How can I get a true picture of colleges?

You raise an excellent point. A college's publications, particularly those intended to excite prospective students, are always carefully planned to show only the best and most attractive qualities of the school.

The real world of college and university life can be uncovered, though, if you're willing to do a little bold research. After you have taken the official tour and after you've read the brochures, you need to talk to some students and faculty. I know that, for some of you, asking unsolicited questions of people older than you is a daunting concept. Don't be afraid. Most students and faculty members are happy to give you their honest impressions of life at their school.

How do you go about doing this? Well, opportunities are everywhere if you know how to find them. One great place to start is the "commons" or "quad(rangle)" area of the college or university. This is usually a large, centrally located, yard-type area with lots of grass, trees, sidewalks, and benches where students and faculty hang out before and after class.

My preferred method of approach is the direct one. Incidentally, this might be a good time to temporarily break away from your parents. They can wander around on their own for a while and then meet you at a predetermined spot in an hour or so. Usually you'll get more candid and honest answers if Mom and Dad aren't standing there during your discussion.

After you have sized up your candidate interviewees, just wander up to him, her, or them and say something like, "Hi. I'm Bill Smith and I'm thinking about applying for admission here. Could I ask you a couple of questions about your school?" Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you'll get a response of, "Sure." Just in case you don't, be polite and just look for someone else to ask. What should you ask? Here are a few suggestions:

Do you like going to school here? Why? What is your major? How big are the classes here? How is the food? What's your dorm like? Is there much to do? How's the cultural life? What do you like best about this place? What do you like least? Are classes taught by professors or teaching assistants? You get the idea.

Questions for faculty members: Why should I consider attending this college? What is the best aspect of the educational program here? The worst? Is there good interaction between faculty and students? What is your best piece of advice for me as I consider college?

Get the picture?