Despite all the opportunities to explore colleges through websites, virtual tours, and social media, nothing beats an actual visit to a campus. April is a great time to tour a few colleges that you’re considering because the weather is warmer (hopefully), juniors have a week off for vacation, and colleges are still in session, which means you get to see the campus when it's active and busy.
Here are some tips for making the most of a visit to a college.
1) Let the admissions office know you're coming. Sign up for an official campus tour, including the information session if you have time. It's important for admissions to know that you have their college on your radar screen and vice versa. Some colleges even track how much "demonstrated interest" a student has shown through contact with them, and the college tour can be a significant factor for some schools.
2) Think about specifics. Ask questions that apply to YOU and your wants and needs for getting the best possible college education and campus experience. These may include questions about academic programs, sports, extracurricular activities, financial aid, dietary considerations and/or personal or social values. Be honest with yourself, and know that it’s OK to ask “quality of life” questions, in addition to questions related to majors and careers. If you’re a vegetarian, and the only options in the dining hall are “pizza and salad” (as one of our BHS counselors was once told by a tour guide), if you’re political and the campus is known for being apolitical, or if you absolutely must be on a campus with a marching band and they don’t have one, it’s OK to say, “This college isn’t going to be the right fit for me.”
One side note about questions: While specific questions are always helpful, try not to ask questions that are easily answered elsewhere, such as on a college’s website. For example, asking an admissions officer whether there's an ice skating rink on campus can indicate that you haven't done much advance research. Asking how much ice time is available for different competitive or club sports shows that you’ve done a little homework. Try to get answers to the big questions before you visit.
3) Take notes. You can take notes on your phone or on paper or both. Ask the guide if it's OK to take pictures. (It usually is, but as a courtesy you should ask. As a general rule, though, NEVER take pictures that include the faces of students on campus.) Here's a photo-taking tip: before you enter a building, take a picture of the name of the building or of a sign that indicates you’re in a specific department or area. This way you'll know that all the pictures that follow were taken in that specific place, and you don’t have to write as much down.
4) Ask random questions of random people. Don’t be afraid to ask various students or professors on campus what they think of the place. (This can be a great task for one of your parents or siblings, if they accompany you.) Sometimes people who are unaffiliated with the official tours or orientation days can provide important insights, for better or worse, into security, teaching assistants, class size, dorm life and “partying.”
5) Be reasonable AND also trust your gut. Let’s face it, touring a campus on a cold or rainy day is not going to be a lot of fun, but don’t rule out a college because of uncontrollable factors, like the weather or a less-than-stellar tour guide. On the other hand, sometimes after a tour or after doing research, a campus simply “doesn’t feel right,” even if you saw it on a beautifully sunny day. If that’s the case for you, take the college off your list. Part of touring is the process of elimination.
6) Finally, be sure to keep refining your list of wants and needs, and if you find that those are changing, complete new college searches. Talk to friends, relatives and teachers about their college experiences and alma maters, but remember that you are the one who will be spending the next four years on a campus. Ultimately, the college you choose should be one that is the best fit for YOU.