1. Make sure the school is worth visiting for you
In the early stages, when you’re not sure whether you want a public or private, urban, suburban or rural school, this is less important. You really need understand your preferences about location and size before you start narrowing down your college list. So your first few tours, in junior year or even earlier, give you important information about the schools you will eventually choose. For example, I had a student who decided during the walk from the car to the Admissions Office that the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was not for him because it was too big and there wasn’t a recognizable campus. So he knew to think more critically about large, urban schools.
However, once you’ve got a feel for these basic things, be more selective. Check out the campus website: do they have the major you want? Do they offer the sports or activities you want? Do they match you in terms of size, location, gpa/test scores, and financial aid? Ideally every college on your final list should be a match in all of these areas. That student who didn’t like Minnesota had the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on his final list: a large, urban public school, but with a well-defined campus and the specific program he really wanted.
2. Sign up for a tour
Always check the website to find out when the tours and info sessions are and whether they have space for you before you show up on campus. Schools can usually squeeze someone in, but its better and more professional to let them know ahead of time to expect you. One of the ways you demonstrate your interest is by visiting campus, thus it’s important to always let Admissions know when you are visiting. Many of the Raise.Me schools will even give you microscholarships for visiting! Some schools, like UC-Boulder, want you to create an account on their student portal before you can sign up for a tour, but most just want some basic information. They base the number of free lunch tickets, admissions info folders and swag on the number of people they’re expecting, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on swag, would you?
3. Be prepared
You will be walking the campus for at least an hour—wear comfortable shoes, dress in layers, bring a hat, a water bottle and an umbrella, if necessary. Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, has 300 days of sun a year, but I happened to tour on one of the few rainy days. I was not prepared, but they were, with both bottles of water for people who aren’t used to how quickly you dehydrate at altitude and with an umbrella stand full of golf umbrellas we could borrow for the tour. ;-)
Also have a way to take notes and pictures of the campus. This will help you remember the tour later, when you’re narrowing down your college list. If you take notes on your phone, like I do, it’s good policy to tell the guide or information session presenter that you are taking notes. If they see you appearing to mess with your phone instead of listen, that might give them a bad impression of you.
4. Ask the right questions
There’s always going to be some mom at the front chatting with the guide (it’s probably me!) but take this time to ask your tour guide those weird questions you’ve been wondering about. Here’s a list of questions that will help you learn about the school’s culture—what it’s really like to go there:
5. Assess the climate
I’m not talking about the weather but rather the social climate. Look at the students walking around campus: are they smiling? Do they make eye contact? Do they look relaxed or very focused? If you ask for directions, will they answer or ignore you? Does your guide have a sense of humor, if that's important to you? Some schools have a very intense campus climate. This isn’t necessarily bad, especially for a student who is looking for a lot of academic rigor, but make sure that climate matches you and your expectations.
6. Check out the bulletin boards
7. Go off the beaten path
The guided tour will take you to all the hotspots, but don’t leave campus as soon as the tour is over. Wander around the student center a little bit—what kinds of students are there? What are they doing? Eat lunch in the cafeteria, or at the campus hangout your guide mentioned. Is the food good? Read the campus newspaper—what is the campus focused on? How expensive are the books in the bookstore? Does the area around the campus look safe?
8. Make connections
Unless you are sure you won’t want to apply, or if the school is close enough that you can get there whenever you want, take advantage of your time on campus to make some connections. This means sitting in on a class, staying overnight with a student, interviewing with admissions, and/or visiting the department of your potential major to ask some questions about what it’s like to major in X at this school. If you can connect with a professor in the department and chat a bit about his or her work, so much the better. These opportunities will need to be set up in advance, so be sure to plan ahead.
Interviewing with Admissions is a good idea even if you’re not sure you want to apply; it’s excellent practice for interviewing at your top choice schools. And be sure to send a short thank you note to everyone who spends time with you one-on-one. It can only reflect well on you and your future application to show yourself to be polite and professional.
In conclusion, a half-day visit will not tell you everything you need to know about campus. Doing your research, connecting with current students online or making multiple visits (if possible) will help you prepare for your visit, and help you refine your experience as you narrow your college list. You’ll be spending the next 4-6 years on the campus you choose to attend—doing this legwork ahead of time means you are much less likely to have a bad campus match and need a transfer.
Lessa Scherrer is an college admissions consultant who has worked with college-bound students for many years. She is a member of NACAC and WACAC and also teaches ACT Prep, speed-reading, college study skills and college-level writing.
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