So you’ve crafted your college list—pored over school websites, read all the online forums, or maybe looked through a book like The Fiske Guide. Hopefully, you’ve identified a few colleges to reach for and several more that look like comfortable possibilities. Now what?

We’ve written in the past about what your next step should be: campus visits. But this topic is always worth revisiting. The importance of finding a campus whose culture suits you is paramount. College is where you spend four of the most formative years of your life; believe it or not, certain campus cultures are extremely different from others. You can read every page of a school’s website, but without visiting it, you’d be hard-pressed to get a sense for its vibe.

Check out our earlier post for a list of more administrative things you should make sure to do. Here, five decidedly un-administrative activities. They may not help your application, but they’ll do the equally important work of helping you gauge a school’s culture, which might be different—and maybe even more complex and exciting!—than the one presented on its official tour.

  1. Connect with friends, or friends of friends, on campus if possible.

Better than any tour guide, these are the people who will be able to show you around campus in the most comprehensive way. Not only will they be able to point you towards lecture halls and the cafeteria, but also the less noteworthy buildings that would be a part of your daily routine were you to attend the school. Ask to see a dorm, the student gym, or the inside of a seminar room.

  1. Read bulletin boards in the Student Center.

This is a great way to get a sense of the pulse of the entire student body fairly quickly and without moving a muscle. You can tell a lot about what the student body cares about by reading the bulletin boards—at most schools, students themselves put up posters for the organizations they’re a part of, and the turnover is pretty quick. While you’re there, take note of anything going on during your stay, and plan to check it out if possible!

  1. In a similar vein, actively seek out a student-run theater production, concert, art show, or sports game—whatever suits your fancy.

If it’s important to you that you go to a school with a strong arts culture—or sports culture, or ballroom dancing culture, for that matter—you should make plans to participate in some way during your stay. You’ll get a feel for what opportunities await you. Not to mention, you’ll be able to tell instantly from the attendance whether the student body at a particular college cares about what you care about too.

  1. Don’t be shy—go up to a student and ask where they like to spend their free time…then go check it out!

Maybe you’ll end up grabbing a meal in a campus café, drinking coffee in a nearby shop, or reading a magazine in a student center. Regardless of where you find yourself, notice how students move about these spaces, and pay attention to whether you feel at home in them.

Alternatively, campuses often have central buildings, popular social areas, or quads where student organizations hold drives and advertise upcoming events, and students congregate in between classes. Check out one of these spots! They’re the types of spaces you’d likely visit daily or weekly as an attending student, and thus, they warrant your attention as a prospective one.

  1. Bring some homework, find a workspace, and do as Rihanna would: work, work, work, work, work.

Though you’re going to spend your college years making lifelong friends and trying out new activities, you’ll also be doing some homework every once in awhile. The best way to picture yourself fitting in at a school is to see how it feels doing some of the more mundane things, like homework, while you’re visiting.

So grab a campus map, find a workspace, and make your way! Keep in mind that you may not be allowed to enter the libraries, but that shouldn’t stop you from setting up shop in a student study space or empty nook. Operating on campus like you’re an actual student will help you in all sorts of ways. You’ll get a feel for the layout of the campus, see students in action, and—most importantly—you’ll start to sense the work culture of a school. Though it’s obviously hard to draw conclusions from a few hours in a café or study space, you’ll get a better sense of a school’s vibe than you might imagine you would.

Lily Calcagnini

Lily Calcagnini

Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.
Lily Calcagnini