Ah, the campus visit road trip. Pros: get your head all the way in the college analysis game, effectively compare schools back-to-back, and glean the extra insight from staying overnight in the college towns you hope to one day make your home. Cons? Logistical chaos, sleep deprivation, and the omnipresent threat that all seven schools you tour will eventually blur into a homogeneous sequence of holistic admission processes and Gothic architecture. Not to worry, though. With a little advance strategy, the college tour whirlwind can stay clear and organized and play an invaluable role in your quest for the perfect school. Start with these basics and you’ll be well on your way to an efficient, effective, and enjoyable trip.
1. Make an itinerary (and use it)
Road trips can get a little disorganized by the third or fourth day, but a master itinerary will keep your college tours orderly and stress-free. Research street addresses and parking arrangements for information sessions ahead of time, and keep them on an itinerary sheet in the glove box during the trip (bonus points if you print extra copies). Be sure to note additional visitor information provided by individual colleges as well, and make an extra column to keep track of the distance in minutes from your hotel to each information session. Check the itinerary every morning and night to ensure you stay relaxed and on schedule.
2. Switch it up
Unless you’re sure beyond a doubt of your college list, consider visiting a variety of schools to help you get a feel for your preferences. Even if you’re certain you’re destined for a big public school in the city or a tiny liberal arts college in a remote setting, you may be surprised by what you learn when you visit the real thing. A good rule of thumb is to check out at least one city school, one suburban school, and one rural school, and/or take a look at one college with 15,000+ students, one in the 5,000-10,000 range, and one with 3,000 students or fewer.
3. Take notes
Specific notes. Write down the name of the admissions officer(s) at each information session, and be sure to note any programs, courses, or student organizations that snag your interest. The more particulars you document, the more details you’ll have to back up your claims when you sit down to write that “Why X University?” essay for your application. (Including specific proper nouns, like the admissions officer’s name, in your essay is known as “name dropping,” and it never hurts your chances of admission.)
4. Step back
On each tour, try to find a moment in which you can push the tour group and/or your companions out of your physical sight picture. Separate yourself mentally from the group and envision yourself as a student walking to class. How do you feel? Relaxed, stressed, focused? Content, at home? Uncomfortable in your surroundings? Safe? Excited? Happy or proud? Out of your depth? Energized? Mentally engaged? Take the time to get inside your own head and consider how you relate to the school independently of the tour group and the prospective student context.
5. Engage with others
Form connections and ask all your questions! It can seem intimidating to approach tour guides and admission representatives, but don’t forget they are there to help you. Introduce yourself and seek common ground to form relationships with session leaders. Is your tour guide a Journalism major, and are you involved in the magazine at your school? Try asking what opportunities are available for students interested in pursuing journalism outside of a formal major. Maybe your tour leader is involved in medical research and you volunteer at your local hospital—ask if it’s easy or difficult to get involved in research or whether cross-disciplinary studies are encouraged on a Pre-med track. Engaging on a personal level will form a warm relationship between you and your tour guide and build a solid foundation for you to ask unrelated questions throughout the tour.
6. Take pictures (of everything)
Everything. Take pictures of the quad, the dining halls, the library. After you leave campus, the pictures you took will not only remind you of the college’s layout and architecture, but they’ll also cue recollections of the impressions and reactions you experienced on tour day, preserving the sensation of being on campus for reference when it’s time to make application decisions. Pro tip: take pictures of the bulletin boards too—analyzing them in the car after the tour will give you an idea of the central themes of extracurricular life on campus.
7. Save the pamphlets
The stacks of college brochures you receive might feel cumbersome, but don’t toss them! As hard as you’ll try to copy everything down at information sessions, you’ll be bound to miss a few important statistics, and perusing the pamphlets after the tour will not only help you accumulate data to drop in your essays but also remind you of the school’s programs and personality after you leave campus. In particular, taking note of the special features and/or statistics emphasized in each school’s pamphlet will give you an idea of the academic or social foci of the institution—does the college draw special attention to its Business School? Diversity? Study abroad programs? You’ll be surprised how much you can learn about a 10,000-student institution from an eight-page brochure.
8. Take care of yourself
We all know how severely sleep deprivation impacts our mood, and college road trip week is no exception. Make an effort to get at least eight hours of sleep each night (if you’re touring schools with your class or a group of friends, this might involve choosing your roommate carefully, so plan ahead). If you don’t sleep enough, you might find that your crabbiness impacts your impressions the following day, and that’s the last thing you want when you’re seeing a school just once before applying. Moreover, keep hydrated on your tours, and eat a good breakfast every morning to make sure you stay energized and positive throughout the day.
9. Hit the town
Spend some time getting to know the college town at each school you visit. Walk the streets for a while, get a meal in town, or spend the night in a local Airbnb to get a feel for the atmosphere outside the campus gates. Do college kids fill every restaurant, or do students stay in the safety of their dorms? What’s the townie-to-student ratio, and how do locals interact with students off campus? Is there a clear divide between student stomping grounds and townie turf? Your tour guide and the admission office are both excellent sources for the answers to these questions, so strike up a conversation with them about life in town. It’s also important to investigate your personal preferences regarding college town size, so spend some time exploring each setting to decide if Freeport or Philadelphia will prove to be the place for you.
10. Give it a grade
To really take your tour takeaways over the top, write a rubric that weights all your factors for consideration relative to one another and use it to score each school in the car right after the tours. While your qualitative notes from the information sessions will likely prove the most valuable element when you decide where to apply, coming away from each college with a concrete numerical score will be helpful in recalling your overall impressions and identifying your top choices right away.
Try using campus/location, academics, social scene, and atmosphere/vibe as general categories for your rubric, and break down each topic into multiple subcategories. Are research opportunities important to you in the academic category? Greek life? Student involvement? The core curriculum? Ending each tour with a percentage score based on your top priorities will give you a clear, objective standard for comparison when your qualitative impressions of the umpteen colleges on your campus visit list start swirling in your head.
College visits are a crucial part of the college search process. How can you know if a college is truly right for you without seeing it? Use this advice to curate a top-notch travel plan so you can see the max number of colleges in one go spending the least amount of money. Enjoy your road trip and the colleges you get to visit!
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