The College Search Process: The College Visit

Tips include take a self-guided tour, ask questions, go to the academic department of interest, eat lunch or dinner, stay overnight, tour the town or city, take notes and reflect, and enjoy the journey
Students on a college visit on a college campus

It is easy, in this digital age, to access virtual college tours and electronic viewbooks of campuses. But nothing compares to the gut feeling high school students have when they step onto a college campus. Perhaps they researched the school, reviewed the statistics, and delved into the curriculum available online. But being on college campuses helps students clarify what's actually important to them, and is one of the most crucial steps of the college application process.

Seniors often find it helpful to visit campuses during the early phase of the application process. This can help them concretely identify what they want in a campus, which is important, as the college will be their home for the next four years. Some families visit local colleges and, based on that experience, the student can infer his or her preferences (such as urban vs. suburban vs. rural location) as he or she researches other schools. If families are unable to visit some schools during the application phase, seniors might opt to visit them once they are accepted.

Whether you are early in the college search process or working toward crafting your final list, here are some considerations to make the most of your college visits:

Take a Self-Guided Tour

It is wise to sign up for an official campus tour and information session, as these will earn you points in demonstrating interest. But I also suggest that you speak with students apart from the tour and ask questions to give yourself a behind-the-scene look of campus life. Each campus has its own unique culture. Take time to really absorb all there is to do and see. You've invested time and financial resources to get there so be sure to visit the campus hub (the student center or dining hall) and stop students to ask their thoughts about the college. Campus culture is best viewed through the unfiltered lens of its students.

Be Inquisitive

Arrive on campus with questions in hand that cannot be easily answered on the college's website. Delve deeper into academic programming and extracurricular campus life. Find out what internships and other experiential learning opportunities are available. Ask about the four-year graduation rate and job placement.

Go to the Source

If you have a major in mind, swing by the academic department to see if you can speak with a professor. This will provide an opportunity to see how accessible faculty members are and to gain a sense of research being conducted on campus. If you are an athlete or a musician, try to set up a meeting with the coach or music director before you arrive on campus. These relationships will play a central role in your college experience, so it's important to get to know them early. They may also serve as a shepherd through the application process.

Insider's Tip: Before each visit, draft a list or make a schedule of each person/place you would like to see while on campus. It's smart to standardize these activities across campuses so you have an opportunity to compare colleges.

Eat Lunch or Dinner

Make time to enjoy a meal on campus. You can learn a lot by watching students in the dining hall or cafe. If you have dietary restrictions, you will also find out if there are gluten-free, vegan, organic, and kosher options available.

Stay Overnight

Staying on campus overnight will give you an even better sense of what it's like to be a student there. It will provide a glimpse of the social scene and how students spend their free time. This is especially important during senior year as you finalize your college list.

Tour the Town or City

Remember you will be living here for four years and not all of that time will be spent in class or on campus. Take time to walk or drive around the town to get a preview of the amenities offered relative to your lifestyle -- volunteer opportunities, restaurants, places of worship, shopping, etc. College life is more than the dorms and quad, so get to know the surrounding community.

Take Notes and Reflect

After each visit, take a few minutes to write down your thoughts, impressions, and answers to questions. Once you've seen a couple of campuses, your experiences begin to blend together and it will be hard to recall and decipher specific characteristics of each institution. Being able to remember certain details of each school will help to mold your final list.

Insider's Tip: Taking detailed notes about your campus visit will also serve you well in the application process when you write your response to the supplemental essay, "Why College X?"

Enjoy the Journey

Sometimes easier said than done. But the college search and application process is just that: a process; it will take time for you to figure out what you're looking for in your post-secondary experience. It's a time of growth – and you will learn a lot about yourself along the way.

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