The campus visit is one of the most, if not the most, important steps you can take when considering what college to attend. The campus visit will give you a firsthand view of the school’s size and layout, the types of students it attracts, and where you will be living, learning, and enjoying the next several years of your life.
Visit well before applications are due
Physically visiting a college campus is the best way to get a feel for the campus culture and community. You should visit the colleges you're interested in well before applications are due. It’s also preferable to go when classes are in session and day-to-day activities are taking place; this will give you the most accurate sense of what it will really be like living on that campus. It isn’t likely you will spend your college career within the confines of campus—you will want to explore the surrounding community too! Between social events and work opportunities, you will spend plenty of time off campus and potentially live off campus at some point as well. Understanding how you might travel to and from the college is an important factor to consider if you are commuting or traveling a distance to attend. Many students want to go to a school far from home. This may seem appealing until you give serious thought to all that is involved in traveling to and from campus—from airfare to handling family emergencies.
Prepare yourself and your questions
Prior to visiting any campus, you should develop a list of questions for various audiences. You want a series of fact-finding questions for admission officers; these should focus on the application process, evaluation criteria, and important deadlines. Don’t waste your time asking about the average class size or other facts you can find in brochures or on the Web. Prepare questions to ask the assigned tour guide and then ask those same questions of random students you encounter on campus—you should get an interesting variety of perspectives on the quality of student life and social opportunities. Finally, have some questions for academic advisors or faculty members. Even if you are not certain about your major or interests, inquire about the support you will receive in discerning your academic path.
Hit the campus hot spots
Once you arrive on campus, stroll around the quad, meet with an admission representative, take a tour of the residence halls, and sit in on a class if you can. It is also strongly recommended that you eat in the dining halls. Not only can you observe the quality and variety of food, but you will also have the opportunity to eavesdrop on the types of casual conversations among current students. (Not in an intrusive way, of course!) As affordability becomes more and more relevant to the college selection process, it is a good idea to discuss scholarships and financial aid during your visits as well. Meeting with someone from the financial aid office is not always an option, but be sure to ask about the process when meeting with the admission representative. Remember, the practice of awarding scholarships and need-based aid is inconsistent from one school to the next, and families are often unable to evaluate the true cost of attendance until only months prior to enrollment. When visiting campus, have realistic expectations and focus on finding out how to navigate the process of applying for and receiving scholarships and financial aid.
The career center may not be an obvious stop during your visit, but it’s highly recommended. When there, you want to learn more than placement rates. Ask about career services available to students throughout their college years and beyond. Most schools help students build résumés and complete graduate school applications, but you should also inquire about campus interviews, networking opportunities, and internship placement. With a competitive job market and limited graduate school space, you will want to know what type of support you will receive.
Take notes and pictures or even go back
It is a good idea to take photos during your campus visits as well. As you journey toward a final decision, having a visual aid, along with some notes taken during campus interviews, can help. It might be helpful to shoot some video on your phone if possible too. It is always a good idea to pick up the campus newspaper and read the editorials to better understand what is on current students’ minds. When feasible, you should consider visiting college campuses early in your college selection process and then again when you are finalizing your plans. You will be amazed by the different questions you have and the campus characteristics that become meaningful during the various stages of your decision-making process. Visiting a college campus two or three times prior to your enrollment is not a bad thing. You will have a better understanding of what to expect, and you will likely learn something new each time you visit.
Explore online options
In the event you are unable to physically visit a campus, you should see what is available online for viewing. Not all colleges have a good virtual tour, so you might have to do a little surfing. Again, reading the school newspaper online is a good way to see what is happening on campus. You can also learn a lot by looking at the school’s webpages devoted to campus activities, student government, housing, dining services, athletics, libraries, academic success, and even health and wellness. Keep in mind, you would spend a minimum of three to four hours if you physically visited a campus, so don’t click too quickly when taking a virtual tour. Take your time and enjoy learning about where you might be spending the next four years.
Here are a few things to remember when visiting a college:
- There are no dumb questions as long as the subject matter is important to you in the college decision-making process.
- Not every college is as it appears online or in the publications you find in your mailbox.
- Everyone is looking for something different in a college. Ask to see and hear about things that are important to you.
- Although it is difficult at times to distinguish one school from another, try to identify why each campus you visit is unique.
- Focus on what is in front of you and save comparisons for later. You can build a matrix of pros and cons after you have toured the campuses you wish to consider.
- Be grateful for the time of the people you meet when touring. Send a thank-you note, or—bare minimum—express your appreciation after meeting with each person.
- Talk with other visiting students, but don’t let their opinions influence you in your decision. You may never see that person again!
- Visiting multiple colleges in a short period of time can be risky. Be sure you have time to give thoughtful consideration to what each campus has to offer.
Choosing a college is a big decision, probably the biggest one you can make at this moment in your life. Be certain to include your mentors and family in the process. This includes asking at least one person to accompany you while visiting a campus. Having someone to discuss what you saw and heard during the visit will help in that ultimate college decision.
Check out the Campus Visits section for even more great advice for planning and attending college visits!