By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling
There is no better way to learn about a college than to visit it in person. Can you picture yourself there? Will the academic and extracurricular options satisfy your needs? Is the atmosphere appealing? Can you imagine this place as your home for four years? Students today can gather endless facts about the schools on their list and do “virtual tours” of each from anywhere. Yet the truth remains that if you want to get a real feel for a particular college nothing beats walking across its campus, attending information sessions, talking to students and admissions representatives, and touring specific departments, programs, or facilities. The campus visit is also the primary way to “demonstrate interest” in a school, and it can be the most fun part of the college application process too! Though each school is a bit different in how it handles visitors, there are some rules of thumb to keep in mind when planning and executing this phase of your process. Here are ten tips to make the most of your college visits:
1. Visit a variety of schools, and start early.
Junior year is a great time for visits, since you should have at least a general sense of where you stand and the kinds of schools that interest you, but it’s not a bad idea to get your feet wet before then. College visits can be a powerful way to educate yourself, see things from multiple perspectives, and refine your objectives. They provide unparalleled views into what particular schools are really like, while giving you a sense of the types of schools that appeal to you: big, small, or medium; urban, suburban, or rural; warm or cold climate; etc. Being “on the ground” might make you change your perspectives on these categories, or they might confirm your views. Either way, campus visits can have a profound impact on your college list as it develops.
2. Plan ahead.
Visiting several schools can feel overwhelming. Plot them out on a master calendar. And once you’ve made a schedule, be sure to sign up for an Information Session and Campus Tour on the college’s admissions site well in advance, ideally a minimum of four weeks before your visit. These sessions fill up early, especially over popular visit times. (Parents can sign their children up, but be aware that any contact with an admissions counselor or professor should come directly from the student.) Also think about when you’ll be visiting. One of the main goals is to get an accurate sense of academic and social life on campus. Do the students at a school spend time mostly on the quad or in the library? What kind of atmosphere exists in the student union or the dining hall? Do students seem engaged in class? Ideally, you should visit a college when you know you’ll be able to get an authentic sense of that school. The best times are during the school-year, when classes are in session. It’s okay, however, if this isn’t practical or you only have time to visit in the summer. Visiting during breaks is fine. Just be sure to remind yourself that what you’re experiencing is an incomplete picture. Don’t assume that the school is usually that quiet!
3. Take a tour.
Campus tours are the classic way to get to know a school–and for good reason! They’re an excellent way to get the lay of the land, become acquainted with the place, hear about all the highlights, and ask questions. Once introduced to the campus in this way, you can explore things on your own and dig a little deeper (see #4 below). Again, make sure to sign up in advance. And, while on the tour, make notes of any place to which you’d like to return or that you’d like to see even though the tour skipped it.
4. Customize your experience.
You’ll want to seek out opportunities to tailor your visit according to your particular interests and goals. Many schools within universities offer their own information sessions and tours, at which you can learn about and ask questions related to a specific field, major, or program of study. You may be able to meet current students in that major or program, too (see #6 below), so don’t hesitate to ask about that. It is also a great idea to inquire about visiting a class or meeting with a professor–well in advance of your visit. If you have an artistic talent, you may even be able to arrange a master class. If you do meet with faculty, be sure to do your homework: read up on her/him, and come prepared with good questions. Professors will want to hear about your interests, experiences, and motivations. Avoid peppering them with queries about requirements or other things that can be easily found on a website or answered by an admissions counselor.
5. Go solo.
After you’ve been introduced to the campus by your official tour guide, it’s time to dive in on your own. You’ll want to get a feel for the place in a less structured, less scripted way. Look at the list you created while on the tour and seek out some of the places you thought were interesting. Visit random buildings to see what’s really happening inside. Walk the campus aimlessly and watch the students interact. Sit for 10 minutes in the library. Be sure to build in time to just hang out–it will be worth it.
6. Meet current students.
This might sound intimidating, but talking to students is an unrivaled way to get the real skinny on a place. What is the social scene like? Is there a lot of partying? Are classes really tough? Are professors accessible? Can one reasonably pursue a double-major? What kinds of clubs or other extracurricular activities are popular? Many schools have student ambassadors available to answer such questions, but you might get more frank assessments from one or two random encounters, so don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Some schools also offer “be a student for a day” programs that pair visiting applicants with current students. These programs enable you to “shadow” a student, going around campus with them, attending classes, eating in the dining hall, and maybe even getting to spend the night in their dorm. If you’re comfortable with this, it can be a great way to get a much more intimate sense of the school. (There are also other ways to connect with current students outside of the campus visit. At Premium Prep, for example, we have our own list of ambassadors with whom current students can speak or meet. You can also think about who you or your family might know at a school or who you can connect with through your high school or community.) Again, these interactions really pay off. And college students are almost always happy to answer questions about their school.
7. Meet the pros.
Make an appointment with the admissions office during your visit, and speak with the true experts. Many schools make their admissions officers available to meet with potential students. Introduce yourself and let them know why you’re interested in the school, what your goals are, and how you can accomplish those goals at their school. Some schools offer on-campus interviews with admissions officers or current students. These too are advisable–but make sure you know your stuff beforehand! And, as with faculty, avoid asking questions with answers that are readily available on a school’s website. Better to inquire about career services, curricula, research opportunities, or a nuanced question about campus life. Whomever you meet with, make sure to get their contact information so you can write a brief follow-up email thanking them for their time. Don’t forget to do this; you will be more likely to be remembered when your application is reviewed. (Note: some admissions offices are less amenable to this or don’t meet with individual students at all. If you encounter this, don’t take it personally.)
8. Go off-campus.
Make some time to stroll the nearby area where students can be found dining, shopping, and hanging out. By venturing outside of campus, you’ll have a better understanding of the community you’d be joining. Lots of colleges are within walking distance of downtown areas or urban centers. These can provide an important view into student life at a school.
9. Keep a journal.
Take some time during and after your visit to document any thoughts you have about the school. Jot down your first impressions, what you liked or disliked, and anything that especially caught your attention. What vibe did you get from the school? Did you feel safe and welcome walking around campus? Was there a hustle and bustle, or did student activities seem scattered about? Make sure to also take note of things that left you with more questions, such as those regarding a potential major or program that interests you. This is great fodder for more research into the school. Also, keeping track of the details–specific experiences, observations, the names of your tour guide or a professor or impressive student you met–will enable you to refer to these specifics in a future college essay about that school. This can be a real advantage!
10. Don’t be too quick to judge.
As powerful as campus visits can be, they can sometimes be too powerful, exerting excessive influence on your opinion of the school. Just like you should not assume that a campus is the same during break as it is when classes are in session, an awkward encounter with a student or a standoffish professor does not mean that everyone there is like that. And likewise, a visit during perfect weather on a day when the school wins a big game doesn’t mean it’s always that way. Of course we all know this, and yet it’s tough to overcome the impressions such experiences leave. You also want to be wary of the highlights promoted in the Information Session and Campus Tour; remember, there’s a lot of marketing wrapped up in what is presented. Trust yourself, but also remind yourself that you’re only seeing certain discrete slices of campus life when visiting a school. And the more schools you visit, the more perspective you’ll have, so try to hold off on judgements until you’ve gotten a few visits under your belt.
With the above tips in mind, you should have an illuminating and fulfilling time visiting schools. Above all, be open to new experiences and allow yourself to form your own opinions, independent of preconceived notions, popular culture, or the things you’ve heard from others. Don’t be afraid to speak up during your visit, ask questions, and remember that colleges are wooing you as much as you’re hoping to gain admission from them. And have fun. Visiting colleges is one of the most exciting parts about the college application process. Enjoy it!