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Beyond Pretty Brochures: How to Plan Informal Campus Visits

Official campus tours are great, but they only give you part of the story. Get a more realistic view of your colleges with these tips on informal campus visits.

Campus visits are perhaps the best way to explore your interest in a college or university—to look beyond the mountains of glossy photos and statistics you’ve seen so far in your college search. Of course, it’s easy to admire the beautiful campus and high-tech facilities when they’re all stops on the official guided tour. It’s the school’s highlight reel! However, to truly get to know a college or university, you’ll have to do a bit more digging than you think. An unofficial, informal, DIY college tour can help you do just that. Here are my top tips for planning your own “off-the-record” campus visits and seeing what life at your top colleges is really like.

Important note: If at all possible, try to go on an official campus tour and an unofficial DIY tour. It may mean making an extra-long visit on one day or going back another day. But it’s worth it, because both kinds of visits are valuable. You get the “uncensored” version of the school on your own visit, and you get the “best-of-the-best” version of the school on the official tour. Official tours are also important because the school will have a record of you visiting, and that will go in your admission file as an example of “demonstrated interest.” This is meaningful, because every time you interact with a college or university—whether it’s an email to request information or a call to the admission office—it shows admission reps that you’re that much more invested in their school.

Why you should go beyond the official tour

Guided campus tours offer a variety of information about the school and often have current students to talk to and counselors on hand to answer your questions. Plenty of people enjoy the experience, but, personally, they drive me crazy! Besides the fact that many of the questions students ask and much of the other information can be found with a simple online search, there’s so much more to the school that people miss out on. Official college tours tend to portray a very one-sided view of a school; this makes sense, because they’re organized by school administrators and admission counselors, who want to put their institution in the best light possible. Campus tour guides are often the most engaged and spirited students too; this isn’t always a bad thing, but the majority of a school’s population will almost certainly fall somewhat short of this spokesperson’s enthusiasm.

Even if there are remarkable aspects of a college or university that would draw you in, the tour will not necessarily emphasize these. Intended for large and diverse groups of visitors, general tours can’t be tailored to the interests of every visitor, so they’ll only show areas of general appeal. You’ll probably get a view of the library, dorm rooms, pretty landmarks, and the most impressive academic buildings. Unfortunately, these are also aspects of the school that will look the most similar to any other. A dorm room is a dorm room, basically wherever you go. To see the specific slice of the college where you would fit as a student, you’ll have to pick up a campus map and become your own tour guide…

Related: The Essential List of Campus Visit Questions

Check out what you want to see

College visits are for you and no one else. You should be focusing on the things you want to see most—so make sure you make time for it all on your informal visits. Here’s how you can plan your visits and what you should be focusing on for your goals and interests. 

Plan ahead

When you’re planning for campus visits, you should have at least a vague idea of what you’re looking for in a college. Use those interests to make a list of specific things you want to check out on campus. This will require doing research into the college and what it has to offer ahead of time, but it’s not hard to do and worth it in the end. You might even mark up your own campus map ahead of time!

Investigate academics

Try to visit the department of any academic areas that interest you. A few days before your informal campus visit, email a professor or department head about visiting a class that day. Most professors are generous with incoming students shadowing a class, but it’s important to be respectful of their time and make sure you’re not coming in on a test day or some other closed activity. If you can’t see a class for whatever reason, try to at least drop by the department office to check out the space and talk to whoever is there.

Explore extracurriculars

If you’re interested in college athletics, visual or performing arts, or another space-specific activity, you might want to check out the facility where that’s held, if possible. As a dancer, I always want to know how big any dance studios are on campus and what kind of equipment is there to get an idea of what it might feel like in the college’s dance classes. This can also give you a glimpse of the program as a whole: if they have a nice facility, there’s probably stable money for the program in the school’s budget, and the faculty may be equally impressive.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to the College Search: How to Find Your Perfect College Match

What else to look for on your visits

Some of these places, people, and things may not be the first things on your list to check out, but they can all be really telling as to whether or not the college in question is a good fit for you. Before you dismiss them, consider what checking out these things will tell you about your colleges of interest.

Bulletin boards

My favorite way to get an insider’s perspective on a campus visit is through bulletin boards. There are signs for club meetings, interesting art events, guest speakers, environmental PSAs, and sometimes even new classes a professor is trying out this quarter. If you see something that catches your eye, look it up! If an event is happening while you’re in town, go to it! This is a great way to test the waters of the student community. Many campus events are open to the public (though sometimes with a small fee or donation). If you’re not sure, there’s often contact info on fliers to direct your questions.

College newspapers

You can pick up a copy of the college newspaper to see how student voices are represented. This can give you an idea of the current social and political climate too; even if a school is in a predominantly conservative or liberal area, there might be diverse views from the student body, especially in the editorial section. If you’re particularly interested in art or journalism, there are also often creative arts magazines floating around on tables in rec areas or coffee shops. Flip through to see what kind of artistic voice the school cultivates.

Campus bookstore

Another option is to look in the campus bookstore, just one of many campus resources you'll want to take advantage of. Almost all colleges have one, if only to sell and rent textbooks. Just by glancing at this collection, it’s easy to see some classes and what kinds of materials they offer. Are most of the books written by their professors? What’s the school’s policy on taking notes or highlighting in rented textbooks? What subjects are most represented on the shelves? Although you can see a list of classes on any school’s website, this gives you a more relevant peek at what is going on within the classroom walls at that moment.

Anywhere you can people watch

Find a spot where you can sit and watch students (okay, that sounds a little creepy, but just go with it). Campus coffee shops and cafés are perfect for this. Then just people-watch for a little while. Try to get a sense of the “vibe” on campus. Are there are groups of friends? Do people seem happy or stressed? Can you tell if people are heading to band or athletic practice or other activities? If you’re really brave, you can talk to the current college students and ask them your off-the-record questions too!

Related: The Ultimate Campus Visit Checklist: Where to Go and Questions to Ask

Campus visits your way

Visiting campus is all about seeing what makes a school stand out to you in real life, in contrast to the endless emails and brochures they’ve bombarded you with for the last year. School-led campus tours often just repeat the same picture-perfect reassurances about academics and student life. To get a full picture of what a school can do for you, you have to take the initiative to seek out what you want. If you end a week of tours trying to remember which campus was which, that may be a sign you didn’t really see the schools at all.

For more advice to help you plan your college trips, check out our Campus Visits section. 

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About Ruthie Carroll

Ruthie Carroll is a current freshman at Western Washington University and plans to pursue a degree in English and/or Linguistics. She has always been passionate about writing, especially short fiction and novels. Aside from writing and studying, Ruthie also dances ballet, reads an inordinate number of books, and plays traditional Irish fiddle music.


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