Don’t Visit Any Colleges Without Reading This First
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As we’ve discussed previously on the CollegeVine blog, high school students who are preparing for college application season and have the means to do so should make an effort to visit at least one of the colleges they’re considering. There’s nothing quite like being on campus to let you know if that school will make a worthwhile addition to your college list. Your visit will be even better if you do some research and make a plan in advance in order to make the most of your time on campus.
Read on for the most important information you need to know in order to map out college visits that give you a chance to really get to know your colleges of choice.
The Typical College Visit
The heart of a college visit is your campus tour, in which a tour guide (usually a current student) takes a group of visitors around the campus on foot. These tours are specifically aimed at prospective students, so your guide will focus on areas of interest to first-year students as well as major college facts and landmarks.
You can find information about and/or arrange for your tour through the college’s admissions office. Specialized group tours may also be available, such as a tour of the school’s engineering buildings for prospective engineers. Be aware that at some schools, other companies may offer campus tours that are not official or university-sponsored.
Before or after your tour, you’ll likely be able to attend an information session. In these “infosessions,” which are often held for large groups in a lecture hall or auditorium, a member of the college’s admissions staff will provide general facts about the college and go over the application process, financial aid, first-year life, and other issues of interest to prospective students. You may even be able to ask questions.
Other activities may be available when you visit a college. Some colleges offer on-campus interviews when you visit, for which you’ll typically need to sign up in advance. You might also be able to sit in on a class or eat in the dining hall.
At some schools, visiting campus is seen as an indication of interest in the school and can potentially positively affect your chance of acceptance. If the school you’re visiting is one of these, make sure you register in advance, officially sign in, meet with an admissions officer, or do whatever it is they require so that your visit will be officially counted. The admissions office should be able to tell you whether the college you’re visiting keeps records of visits.
Once you’ve completed the usual round of campus-visit activities, you’re free to explore on your own. Keep in mind, however, that some spaces on campus may not be open to the public, and that you’ll need to be respectful of the students, staff, and faculty going about their daily lives. (Some visitors are downright rude — Harvard has even had to post signs warning visitors not to take pictures through students’ dorm windows!)
Finally, it’s wise to spend some time getting to know the larger city or town in which the college is located. On a personal level, try to get a “feel” for the area and the people who live there — does the atmosphere suit you? On a practical level, think about what you’ll be able to easily access, including transportation, shopping, entertainment, and community resources, and see if it matches what you’ll need to have a full and independent life while you’re on campus.
Preparing for College Visit
Before you head out for any college visit, make sure you’ve done your research. Visiting the college’s admissions website or calling them to ask questions will answer some of the above questions.
Many colleges don’t require you to register for a tour or reserve a seat at an infosession, but you’ll still need to confirm when and how often these infosessions and tours occur. You definitely don’t want to travel all the way to a college only to find that you missed the only tour of the day or that infosessions aren’t being held that week.
Where on-campus events are held is also important. Make sure you double-check the location from which tours leave, as it may not be the same as the admissions office’s street or mailing address. Infosessions may be held wherever there’s space, not necessarily in the admissions office itself.
If you’re heading to an unfamiliar city, transportation and directions can also be an issue, so grab a map or queue up your GPS. Make sure to enter the street address or intersection you’re looking for instead of the university’s name — GPS systems may direct you to a location that’s on campus, but isn’t where you need to be. Research parking beforehand since it may be difficult to find, especially at schools in urban areas.
Doing your college visit research also means getting a rough idea of what you’d most like to see. Some time spent on the college’s website will turn up the locations of departmental offices or buildings affiliated with a certain field, for instance, so you might want to take a walk around the areas associated with your intended major.
This advice applies to extracurricular activities and other interests as well as academic subjects. If you’re a prospective athlete, find the athletic facilities, and consider whether that will be a convenient trip to make every day. If you’re a musician, think about where practice rooms are located. The more you can match the details of your college visit to your profile, the better.
Making Connections: How to Get Personal Perspectives About Colleges
When we at CollegeVine talk about visiting colleges and figuring out whether they’re a good fit for you, you’ll often hear us saying that talking to a current student can be valuable. Nobody knows better than a current student what it’s like to attend that college at present, from residential life to campus culture to the quality of undergraduate teaching.
Of course, you shouldn’t necessarily take a single student’s experience as the absolute truth about a college. Every student among thousands has a different perspective, and there are innumerable, complicated factors that go into shaping any one person’s experience. However, conversations with current students still have the potential to give you inside information that you won’t find anywhere else.
The problem is this: How do you find and approach a student with whom to have this conversation? If you don’t have a relative, friend, or other connection who is currently attending your college of choice, your campus visit will give you unique opportunities to actually interact with students.
You may be tempted to walk up to a random person on campus and start asking questions, but this isn’t always the best plan. That person might not be an undergraduate student, and even if they are, they don’t necessarily have the time or inclination to give you an immediate and thorough answer. Save this approach for brief questions or asking for directions, and don’t be surprised if you don’t get the information you’re looking for.
For more detailed inquiries, it’s best to start with people you can meet through existing connections, including friends and your counselor. This common connection will likely make them more willing and able to give responses that are both truthful and useful.
When you’re actually visiting campus, your first destination for current-student perspectives will be the college’s undergraduate admissions office. Current students are often employed to lead tours, assist with info sessions, and otherwise bring their important perspective to the work that admissions officers do. If you can’t do so on a tour, you’ll often have a chance to ask them questions informally or hear their personal accounts of life on campus.
What if you simply can’t find a current student with whom to talk, or you have specific questions that are outside the experience of the student you do find? For example, if you visit a college in the summer, you’ll typically find far fewer current students on campus — that person you see doing a problem set in the student center might well be a summer-program participant from another school entirely, or even another high school student like you.
In this case, or if you simply want an additional perspective, the college’s admissions office may be able to help you connect to a current student who’s willing to chat on email or Skype. Some admissions offices, like MIT and Harvard, also employ current students to blog about their experiences at that school for the benefit of prospective applicants.
Whether you’re talking to current students in person, on the phone, or in writing, politeness and respect are key to maintaining a positive relationship and making a good impression. If you’re in a group setting, don’t monopolize the speaker when others are waiting; ask for their contact information to discuss a lengthy issue privately. Give people time to formulate a response, and of course, always thank them for their time and assistance.
For More Information
College visits can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the college admissions process: They allow you to travel and experience new things while imagining exciting possible lives for yourself. However, they can also be stressful, since you have such a short and limited visit to learn as much as possible about the school. Learning about college visits and doing research beforehand will help you to feel more secure about the value of your visit.
Check out these other CollegeVine blog posts for more of our advice on choosing which colleges to visit and planning out your on-campus experience:
Like your college visits, the admissions process will be more useful if you prepare for it beforehand. CollegeVine mentors can work with you throughout high school to identify your interests, set and achieve goals, and figure out what kind of college experience will suit you best. By the time you arrive on campus for a visit, you’ll be well-equipped to make informed decisions about whether that school is right for you.
To learn more about our services, visit the CollegeVine Student Mentorship Program page.
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