What should I do during a campus visit?

You would never buy a car without test driving it first, would you? It's important to know how a car feels, how it handles, how it 'fits' with you. So how could you choose a school without a similar "test drive"? Reading statistics and looking at pictures from the school's information guide is helpful, but nothing compares to actually visiting a campus.

The best time to visit schools is during your junior year or very early in your senior year. Spring break is a good time to look at some local schools, and summer presents a great opportunity to plan a family vacation to the more distant campuses. The number you visit is up to you, but it's a good idea to see at least three so you can get a feel for how they all compare to one another. And you should certainly visit any school before signing an acceptance letter.

To help make the most out of your campus visit, here are some tips about what you should do when you get there:

  • Try to visit when classes are in session. This might seem to run contrary to my advise to visit during spring and summer vacations, but remember that colleges don't run on the same schedules high schools do. It's very possible that the colleges will have classes for several weeks after your summer vacation starts, or for several weeks before yours ends. Visiting while classes are in session will help you to get a more accurate view as to how the colleges actually are for most of the year. Be sure to call ahead and find out the vacation schedules of each of the schools you are interested in so that you can plan your trips accordingly.
  • Meet an admissions officer. Some schools require interviews as part of the application process. Your visit may be a good time to schedule an interview. But even if the schools you are interested in don't require a formal meeting, talking one-on-one with an admissions officer is a useful part of any college visit. While they likely cannot comment on your exact chances for admission, they could help to give you a clearer picture as to whether or not your numbers are competitive enough for admission and what you could do to make yourself an even more attractive candidate.
  • Meet with faculty. If you're sure that you would like to major in a specific discipline in college, try to meet with a faculty member in that area at each of the colleges you attend. Even if the school's overall ranking may not be impressive, the individual department's strengths may make a lower-ranked school a better fit for you. It's also a good idea to meet with faculty in majors that are very unique to the school, such as Cognitive Science at Brown, Duke, or UC San Diego. You might find an interest you never knew you had.
  • Meet with athletics staff. If you're interested in playing a college sport, it's a good idea to schedule a meeting with the coach of that sport. The coach can also likely give some valuable advise on how to get an athletic scholarship to help with funding college.
  • Meet with a financial aid officer. Speaking of scholarships, meeting with someone in the financial aid office of each school is another great way to learn about resources. You should never decide not to attend a certain school on the basis of money because you never know how handsome their aid offer will be. Make sure you read the 7 questions you must ask.
  • Take a tour. Most schools offer student-run tours of the campus, and these are terrific opportunities not only to learn about the campus, but also speak with an actual student and learn about his or her own experiences and reasons why he or she decided to attend. Though most guides hate the question, asking about their least favorite thing about the school can be helpful as well. Call ahead to find out what types of tours are offered and when.
  • If possible, attend a class. Most schools have lists of classes and professors that have approved visitors. Try to find a class in a subject you're interested in, but if that's not possible, attend any class. It will help you to get a feel for not only the teaching style of the school (does the professor ask a lot of questions? Does he wear a tie? Does he use Powerpoint?), but also the learning style (do the students look bored? Are they dressed up, or dressed down?). Remember, though, that one class is not necessarily representative of all of them.
  • Eat in the cafeteria. Some schools have great food. Some... don't. And while it's crazy to pick a school entirely on its dinner menu, it may help you to break a close tie between one great school that served you filet mignon, and another great school that served you salisbury steak.

It is important that you try to do the same things at every school you visit so that you get a balanced view of all of them. Also remember that while it's easy to let the opinions of your student tour guide or the demeanor of a faculty member sour your visit, try to look at the school as a whole. And most of all, remember that college visits are supposed to be fun. Yes, they can be stressful, but remember that you have plenty of time to hate the cafeteria food or to dread the long walk to Center Hall at 8:00 in the morning. This is your chance to enjoy everything the school has to offer.

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