Nothing beats a personal visit to really get a feel for a school, if you are able to do so. Once you’re interested in a college, contact the admissions office to schedule a visit. Depending on the school you contact, they might be able to set you up with a student to show you around campus, let you sit in on a class or give you a tour of the dorms. Colleges are well aware that students have a lot of choices, and they consider making your visit a success as an investment in the future of their institution.
Before you arrive, make a list of sites you want to visit and experiences you’d like to have. The better prepared you are, the more you’ll get out of the visit. At the same time, don’t worry if you don’t get to everything. You’re there to get a feel for the campus environment and you can do that in a variety of different ways.
Once you’re on campus, try to balance the “official” campus experience with your own individual exploration. Take a tour, sit in on classes, speak to current students and eat in the dining hall if you’re allowed to. Check out the facilities that interest you most, including labs, libraries, the student activity building, pool and gym. If possible, go with a family member or a friend whose opinion you trust.
Keep in mind that colleges view the campus visit as a marketing tool, and they do everything they can to present an appealing picture. Try and see past the hype to the actual experience of actual students. Check in with your instincts rather than just accepting what the promotional materials tell you. How does the campus feel to you? What’s your take on the students you meet? Take notes—and refer back to them after you’ve visited a few schools.
Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your campus visit:
- Take the official tour. Sure, it’s a marketing experience, but you’ll get the basic layout of the campus and some of the facts you need.
- Set foot in a freshman dorm. There’s no better way to get a glimpse of college life than to see where you might actually be living. Some colleges can help you organize an overnight stay, if you ask!
- Spend more than an hour on campus. Even if you don’t stay in a dorm, it’s best to give each campus enough time to sink in, on a day with nice weather if possible, rather than rushing around to hit as many colleges as possible.
- Grab a snack in a local coffee shop. This is where students and faculty sometimes hang out, get a preview of what that looks like.
- Speak to students about campus life and support services. Find out what the school has felt like to current students and whether they feel the college provides adequate support when students need it.
- Walk around the neighborhood surrounding campus. Learn what’s beyond the campus grounds, good and bad.
- Meet a professor. Ideally, the college can introduce you to a faculty member in an area of interest. Ask the professor about the balance between teaching and research obligations to better understand how much teaching is done by professors as opposed to teaching assistants. If you are really interested in a particular professor but much of the course is taught by a teaching assistant, it is helpful to know this ahead of time to manage your expectations about how much time you will have with a professor who you are interested in learning from.
- Go to a party, if you’re invited. This is an opportunity to observe and to chat informally. You probably won’t want to take a prepared list of questions out of your pocket, though.
- Read the college newspaper. Or newspapers. College students have opinions, and some of the most opinionated will express themselves in the paper. You may not agree with everything you read, but you’ll discover the issues that matter the students.