Campus Visits – An Insider’s Guide
For many students, junior year can feel like nonstop chaos. Between studying for standardized tests, participating in extracurricular activities and finishing your homework, researching colleges can feel like the last straw that will break your high school back.
On the other hand, possibly one of the most fun and exciting parts of the college search is getting to scout schools in person. If you have the ability to do it, a campus visit could be the most useful key to unlocking what you’re truly looking for in a college. Here are some tips on how to plan for and make the most of your campus visits.
Start with a look at the website for each school you’re interested in to get an idea of what the campus looks like. Many schools also have virtual campus tours on their websites, which can be helpful as a preliminary glance at the campus, as well as a window into the thoughts of people already attending.
“Before stepping foot on campus, have an idea, from an academic standpoint, what programs they offer,” says Eva Blanco Masias, dean of undergraduate admission at Santa Clara University (CA). “Is there a STEM program, if that’s what you’re interested in? Or if you’re undecided, does this place enable your journey to try different things?”
Daniel Forster, vice president of enrollment management at Washington College (MD), recommends keeping a list of criteria so you can make fair comparisons of the colleges you visit. Is the university a big research campus or a small teaching-based college? How strong is your intended program of study at the school? What financial aid is offered, and how important is that to you and your family? What’s the student body like? How are the campus living situations set up? What fun traditions does the school have?
“If you’re sure you want a big-school experience with Division I athletics, visit two or three schools that have that, but I would still visit a smaller, quieter school to just see what’s going on there,” Forster says. “It’s good to have a preference, but still put some variation to those to challenge your own assumptions.”
After you explore the college’s official website and social media pages and review any materials the college has sent you, make contact with an admissions counselor to tell them you’d like to visit. Remember, the admissions staff can’t help you if they don’t know you’re planning to come!
Cornell LeSane, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions for Allegheny College (PA), recommends visiting schools twice: once during the spring of junior year to get a sense for what you’re interested in, and then again during your senior year to help you make the right final decision. To get a better feel for campus, try to schedule your visits when classes are in session rather than out for the summer.
What To Expect On Your Visit
Every college does things slightly different for prospective students. Campus visits can range from a casual information session and guided tour to an overnight stay. Most campus visits will include an information session with an admissions representative and a campus tour, which is usually led by current students.
“Stand at the front of the campus tour,” says Lauren Scott, associate director of admissions at University of North Carolina Wilmington. “You have driven all this way to learn about the college, so sit in the front of the class, if you will.”
Mitch Warren, director of admissions at Purdue University (IN), recommends asking questions that can’t be answered online or in publications. “This is your chance to learn about the culture,” he says. “Use your face-to-face time on campus for less facts and more feel.”
Decide if you want to do anything else while you’re on campus, such as attend a class, meet with a professor, speak with a financial aid officer, eat in a dining hall or spend the night in a residence hall. Request those additional items ahead of your visit.
Some schools will even tailor your campus visit to your interests. For instance, Maryville College (TN) offers a sustainability tour so students can learn about energy-efficient and environmentally friendly initiatives and facilities on campus. “Any different tour is going to give you a different perspective of campus,” says Cyndi Sweet, executive director for admissions and financial aid at Maryville.
Some tours might end with an interview with your admissions officer. Be prepared to show your interest in the school and to speak honestly and passionately about your own interests.
After the official visit is over, allow plenty of time to wander around and get your own take on things. Talk to current students about life on campus and the college. Walk through the student union. Check out the freshman residence halls. This is your chance to get a feel for student life and see if this college is a place where you will do well.
You don’t have to stay on campus the whole time you’re visiting. Half the fun is exploring the town, city or countryside where the school is located. “You want to see where you’re going to be living the next four years, not just the campus but also the surrounding areas,” says Sean Cleary, assistant director for visit programs for Georgia Southern University. That might include driving around the town, visiting a museum, going for a hike, attending a soccer game or asking where you can find the best cheeseburger.
The Importance Of Visiting
Now that most schools offer virtual tours and direct access to admissions counselors, you might think it’s fine to save time and money by skipping an in-person visit. But if you can swing it, it really can be worth it.
“There is a certain feeling you get when you’re on campus that you can’t get from a brochure or a webpage or even a video,” Forster says. “You can get tons of valuable information that will tell you if it’s a good fit for you academically. You can look at outcomes of graduates. You can see if they retain students from one year to the next. But there is so much that isn’t affected by those outcomes: the character of a place, the feeling you get when you walk on campus, the culture among students and faculty. They all sit at the heart of whether a school is a good fit for you.”
Plus, admissions officers take note of students who take the time to visit the campus. Personal contact can establish you in their memories. “At smaller schools, the people you’re meeting might review your application,” says Lisa Burns, associate dean of admission at the University of the South (TN). “How you answer questions, how you shake someone’s hand—it’s all important.”
After your visit, Burns suggests writing a thank-you note or email expressing your appreciation for the time you had and asking a follow-up question about a program. “That speaks volumes when colleges are trying to select students,” she says.
If You Can’t Visit
Sometimes a student just isn’t able to visit a campus because of the distance or family circumstances. If that’s the case, you can still go the extra mile to show the school your interest.
“Get to know your admission counselor,” Sweet says. “Do a Facebook chat, or request a Skype interview.”
Other schools host satellite events throughout the state to reach students who can’t visit the campus. You can also check to see if they’ll be at a recruitment fair near you. Sometimes you can even have an interview with an admissions counselor there.
“We want to know the student is looking at us either physically on campus or doing their research if they can’t make a visit,” Burns says.
Another way to demonstrate interest is to ask if there are alumni in your area who you can meet with. “Ask alumni about their experience,” Scott says. “Would they go back? What type of return on their investment did they get? Hearing alumni reflect on their college days can be powerful.”
Before you decide not to visit because of financial reasons, check with the schools you’re interested in to see if there are options. Many universities provide financial aid for students to come out and visit on a case-by-case basis. “If there’s ever a student who wants to visit but isn’t able financially, always reach out,” LeSane says. “We can have conversations about assisting with travel costs.”
Ultimately, the only way to truly know and understand the culture, climate and community is to see it in person. “You won’t know if it’s the right fit until you step on campus,” Cleary says. “That’s the thing that seals the deal.”
How To Get A True Feel For The School
Make a list of questions you can’t find answers to anywhere else. Don’t ask the questions that are likely addressed on brochures and websites.
Once on campus, talk to different students, and if possible, visit their dorm rooms.
Meet with someone in the financial aid office. Financial aid officers at each school can provide you with information about scholarship deadlines and help you make a timeline.
Read the college newspaper or arts magazine.
Attend a sporting event, a concert or any sort of cultural activity the university has on the schedule for the day.
Look at the bulletin boards around campus to see what sorts of clubs and activities are popular.
Research a professor in your field of interest. Before your visit, request an appointment to stop in during his or her office hours.
By the time you get home from your college visit, you might forget what the university was like. Take some photos and specific notes of moments or places you really loved.
Follow students or faculty members on social media to stay updated about events going on at the school.