Since I began my long history as a scholarship-searching, SAT-slaying college connoisseur in eighth grade, I have visited six colleges: (in order) University of Georgia, University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University, University of California -- Los Angeles, Stanford University, and University of California, Berkeley. After miles of trekking through crowded campuses and hours of praying the tour guides wouldn’t knock into anyone, I have compiled a list of helpful tips to make sure your college visits are as beneficial as possible.
Make reservations, but don’t necessarily keep them
Two of my visits have been on big, planned days. One was the tour of UGA for my “Think College Early” club in eighth grade, which had a tour bus, a lunch on campus, and a walking tour. The group was small and we had plenty of time for questions. Of course, I was only 12 at the time, so I didn’t really have that many questions about anything I would want to know before enrolling. But it definitely got me excited about potentially going to UGA. The other was to Vanderbilt, for their “Black and Gold Day,” which included a walking tour of the campus, a financial aid presentation, and two Q&A panels with the deans and some students. If you can make it, I would highly recommend these types of visits; it was free and the most informative tour I ever went on. The groups were small (only eight people) and it gave me a feel for what life on campus was actually like. It also informed me of some scholarships I had not known about.
When my dad and I went to California for our big three-stop tour, we had reservations for all three colleges we were touring. When we got to UCLA, there were roughly 25 people in the tour group; our group was too big to go into the libraries and we could barely hear the tour guide the whole time. I left the campus not knowing much more than when we had arrived. There were a lot of people who showed up last minute, which meant the tour guides had to spread themselves fairly thin. We got statistics and things like that, but we were so concerned with keeping up with the group and straining to hear the guide that we never actually felt much of the campus culture or environment.
The next day was Stanford. They were even more overrun with walk-ins than UCLA. There were two tour guides and roughly 100 people. My dad and I debated for a few minutes, then pulled up the online self-guided tour and decided to walk around. This, we decided, was the key to a great campus visit. Instead of hitting the six best views of campus, we went inside the buildings and read the projects students were working on. We got to see the dorms and the inside of the best libraries and went up in the clock tower (something the tour groups missed out on since there were too many people). I saw myself working on a laptop next to the other kids in the engineering building, playing Frisbee with the group of students in the main field, and riding my bike to class. This personal view of the campus made me excited about being a part of the Stanford community.
Our last stop was UC Berkeley. Stanford was my first-choice school, and after being blown away by that campus, I was expecting to like Berkeley but was less excited than I could’ve been. We walked up to the tour group, counted the visitor-tour guide ratio, and turned back around to the admissions office to get a map. We decided to do the cell phone tour, which provided a rough skeleton of the entire campus as well as interesting information we would’ve heard on the tour. We listened to one of the women running for student government speak at a rally, visited the startup lab for new engineers in the basement of one of the buildings, and ate lunch on campus. At the end of the day, I was as excited about Berkeley as I was Stanford.
Bottom line: you don’t need a guided tour to understand the campus. In fact, I feel like I learned more about the engineering departments at all of the schools I visited walking alone with my dad (who, granted, is an engineer) than I ever would have on a regular tour. So don’t be afraid to tread off the beaten path.
Visit the town too
When we went to Vanderbilt, my dad and I thought it would be fun to see Nashville’s “main strip” (basically the touristy part of Nashville). It was fun eating at the famous restaurants and seeing a bunch of expensive boutiques, but I didn’t actually get a feel for where I was going to be living. In Asheville, Tennessee, and Stanford, California, we took time to use the public transport and eat at more affordable places, as well as attend church in the area, since that’s going to be an important part of my life wherever I go. This gave me a better idea of what living in the town would be like. The campus tour is important but so is the town experience, since you’re pretty much inevitably going to leave campus for one reason or another while you’re attending the university.
Do your research
At the financial aid presentation at Stanford, we picked up new information about scholarships and early admission. During the Q&A portion, however, the floor was flooded with questions like, “Do you take the ACT and SAT?” and, “What is your acceptance rate?” These are valid questions, but all of that kind of information is readily available online. Make sure you find out as much about the campus and college itself before you even make your reservation. That way, you can make your visit all about atmosphere rather than facts and figures.
Additionally, I highly recommend looking up the professors who teach in the field you want to go into at the college you’re visiting and finding out what their current research projects are. This lets you know ahead of time what kind of professors teach there and gives you a better idea of the type of education you’ll receive.
Talk to the tour guide
If possible, get the e-mail of your tour guide or of another student (the admissions office will be happy to help) so you can contact them with additional questions. Any student who dedicates time to give tours or works in the admissions office will know plenty about the school and work hard to answer your questions to the best of their abilities. Additionally, since they’re still a student, the college search process will be fresh in their minds, and they’ll be able to sympathize with your feelings and provide more personable advice.
Write it down
You may think your college trip will be unforgettable (and it may very well be), but some of the intricacies might slip your mind in the future. Within three days of your visit, write an entry in a notebook detailing what you did, your thoughts about the campus, and how you feel. This is also a handy place to store whatever information the college gives you during your visit, and when you’re deciding where to apply, you can remember how colleges treated you and how at home you felt in much greater detail.
So! You’re ready for your college visit. In my opinion, touring universities is one of the most fun aspects of the college search process, so be open-minded and enjoy yourself.
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