand the intent and meaning of their language.

Recognize that colleges and graduate schools like to use numbers to “sell” you on their universities. Statistics can be powerfully persuasive. However, they can also be misleading. For example, colleges that use numbers to lead you to believe that applying for early admission is “easier” than applying for regular admission are doing so for their purposes, not yours. The numbers may be technically accurate, but the truth is that applying early will not translate to an improved admissions landscape for most applicants. As an example, recruited athletes generally apply in the early pool. Their presence may skew numbers such as average test score and acceptance rate, but the criteria used by admissions officers for the general student population does not change between the early and regular decision cycles.

If you wish to learn more about a school from a less-biased perspective, listen to students, not college administrators. Where can you find the student perspective? If you know of a current student or recent graduate who went to your high school, reach out to him or her. Most students enjoy sharing their college experiences with prospective students. If you don’t have any local contacts, an e-mail or phone call to a college student who participates in your favorite extracurricular activity (the contact info is available online) can provide valuable insight. Finally, college newspapers are excellent sources of unfiltered information and are readily available online.

Do not take college websites at face value. Instead, dig deep, and you should be able to learn some valuable information about your chosen college.