The best way to get a feel for a school is to visit its campus. Your spring break is a great time to plan a trip because college students will likely still be attending classes and going about their everyday activities. Visit during the week and not over the weekend so you can get a good impression of everyday life, but before scheduling anything, check to make sure the school is in session; you don’t want to show up when everyone is away on vacation! Once you arrive, use your time on campus to talk to professors and students to determine whether the institution is a good match for your personality, interests, and aspirations. Follow these tips to make the most of your visit.
Call the admissions office.
Once you know where and when you want to visit, call ahead. Get in touch with the admissions office a few weeks before your trip and schedule a tour. Ask how long it will take, so you can plan accordingly. While you have them on the phone, ask if it would be possible to sit in on a class with a professor in your prospective department or meet with the coach of the sports team you hope to join. They may put you in direct contact with the individual or schedule the meeting for you. Ask if there are any students willing to talk to you one-on-one so that you can get a student’s perspective on the school or department that you’re most interested in.
Figure out the logistics.
No matter what type of institution you are considering attending, from a two-year trade school to a four-year residential college, you’re going to want to do your homework before visiting. If you’re traveling out of town to visit a school, are you going alone? How are you going to get there? Is it far enough away that you’ll have to stay a night in the college’s town? Would you rather try to stay with a student and experience college life? Figure out the simple stuff before you try to do anything else; it’ll make the trip go much more smoothly if you’re not worried about buying a bus ticket or wondering how you’re going to get to the airport.
If you’re visiting a vocational school, trade school, or community college, the issue of staying overnight to get a feel for the campus’ nightlife may not be an issue at all. Few two-year institutions are residential, and most students commute from home to attend classes. If the institution is out of town for you, though, be sure to book a hotel room or stay with nearby friends if you won’t be able to make the trip home that same day. Four-year institutions are often at least partially residential, so you may be able to spend the night with a current student if you’re interested. If your family accompanies you on your college visit, though, they’ll have to find a different place to stay.
Plan an overnight stay.
Staying overnight with a student host is a great way to get a feel for a school, the students, and campus life without having someone else distributing the information. You’ll get to eat at the dining hall with your host and their friends, stay in their room (and learn which dorms you do and don’t want to live in), and sit in on classes during the day. Many host students try to take their prospective student visitors to a campus show or sporting match during the evening of their visit to highlight what a typical evening is like, but your options may vary if you’re staying on a weeknight vs. the weekend. You don’t need to stay overnight with a host student at every four-year college on your list, but try to get the full experience at two of your favorites. The best strategy is to pick the two of your top schools that are the most different. This allows you to really get a feel for each school from a student’s perspective. Talk with the admissions department about your options a couple of weeks before you plan to arrive on campus.
Do your research before you go.
In order to make sure that your visits are worthwhile, research the college before leaving home. Your trip should be well worth your time if you have plenty of topics to discuss when you arrive. Yes, you can find loads of information online, but specific questions that pertain to your interests can only be answered by a person in the know. Keep a notebook for your college visits and create a page (or two) for each school. At the top, write down any questions you may have. Do you want to know about the English department, intramural sports, Greek life, the parking situation, and the quality of food in the dining hall? Jot it down.
Your information session and tour will go over general information about the school, but you should be given time during breaks or at the end to ask about anything that hasn’t been covered. Remember to keep things appropriate. Wondering about the party scene? Save that question for a time when you can speak to a student off the record.
Tackle it independently.
It’s great if your parents are helping you with transportation and want to tag along on the tour, but your parents don’t need to be with you when you sit in on a class or meet with a professor. This is your time to ask questions, not your parents’. Sometimes colleges will have specific activities planned for parents, but don’t hesitate to send your parents off on their own to grab a cup of coffee at the student union or to explore the library. No one will appreciate your parent tagging along and asking the professor questions during class.
If you are visiting a lot of schools in a short period of time, it’s easy to get them confused. Create a page (or two) for each school so that you can remember what you learned about each of them. Better yet, enlist your parents to take notes while you’re on campus tours together so that you can take everything in without the distraction of wanting to write everything down. When it comes to meetings with professors, students, and admissions officers, though, you’re going to have to buckle down and do it yourself.
Visit your prospective department.
If you are applying to the school for a certain program, see if you can tour their facilities. If not, ask if you can visit on your own time. You’ll want to see if their equipment and facilities are on par with your expectations or if things are looking a little shabby. Nice, new equipment indicates that the department has some money, knows the most up-to-date technology and techniques, and wants to invest in giving students the best education possible.
Meet with an admissions counselor and ask questions.
This person is likely to be your main point of contact throughout the application process. They will take note of your visit and your level of enthusiasm for their school. Stay in touch if they give you their contact information and thank them later for taking the time to meet with you. For a printable version of the following questions, click here.
- How many students are in a typical class?
- What is the student-to-faculty ratio?
- Are classes taught by professors, graduate students, or individuals with master’s degrees?
- How are classes taught?
- Is it mainly by lecture or by discussion?
- Are there online opportunities?
- What is the graduation rate?
- What is the retention rate?
- Ask the same questions no matter the length of the program. You want to know how many students graduate on time and how many students come back after their first year or semester. The higher these numbers, the better.
- How are classes scheduled?
- If you miss out on something one semester, will there be another opportunity to take it later on?
- Are you required to take physical education classes?
- Do you attend each class every day, or are classes scheduled every other day?
- How long is each class?
- Are there associated labs?
- Are there opportunities for internships during the summers and research opportunities throughout the year?
- Can students assist teachers with research or work independently?
- Is there a strong alumni network to help with summer and post-graduation job opportunities?
- Does the school host career fairs?
- Can students meet with career counselors throughout their college experience?
- Will individual departments assist students in finding summer research opportunities and jobs?
- Are there opportunities to study abroad?
- Are there many options on where to go and what to study?
- When can you study abroad?
- Do you have to study abroad during a semester? Can you study abroad during breaks?
- What percentage of the student body studies abroad?
- Is there an office dedicated solely to study abroad?
- Once you’ve studied abroad, how do the credits transfer from the program back to your school?
- Are there health and wellness facilities on campus?
- What are the food options, and are some of them healthy or is it all fast food?
- Do you have to go off campus to find a meal?
- How many gyms are there on campus and what are the facilities like?
- Are there outdoor facilities that are open to all students and not just athletes?
- Is there an on-campus health clinic?
- Does the clinic provide health screenings?
- What campus safety features have been implemented?
- Are there campus police or shuttle services for nights and weekends?
- Are there parking garages with security cameras or ID checks?
- What are the crime rates in the town as a whole and in the areas close to campus?
- If you find yourself falling behind in a class or need extra help, what is available?
- Is there a writing center where English majors can review your work?
- Are there subject-specific tutors that you can use for free?
- How involved are the alumni?
- Do they assist students who want to pursue careers similar to their own?
- Are they notable?
Talk to current students.
If you can talk to current students, ask them what they love about their school, and ask any questions that you wouldn’t want to ask an admissions officer.
- Are they happy there?
- What made them decide to go there?
- What would they change if they could?
- What is the biggest misconception about the school?
- How much time do they spend studying each week?
- What do they do outside of class?
- What are the easiest and hardest majors?
- How satisfied are they with their college experience so far?
Listen to your gut.
Are you excited by the potential of being a student there? Do you feel comfortable and safe on campus? Try not to let your parents, friends, or the school’s name and reputation sway your judgment. Stay open to learning as much as you can about a school, but don’t get bogged down with facts and statistics. Ultimately, trust your instincts when deciding whether or not to apply or accept an offer of admission.
Keep in mind that when you visit a college and take a tour, you’ll mainly be hearing a script. Admissions officers and student tour guides are going to tell you what they want you to know about their college. If you have the chance to sit in on a class or stay overnight, you will get an unscripted view of the college. You also cannot judge a school based solely on its website, which is the first thing that most students see when they research a college. A website is a window into the school, and therefore a marketing opportunity. Colleges will spend thousands of dollars to make their websites pretty and plan events to show off everything they are proud of, but there are plenty of sides that you won’t see unless you talk to students on campus.
The most important questions that you should be able to answer after you complete a college visit are as follows:
- Are you going to fit into the community?
- Is it one that will allow you to thrive?
Page last updated: 05/2019