The college hype machine is overwhelming. So I decided to bypass the sugar-coated information of tour guides, review books and even adults seeking to help - and instead harness social media to slice through the conventional wisdom.
As a tour guide at my high school, I know that tours convey only surface information. Adults exacerbate the problem by telling students which schools are best despite having limited information and relying primarily on institutions' reputations. And books on colleges use simplistic labels such as "party" or "suicide" schools, catch-all terms that attract or deter students for the wrong reasons.
Twitter is a good way to get a sense of what the general public thinks about a particular topic. So I searched tweets about a number of well-known schools and divided the results into three general categories: positive, negative and neutral.
The six schools I chose to study - not necessarily ones to which I plan to apply next year - range from large state schools to private research universities. Many have entrenched reputations that veer to extremes.
The results were surprising.
To tabulate my College Twitter Happiness Index, I compiled a pool of 100 unique tweets from public personal accounts mentioning each university. To calculate the percentage of happy students at a college, I added positive tweets, subtracted negative ones and discounted neutral tweets.
There is, to be certain, a subjective element in determining whether a particular tweet is positive or negative. But Twitter is not a medium known for subtlety, and the distinctions usually are clear.
The University of Chicago is often said to be a school "where fun goes to die." Yet my College Twitter Happiness Index registered 70 percent happy for the university. As one University of Chicago student wrote, "I am seriously so in-love with this school. #UChicago." I found a similarly unexpected outcome at Cornell University, which has a reputation for exceedingly pressured students and was the subject of media attention in 2010 for student suicides. Yet my calculations pegged the school's happiness index at a robust 58 percent. My calculations for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a school often stereotyped to have a less-than-vibrant social life, found the student happiness index to be 67 percent. Party on!
Conversely, universities with reputations for being "party schools" seemed to produce unhappier students. For example, the University of Southern California, where students bask in the Golden State sun, came in at 46 percent. One USC student tweeted, "So much studying #USC #Stressed." Similarly, the University of Colorado had a 43 percent happiness index. And by my calculations, the University of Florida, a.k.a. Party Central, had a happiness index of only 39 percent.
Perhaps the University of Chicago, the place where fun supposedly goes to die, actually creates a much happier environment than do party schools such as USC or Florida. Students who attend the University of Chicago may be happier because they work harder at engaging subjects, or perhaps many of them merely use Twitter as a means of positive expression.
Whatever the reason for the disparities between public perceptions of colleges and the reality on campus, prospective students ought to be careful. Teenagers shouldn't let the influence of the college hype machine dictate where they apply because a school cannot be accurately assessed from tour guides, rankings and know-it-all adults. It's better to make decisions based on where students actually are happiest.
I'm only one high school student, but tools such as my College Twitter Happiness Index are a way to cut through the clutter.
Grace Isford is a high school junior in Greenwich, Conn. She wrote this commentary for the Washington Post.