Getting the most out of your in-person college visit

By Casey Melnick

A college visit is a fantastic tool for curious high school students looking to discover what’s next in life. Touring a school on your wish list is a great way to get a taste of campus culture and unique amenities and prepare yourself for a bevy of future college application questions.

  • Conduct pre-visit research
  • Schedule your visit well in advance
  • Prepare questions
  • Start close to home
  • Activate your senses
  • Take notes
  • Spend time alone
  • Reach out and connect
  • Conduct pre-visit research

First off, is going to a university the best personal decision?

Leaning toward a no? There are many alternatives to the traditional university path and a whole world of possibilities to explore. Going to trade school, joining the workforce immediately, or volunteering are just a handful of college alternatives that may be right for you.

If you are feeling a yes, there are still a plethora of school-related factors and details to consider.

Take the time to reflect on your academic standing. Dreaming big is encouraged, but aiming too high is not the best use of your time and resources. You can still visit any type of school you want, even if it is a premier ivy league school, just remember to visit schools that are within your realistic reach as well.

Most schools have official websites. These sites are a great place to start. It takes no longer than 15 minutes to gather what a particular university offers in terms of facilities, programs, and faculty support.

The size of the student body is often indicative of the size of the school. Though you may not be able to gauge the exact size of the physical campus itself, it’s good to know how many fellow students you will be sharing your daily experience with, in and out of the classroom.

Do you have a particular interest in a major? Some schools are well renowned for specific majors. Some universities may not even offer a particular curriculum. By researching specific major programs such as chemical engineering or architecture, you can narrow down the expansive sea of alternatives.

Schedule your visit well in advance

Before you step foot on a potential school, you should know that thousands of incoming students visit universities across the country each year. In other words, information sessions fill up quite quickly. It is best to schedule your visits well in advance so that you can guarantee yourself a spot.  

It is also important to consider the timing of your visit. Most campuses have drastically different atmospheres depending on the time of year. The student body is noticeably less dense and active during the summer and holiday periods.  Accordingly, to achieve the most college-like experience, it is best to plan your visit while college is in session.

Do college-specific homework

Like always, the internet is a great place to start. Check a school’s website and social media accounts. This will give a glimpse into the college’s culture as well as the particular amenities it offers.

Make note of locations that you would like to visit while you are on campus. This could range from historic student hangouts to iconic and cherished landmarks. Since most visits and tours cover a broad range of topics, you may want to schedule an appointment with specific departments for more personal questions. This could encompass questions about dining, disability, or health services.

You may have a particular question to ask the financial aid department. This would also be an opportunity to ask about faith-based facilities such as interfaith prayer rooms and campus ministries.

Prepare questions

Try to compose a list of standardized questions that you can compare across various schools. Take a moment to ask yourself what matters the most about your college experience.

Get an idea of how big the average freshman class is. Are residence halls ever in danger of being overbooked? This could lead to some rooms being converted into makeshift solutions, such as a two-person room being turned into a triple-person room.

Are freshmen allowed to have vehicles on campus? Sometimes institutions prohibit freshmen from having parking permits. If this is the case, make note of public transportation and ease of travel in and around campus. The price of parking is another point to consider if cars are allowed.

Some colleges are located in cities, while others are situated in secluded rural areas. Try to ask how safe the area surrounding the college is.

Access to food is always a critical topic amongst college students. Feel free to ask questions about meal plans such as the types of plans offered, affordability of the plans, and the flexibility of the plans themselves.

How are the amenities? The college may charge an extra fee for the gym. There may be fees for public transportation and facility usage. Does the college have predominantly new buildings or is it composed of historic structures that lack air conditioning? Regarding sporting events, some small schools offer free tickets to these events while other large institutions charge students.

Start close to home

There are many types of educational institutions to choose from. Aside from self-reflection, it benefits you to try out a variety of schools with different structures to find the best fit.

Would you feel at home in a large institution that is a proxy of a large city, or would you be more comfortable in a small college that offers a more intimate allure? Though this is not always the case, research universities tend to be on the bigger side while liberal arts schools typically are smaller.

It is also important to consider the structure of the university. Try to visit a private university and compare it to a public institution. Would a predominantly religious university appeal to you and suit your personal needs?

Are you from a small town? Consider if a rural university would be a better fit compared to a university located in a bustling city.

Given the number of options, college visits can be overwhelming. For those who are experiencing the university atmosphere for the first time, it may help to start close to home and proceed accordingly. This approach can also benefit younger high school students that have yet to begin the college visit process.  

Activate your senses

When it is finally time to tour, remember to take in the experience with all of your senses. This visit should help you get a feel for what your college experience will be like in the future. Absorb everything that comes your way.

Look around for flyers and signs around campus. This is a great way to discover what activities, clubs, and events the university offers.

If possible, pick up a school newspaper. This will give you a great deal of information about the college’s culture, political buzz, social climate, and any general activism taking place. The school newspaper is also a great way to get a flavor of the school’s personality.

Observe the student body. Does the population seem like the type of crowd you would fit in with? In addition, try to observe the behavior and mannerisms of the student body and whether or not the atmosphere feels right. Most importantly, can you picture yourself walking around campus amongst everyone?

Take notes

You will experience a lot during your visits. In addition to a trove of information, you will be subject to a hodgepodge of sights and sounds. Try taking notes throughout your college visit so that you can accurately reflect upon all the details.

How does campus feel? What are the prevalent intangible characteristics and overarching campus ethos? You will likely be able to observe the emotions of passing students and be able to get a general idea of the campus spirit.

Put your phone’s camera to use. Take pictures to document your trip and everything that you experience. These pictures will be useful to reference in the future when it is time for your school decision.

Many college applications will ask why you want to attend their respective universities. This is a perfect opportunity to record specific examples from your in-person visit. A well-documented visit will do wonders for supplementary questions that you may come across later on in the process.

Spend time alone

College visits tend to be standardized and heavily structured. For a good portion of your time, you will be surrounded by family members or friends. Before you leave, try to find some time to wander around campus alone.

Choosing “the one” obviously is a momentous decision. Though you should consult your friends and family, part of the decision must be found within yourself. Walking alone will provide an unadulterated view of the college that is free of external opinions. Ultimately, this is your decision. Try to clear your mind and take in all that you can.

Reach out and connect

Remember to talk to your tour guide. Your tour guide likely went through the same process you are now going through. Tour guides, often current students deeply familiar with the universities’ daily occurrences, are unique resources in that they can answer your application questions and provide personal anecdotes and suggestions.

Before leaving, try to snag the email address and contact information of the admissions counselor responsible for your region. More likely than not, this person will be reading your application. By becoming familiar with this person, you will be able to have a way to follow up on your application once it is submitted. You will also be able to make a good first impression and perhaps get on their radar regarding your proactive interest in the school.

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