The college visit has the potential to be either a very useful fact- and impression-gathering mission, or a colossal waste of time and money. The choice is up to you. Here are seven tips to make sure you get the most out of your visits.
Bring an Umbrella
That may sound like frivolous advice, but there are few things more miserable than trekking around a campus in the pouring rain, getting your new tie or skirt drenched before your all-important college interview. Pack an umbrella-you won’t regret it.
Do Research Before You Visit
You don’t have to read an entire book on each college, but you should know enough so as not to sound like you just wandered in off the street. For example, if you ask a University of Chicago admissions officer what their in-state/out-of-state tuitions are, you will be embarrassed to hear him say, in front of everybody, that in fact U. of Chicago is a private college and thus their tuition charges are equal for all students who attend, regardless of their home state. Everyone will stare at you. To avoid this ignominious fate, just go to the school’s homepage and look around for thirty minutes, or look up the college’s entry in a college guidebook such as the Fiske Guide to the Colleges.
Take a Self-Guided Tour
Every single college you will visit has both downsides and upsides. Yet when you tour them, most of those colleges will, for example, show you only their one new dorm and not the four old ones where you will most likely live during your time there. Therefore, after your official tour is ended, take thirty minutes or so to wander around on your own and check out what the campus is really like, warts and all. Also, if you are thinking of majoring in, say, astronomy, then take a trip to the college’s observatory to see for yourself what condition it is in and whether it is easy to get to. Or, if you are interested in the drama program, head over to the college’s theatre to see if its proscenium arch is still standing. Finally, drive or walk around the immediate area. Does it look new or run-down? Are there restaurants, movie theatres, or retail stores nearby? Is it urban, suburban, or rural? Take the initiative and do some investigating on your own.
Many colleges track “demonstrated interest,” which means they take note each time you call, write, or visit, and they often use this statistic to decide between two qualified applicants. Demonstrated interest becomes even more important if you are placed on the waiting list: colleges want to admit people who are likely to attend, because that will increase their percentage yield, which will then increase their ranking in US News & World Report. Therefore they will often choose an applicant who seems excited about their college over one who is only lukewarm
Visit the College When It Is in Session
This means that, if the college isn’t in session, or if it is filled with summer students, you won’t necessarily get an accurate idea of what the college is usually like. Sometimes campuses that seem dead in the summer are actually vibrant and exciting in the fall and spring. If you visit the school when it is in session, you will also be able to ask current students questions about their school. This can be very instructive, as college students are very candid and will be glad to give you their blunt, uncensored opinions.
Ask Lots of Questions
As we said, the college visit is a carefully orchestrated succession of images and events all coordinated to create in your mind a favorable impression of the school. The problem is that a pleasant, but superficial, experience does not guarantee that you would be happy or fulfilled there as an actual undergraduate student. There are meatier issues to be discussed, for example, than whether the library’s stacks are really haunted by the ghost of an expelled 19th-century student. So if you are interested in a double major that the school doesn’t offer, ask if it’s possible to create it. If you are worried that all of the students leave on the weekends-called a “suitcase school”-ask your tour guide if that is the case. If you want to know how many of the school’s freshmen return for sophomore year, pipe up! Above all, remember that you might spend four years and over $100,000 at this school, so you must get all of the information and impressions you need to be able to make that decision.
Take Notes During Or Immediately After Your Visit!
Why is this tip capitalized? Because it’s THAT important. Do NOT wait until a week after your visit to write down your impressions. If you are planning to see a dozen or more colleges in July, there is little chance that you will be able to differentiate between all of those quads, dining halls, libraries, tour guides, professors and admissions officers in October when you begin to think about where to apply. Bring a notepad with you wherever you go, or have your parents bring one, or, if you have to, take notes on the back of your hand. Keeping a journal is important not only as a way to remember the specific attributes of each college, but also more generally as a means of sorting out your impressions and figuring out what you want from four years of college. Do you like big schools or small; urban, suburban, or rural? What about the school’s philosophy: liberal arts, or more professional- or business-oriented? Do you want an intense academic environment, or a more relaxed, social atmosphere? Discovering the answers to these questions is not only important; it is the purpose of the college visit.