Campus Visits: Expectations vs. Reality

Colleges want you to see the best parts of their campus, and that's what they display in their pamphlets. But what you get to see on a campus visit is the reality--and sometimes it's different than advertised.

Student, Pennsylvania State University

Originally Posted: Jun 15, 2016
Last Updated: Dec 22, 2020

If you’ve taken the SAT at any point, you’re probably now drowning in a sea of college brochures, pamphlets, letters, and other mail. There’s also a chance that those schools are advertising the same thing: happy students, a picturesque campus, and some places on that picturesque campus like a football stadium, a famous entry gate, or an inaugural bell tower. Those things look great, sure. But what those pictures don’t tell you? That campus in reality is a little different than what you’ve been made to expect.

Related: How to Find Out What a Campus Is Really Like 

Campus visits can be a wake-up call about whether or not you want to apply/commit/live on that campus for four whole years. From the pamphlet, you might expect maybe three buildings, a whole lot of trees, and a perfectly groomed path that takes you exactly where you want to go. When you actually get on campus, however, you find 40 buildings (spread over hundreds of acres), about eight different sidewalks going different directions, and that one thing you saw in the brochure on the opposite side of campus. Huh.

When you’re actually on campus, it’s easy to feel like the reality doesn’t match your expectations. Maybe the library doesn't have as many books as you thought. Maybe the cafeteria isn’t as good as they claim. Or perhaps the Language building isn’t as impressive as you had hoped. (And side note: not everyone walks around campus grinning and permanently attired in the school colors.)

Still, it’s crucial to let go of the initial, perfect vision of campus you had and focus on the reality of campus while you’re there. And sometimes reality can be better than what’s advertised: the Student Center has a Starbucks, or the dorms are bigger than you expected. There are students playing Frisbee on the lawn, or you find a current student who’s in your major of interest.

The places you saw in the ads are still going to be there, and they’re still beautiful. But the campus—any campus—is more than just one building, a statue, and a forest of perfectly manicured trees. While you’re there, ask yourself questions: Are you still excited at the thought of going here? Will it be too hot or too cold? Are the sidewalks easy to walk on, or do you stumble on hills or cracks? Do the students seem happy? Does the area around campus seem safe? How’s the traffic around campus—light or impossible to cross the street?

Related: The Essential List of Campus Visit Questions

If you don’t live near campus or can’t travel there, some schools offer online tours. You can also look up pictures, or search “[name of school] virtual tour” to gain a better idea of what campus is like. An admission officer may also be able to arrange for you to contact a current student and ask them questions. If you live near the campus, visiting a few times can really help you find your way around and figure out what being a student could be like. 

Either way, most people’s view of a campus will change when they actually get there. Colleges want you to see the best parts of their campus, and that’s what they display in pamphlets. But what you get to see on a campus visit is the reality—and sometimes it’s different than advertised, for better or for worse. 

Been on a campus visit lately? Let us know what you thought in the comments!

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About Gabrielle Barone

Gabrielle Barone

Gabrielle Barone is (almost) a freshman at Pennsylvania State University, where she’s going to major in journalism and minor in medieval history. She enjoys chocolate (because who doesn’t?), reading, and sarcasm. Eventually she hopes to write professionally for magazines.


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