As you consider the process of applying to college, it’s a good idea to visit as many schools on your short list as you can — start with your top five, and see if you can tour others after the acceptances start rolling in.
Some schools will be within an easy drive of home, while others may require train or airline travel. See if you can tag team these trips with friends who are visiting the same colleges. Many parents take turns chaperoning a few friends as they tour different schools, which makes this part of the process more manageable for everyone. Visiting schools is an important part of applying to college. The visits will provide supplemental information that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and they will allow you to make an educated decision before you make a commitment — and a deposit.
Typical College Visits
Keep in mind that the college visit is designed by the admissions office to be a “sales pitch” for the school. Schools present information that they want you to know, not necessarily information that you need to know.
After you hear about a school’s highlights, you’ll take a tour with a guide who will typically walk backward while going through a script and answering questions. Remember that the tour guide has been trained to provide specific information and not deviate from the script. Still, try to ask some questions that are outside the scope of the pitch; it can be a good way to get more authentic answers or give you an idea of where to dig more deeply with other students or administrators.
By the time you’ve seen your third bookstore, dorm, and library, many colleges may start to look painfully similar. How can you reduce the confusion, anxiety, and tension of college visits?
Design Your Own College Visit
There are ten things you can do to take charge of your college visit. Don’t worry about how long it takes to get the information you need. This is a good use of your time, and it will pay off later when you get ready to submit your applications.
If the college offers the opportunity to meet with a dean or first-year academic advisor, schedule an interview. Come prepared with genuine questions you have about the school and its programs, and be prepared to talk about yourself and your interest in the college. Use Noodle’s College Search to explore each college’s profile, and keep notes of your questions for each school on your Saved Lists. Possible questions could include the percentage of students who progress from first to second year, freshmen access to upper level classes, or whether the college has opportunities to collaborate with professors on research projects.
Arrange with the admissions or dean’s office to sit in on both introductory and advanced-level classes. If possible, speak with students in the classes. How do they feel about the quality of the courses, their assignments, the professors and TAs, and the fairness of exams?
Visit the security office and ask to see the federally-mandated list of crime statistics for the past three years. You should compare these statistics with campus crime logs and violations recorded by the Department of Justice, as reported online. You have probably heard and read horror stories about campus crime. Now is the time to get information on what crimes are committed on campus and how they are handled.
Speak with a counselor in the financial aid office. Keep the counselor’s name in your file — it’s helpful to have a go-to person in the aid office. Ask about the criteria the college uses to award financial aid and whether the types of aid students receive stay the same throughout their time at the school. Finally, learn how the college handles changes in a family’s financial circumstances. Will it meet a student’s need fully or partially, and will it use loans or grants and scholarships to do so?
Stop by the registrar’s office and ask for a hard copy of the catalog of college courses offered. This is your academic “bible.” Many colleges post these lists online, but it’s often easier to refer to a hard copy when you’re comparing schools. Also, it’s a great way to highlight courses that are particularly interesting to you!
Meet with a representative in the career counseling office and ask about their programs for career preparation. Specifically, learn whether they offer workshops on resume and interview preparation, as well as the support they provide to help students secure internships. What percentage of students have jobs in their field at graduation? Within six months of graduation? Going to college is about more than just getting a job — but post-graduation employment should be part of why you go to college, too. Some schools are terrific at guiding their students to navigate the post-college work world; others are not.
Meet with a residence life coordinator, and if possible, stay overnight in a dorm. This will provide a different experience from what you saw and heard on your college tour, and may paint a more nuanced picture of the student body and campus life.
Eat at a dining hall, and ask students about life inside and outside the classroom. Compare their answers with the answers from the admissions office. Remember: A great food court does not make a great college experience.
Stroll through the library and other common spaces to check out the activity. Are students working in small-group settings? Are the librarians approachable? What are the library’s hours?
Read the billboards posted on campus, and get a copy of the college newspaper. These may give you a sense of the scope and depth of student engagement. What types of events do you see listed? What is the range of clubs and activities on campus?
Ask students where they spend time off campus. Take a walk around this area. Do you see appealing restaurants and shops? Are there cultural opportunities that interest you beyond the campus? Do students take advantage of outdoor activities in the surrounding community? Now imagine yourself doing the same next September...
You’ve taken the tours and asked the questions. Now it’s time to evaluate. You started with 15 schools, but because you designed your own college tour and asked the right questions, your list is now down to 10. Can you imagine yourself at each of the schools still on your list? Would you fit in with the students you met? Do the colleges offer the academic programs you’re most interested in? Can your family afford the schools? By designing your own college tours, you will ensure that you apply to your best-fit schools and better your chances of enrolling at your top choice.