Visiting schools you are interested in is one of the most important parts of the college application process. A college may look like a good fit on paper, but nothing compares to experiencing it first-hand.
Many students know how important these visits are, and as a result, they have become a normal- even expected- part of the college search process. The question is, how do you make the most of your college visit once you get there?
If you are like most students, you sign up for a campus tour, attend an information session, and sit in on a class if you can. The typical college admissions office offers prospective students a number of invaluable options to help you get to know their school better; you should take full advantage of those opportunities when you arrive on campus.
But, that’s not all of the exploring you should do. When you participate solely in programs that are organized by an admissions office, you will inevitably miss out on a variety of other important perspectives. Here are some tips on how to get an even better feel for the academic and extracurricular offerings, social life, and overall “campus vibe”:
Sit in a Café or Dining Hall
Dining halls and cafés tend to be some of the most social spots on campus. It’s a great place to people watch, which may help you gain a better understanding of how students interact with one another on campus (in addition to scoping out how good the food is that you will be eating for a number of years). But more importantly, these places provide opportunities to reach out to regular students and ask them questions about the school. Cafés and dining halls are where students go when they want to relax and enjoy the company of their peers, so they will be most open and available to talking to perspective students at these places.
Join a small group of friends at their lunch table, or ask a student who is sitting down for an afternoon coffee break if he or she would be willing to talk to you for a few minutes about the college experience. Come prepared with a list of 5-10 questions that you would like to know the answers to- and ask each question to more than one person, because the feedback you get will likely vary from one student to the next.
Visit the Campus Bookstore
Want to know how available professors are outside of the classroom? What the classes will be like that you may one day take? There’s no better place to get these questions answered than at the college bookstore.
Yes, it’s always fun to look at the branded college apparel and souvenirs. But, there are even better reasons to visit the bookstore. Head to the section where they keep all of the textbooks. Next, take a look at the kinds of textbooks and reading materials you will be using to compliment your college learning experience.
Do these books seem interesting?
What insight on academic quality and rigor do these books provide you with?
Does the school use dated textbooks, or fairly new material?
Just looking at what students read will give you new insight on the quality of learning outside the classroom, as well as in it.
Another tip- if you see students looking at books for a subject you think you may be interested in exploring, ask the student what she thinks of the professors in that particular program:
Are they easily accessible outside class time?
How challenging is the coursework?
What is the most intriguing thing you’ve learned in one of your classes thus far?
Within the same college, there may be great differences in quality and learning techniques from one department to the next. Talking to students at the bookstore is a great way to locate and ask questions of students with similar academic interests.
Walk Past the Student Center
Wherever the student center is on campus, find it and walk through around lunchtime. You are guaranteed to find tables of students promoting events and campus groups. Sororities and fraternities may have tables to promote parties or volunteer efforts they are sponsoring; a campus club may have a table set up to recruit new members; the activities board may be selling tickets to an on-campus concert that weekend. These are opportunities to find out more about greek life, extracurricular activities, and how students spend their weekends.
Walk Around Campus By Yourself
Many students never get a true feel for a college during a visit. Why? You’ve got everyone else’s opinions on your mind- opinions from your parents, your friends, your high school guidance counselor, the college rankings that U.S. News & World Report just released. With all of that clutter, it can be very difficult to not only get a good read on what the colleges you are visiting are like, but also how well you think you’d fit in there.
Take some time during the day to walk around campus- no parents, no siblings, no friends, no tour guides. Just walk around on your own. Can you picture yourself studying in that library? Eating in that dining hall? Living in that dorm? Running in that gym? Sitting in that classroom?
Remember that as you begin to ask and answer these questions on your own, the answer to the bigger question- “Which college is the best fit for me?”- will become clearer to you.
Melissa is the Editor-in-Chief for studentbranding.com. She is also an Assistant Brand Manager at Time Inc. Home Entertainment, where she manages brand extension projects for numerous publications including Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, People, and Entertainment Weekly. Melissa majored in Psychology at Hamilton College and currently resides in New York City. To find out more, read her blog, follow her on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.