#The High School Experience

In the coming weeks and months, high school juniors and their families will take advantage of vacations and long weekends to visit college campuses around the country.

But how should students plan for these visits? How do they maximize a day on campus?

Check our handy list of frequently asked questions below. 

Why should I visit colleges?

The best reason to visit a college is to get a feel for the school and to see if you can envision yourself making that campus and community not just your school for the next four years, but also your home. Many students are drawn in by beautiful campuses, new facilities, and prestigious reputations – but no matter how impressive a college is, if it is not a place you can be truly happy, it will not provide you with the best opportunity for success. 

If you know what you are looking for in a school, campus visits can provide you with an invaluable chance to gain a sense of the school that goes far beyond what you can glean from research and visceral reactions alone.

If you’re not sure what you want in a school, campus visits are an excellent way to help you narrow down your priorities and preferences.  Do you want to be a part of a big, cohesive campus in a tiny college town, or do you want your school to feel woven into the fabric and opportunities of a major city? Do you want a school with a small, medium, or large undergraduate student body? College visits are a great way to answer these questions!

How should I choose which colleges to visit?

When it comes to choosing colleges for visits, it can be helpful to start with superficial criteria: Urban? Big? Warm weather? Three hours from home? Superficial criteria can make a search so much more manageable because it will eliminate the vast majority of schools from the overwhelming options that are out there.

Once you have assembled your list of superficial criteria, focus on YOU. What are your values, interests, and goals? Push yourself to look critically at what a school offers.  If you have preconceived notions about a college, it can be tempting to shape yourself to fit the mold of that college. Resist this: you need to consider if the school is the best fit for YOU. 

It’s always useful to visit a local college or two FIRST – before you plan any other college visits – even if you don’t intend to apply to those local schools. Starting out with visits to nearby schools is a budget-friendly way to get a feel for campus tours and also get a sense of what you truly value in a college.

Do colleges track demonstrated interest?

Some colleges, like Tulane, consistently track demonstrated interest. Other colleges, like Emory, make a point of telling you precisely why they do NOT track demonstrated interest on their website.  

While it may be important to know if one of your top choices is a school that closely tracks demonstrated interest, there are other ways to prioritize what colleges to visit that will be efficient with your budget and time.

For schools you are interested in, try to visit any campus that is within 250 miles of you –  both for the experience and to show your investment; smaller schools tend to track demonstrated interest more. You can always call a college to ask to what extent they track demonstrated interest, too.

Also, you can always visit a school that is farther away after you apply or get accepted. There is so much pressure to visit beforehand, but don’t take away a potential option of a school just because time and budget didn’t permit you to visit before you applied.  

Don’t break the bank or drive yourself crazy; if you can’t visit a college, virtual tours, research, and visiting similar (and closer) schools are also useful options.

What’s the scoop with “Why College” essays and what do they have to do with visiting colleges?

As you begin to assemble your list of schools you’d like to visit, research and determine ahead of time which of the schools on your list require a “Why College” essay as part of their application. While there are many different variations of this prompt, a Why College supplement essay essentially asks you to explain why and what about a particular college is a good fit for you. 

When planning how to make the best use of your time and resources on college visits, if everything else is equal, prioritize schools that require Why College essays over schools that don’t. The specific insights you gain from your visit will add a depth of knowledge and detail that you can utilize to make your Why College essay stand out. 

Read more about how to do that HERE

How do I plan a visit?

Before you visit a college, the first step is to make sure you do your homework. Many colleges allow or require you to sign up for scheduled tours and information sessions online – but keep in mind that often, you have to sign up for BOTH those sessions separately. 

Some schools, like Cornell, have you sign up for tours and info sessions separately AND offer specific break-out sessions for different colleges within the school, from agriculture to engineering. If you have an interest in a particular major, be sure to research beforehand to see if there are any info session offerings specific to that interest. If you are undecided, you can always pick a session to attend to learn more about a potential option.

Other schools, like George Washington in D.C., want you to sign up for tour and info sessions separately, but also offer a self-guided option for students who can’t make any available tour dates.  

Plan to arrive to your tour or info session a little bit early and bring a notebook and pen to jot down notes. (Yes, we know there is a Notes app on your cell phone, but you are just inviting yourself to get distracted – and potentially look disinterested in front of an admissions officer.)

For tours and information sessions, come prepared with a list of questions and concerns you want addressed from your tour guide or an admissions officer. 

How do you know if your question is a good question? Ask questions that directly relate to your personal goals and personality. And most importantly, ask questions that could not have been answered by a simple Google search!

How should I approach a campus tour or info session?

Take notes of your first impressions. Introduce yourself to any admissions officers you meet. Be your most polite and friendly self. 

Listen to what your tour guide has to say and look at what they have to show you, but remember to also approach the tour with a critical eye. Make sure you are looking beyond superficial characteristics like landscaping and impressive buildings. 

Because your tour guide will likely be the first person you meet on campus (and because guides are chosen in part for their friendly and outgoing personalities), it can be easy to see your tour guide as a kind of holistic representation of the school – but no school is made of just one person. Plan to talk to lots of different people on campus and let all those interactions come together to inform your opinion of the community at that college.

As a side note: the tour is a great place to get a general overview and feel for the school, but it’s not the only place to gain deeply insightful research for a Why College essay. Use your free time on campus to dig deeper and form a more complex impression of the school. 

Who should I talk to? Should I sit in on a class? What if I visit when classes aren’t in session?

If at all possible, sitting in on a class and/or getting the chance to meet and talk to a professor in a field that interests you is an excellent way to learn more about if a school or a particular program is a good fit for your needs. 

If classes are in session, search the school’s current course catalog to find a class you’d be interested in and send an email to the professor asking for permission to sit in – but be sure to give them as much notice ahead of time as possible. If you’d like to meet with a certain professor, see if you can meet with them during their office hours or for a cup of coffee. 

If you aren’t sure where to start, calling a department’s main office can be an easy way to find out what professors and classes are generally open to prospective student visits. Many department offices are used to fielding questions from prospective students and will be happy to offer guidance. 

Be sure that no matter who you talk to or what your level of interaction is that you take good notes for yourself and remember to thank them for their time. Follow-up thank you emails are always appreciated.

If classes are not in session, it can be a little bit trickier to find people to have meaningful conversations with about the school – but there are usually options. Again, calling the department is a good start. 

What if I don’t have a particular class I want to sit in on because I’m undecided about my major ? 

If you are totally undecided about what you want to study, sit in on a class anyway! You can still gain a sense of the school community and classroom dynamic. Beyond the classroom, focus more on approaching other students in public spaces like the library, dining hall, or student union. Ask your parents for some space if it helps you feel more comfortable. Be friendly and be yourself! Most students will be happy to answer your questions and you’ll get a sense of the campus community from your interactions. 

Before you visit, ask yourself: do you have friends or do your friends know anyone who is attending or recently attended this school? Did your uncle’s coworker’s son just graduate from there? Take advantage of your network; the insights from these conversations is worth the extra effort.  

Will these people really want to talk to me, a random prospective student?

Yes! Most students and professors will be overwhelmingly enthusiastic about talking to you and sharing their experiences.

Beyond the tour, the information session, and classes, how else can you spend quality time on campus?

Cultivate awareness; notice what stands out to you. Read the flyers on bulletin boards, pay attention to the art, to the spaces students gravitate toward, to how friendly and helpful folks like the administrative assistants are. 

Notice the other students as you walk around campus. Are they engaging? Do they make eye contact? Do they smile? What does the campus vibe feel like?

Spend some time walking around on your own and grab a meal somewhere on campus. Ask yourself: can I imagine myself living and studying here?

So is visiting colleges essential?

Visiting colleges is not as vitally important as people make it out to be in terms of demonstrating interest in a school. However, a college visit is an excellent way to figure out whether the school is a good fit for your needs, what your own priorities are when it comes to choosing a college, gathering details for Why College essays,  and simply for the peace of mind of being able to envision exactly where it is you are applying!