As I noted in my last post, I was a college counselor for many years prior to working with Method Test Prep, and one of the most important pieces of advice I would give to my students was to encourage them to do whatever they could to visit the colleges to which they applied.
High school students are inundated with direct emails from colleges, they have access to official websites and they get viewbooks and catalogs in the mail all the time. They might even happen upon this site: if you’ve followed the blog for awhile, you know that I’ve written about my own visits to many colleges for the past few years, and I will continue to do so in the future. While all of these sources contain useful information, the best way to make a truly informed decision about a college is to spend some time on the campus. After all, students are choosing a home for the next four (or more) years of their lives!
The following are some thoughts that might help you plan your visit and make it a successful one.
• It’s Almost Always A Good Time To Visit: College admission offices are open pretty much year round. They will typically have reduced hours during vacation periods in the school year (such as the week between Christmas and New Year’s), but they are generally willing and able to give campus tours all the time (though many are closed on Sundays). Visiting during the school year is preferred, so that you can see the campus in use, but any time you can be physically present at the college is good.
While every college website is different, generally there is a link somewhere in the Admission (or, for a university, Undergraduate Admission) section called “Visit”, or “Visiting Campus” or something similar. Typically this will explain the hours that the Admission office is open, and might even have an online calendar that will let you sign up in advance for your visit. Which leads me to my next point…
• Sign Up In Advance For Your Visit: While it can be fun to just take a detour on a long trip to drive through a college campus, or to figure that you learned everything you needed to learn during that soccer camp in seventh grade, you really only get the full experience if you attend the official information session and take a formal tour. And though I’ve never heard of a drop-in being turned away from these, it is only polite to let them know you are coming.
Another positive aspect of signing up in advance is that it lets the college start a file on you. While this sounds a little Orwellian, it is really quite benign. The benefit to you is that colleges track “demonstrated interest”, and visiting their campus is a very tangible form of demonstrating your interest in their school. In the end, students who demonstrate more interest are more likely to be admitted than otherwise identical students who demonstrated less interest. If you are asked to pick a particular school or area of study for your tour just choose whatever sounds most interesting to you.
• Bring A Camera And Take Lots Of Pictures: It is likely that you will visit more than one campus during your college search, and it can get confusing to remember which one had the cool library, and which one had the awesome student center, and which one had the nice dormitories. If you take a lot of pictures during your tour, and then make some notes about each of them, it will help you later on when you are deciding where to apply, or, hopefully, whose offer of admission to accept. One strategy can be to make a Facebook (or a similar social media site) album of your pictures and write captions for each image. An added bonus of this is if you share the album with your friends, you might be able to help them on their own college searches!
• Ask Questions: During a campus visit you will typically have an information session of about an hour’s duration during which a member of the Admission office will give you a presentation about the college. The presentation is aimed at students and parents and often includes a video, a PowerPoint, and can seem very practiced (they do these every day, after all). If you are ever confused by something, or need something repeated, or simply want to follow up on a point, by all means raise your hand! The Admission officers are used to speaking to passive audiences, and they love to answer questions. Plus, it will help you take ownership of the process. As an added bonus, introduce yourself when you ask the question so you can demonstrate even more interest. Finally, after the info session there will be a bathroom break before the tour. At that time, go up to the presenter, shake her hand, and thank her while making sure that she knows your name and where you are from. It is a great way to stand out from the crowd!
• Dress Nicely, But Wear Your Most Comfortable Shoes: Especially on a vacation or a hot summer day it can be tempting to wear your most comfortable casual clothing, but you should treat a campus visit like a business trip. You don’t need to dress up, but a skirt or nice slacks for girls, and khakis and a collared shirt for boys will help show that you are serious about your visit. While it can be frustrating to dress like this only to find students at the school walking around in pajamas, remember that the difference is that they’ve already been admitted. Footwear wise, sneakers are fine so long as they are comfortable. You will probably be walking for over an hour on your tour and may cover a couple of miles of footpaths, steps and various buildings. Make sure your feet are happy so you can keep up with the group with a smile on your face.
• Have A Bite To Eat: Generally the info session and tour combo will be either in the late morning or early afternoon. Either way, you should get some lunch on campus! Since you will be probably be eating in the dining hall for the first year, and you will be paying a lot for the privilege, it will be good to sample the cuisine in advance. Often the Admission office can give you and any traveling companions (parents, siblings) vouchers for the main dining hall; unfortunately this might not be an option during a vacation. You might have to call in advance to ask for cafeteria vouchers, but it is well worth the trouble. Besides getting some free food it will give you a good chance to observe campus denizens in their natural habitat. Watch how the students interact: do they seem happy? Careworn? You might pick up lots of valuable clues about life on campus while enjoying your meal.
I hope that you found these ideas to be useful, and I wish you luck on your college search travels!
UPDATE: Reader Sarah Contomichalos, an independent college counselor wrote me with some great tips of her own:
I write this while touring colleges with my own child and have two additions…. The first is not to rush your visit and spend some time in the surrounding town or neighborhood. This is particularly true for colleges outside of cities. Second, if the student has an academic focus, suggest the student make an appointment with a member of that department.
Super points Sarah! Also, stay tuned for a blog post in early August about independent counselors–I look forward to your feedback on that topic as well.