visiting colleges

If you’re a high school junior, it’s time to start planning college visits. Whether you’re making a trip across the country to look at schools in better weather, or just taking the long weekend to visit a few schools within driving distance, there’s no better way to get a sense of the college experience than by being on campus.

1. Set a goal

I like to tell my students that the goal of this first round of visits isn’t to determine whether a specific school will make your list or not. Instead, you should be taking notes about the qualities of the schools you visit. What kinds of programs attract your interest? What offerings sound cool to you? How would you describe the vibe that most resonates with what you want out of the college experience? Do you have clear preferences for size or location? In short, if you were to cobble together an ideal college experience from among the campuses you’ve visited, what would it look like? What would you borrow from all the institutions you’ve already seen? What are your drivers and deal-breakers?

Let’s say you arrive on a campus and decide in the first ten minutes it’s not for you, but you still have another two hours of activities you’ve registered for. Start to take notes of what you don’t like. Is it too big? Too small? Are you annoyed by your tour guide? Why? What are the things you do like about the campus and which other schools have those things? Keep your eyes peeled and your ears open, looking out for as much as you can learn.

2. Get yourself a notebook

Above all, keep track of what you’re learning. If you don’t yet have a notebook devoted to college visits and research, get one. Track your first impressions. Note anything unique that stood out to you. Rate the school if analytics are your bag. Whatever you do, don’t count on yourself to record everything when you get back home. Even a couple of days after you’ve gotten home, the visits will have blurred together. Clear notes are not only useful in finalizing your list, they can also be a great resource for that eventual “Why [College X]” essay.

3. Talk to everyone

Tour guides are great, student ambassadors are well-spoken and well-informed, and the admissions counselor who leads your info session will give you excellent insight. But they’re all a part of a machine shaping a message that they hope will lead you to apply. Their information won’t be dishonest, it’ll just be selective: they want you to see the best parts of their school without paying much attention to its shortcomings. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach, it won’t give you the whole story of the campus you’re visiting. To get that, you’ll need to talk to everyone else. Strike up a conversation in the dining hall. Talk to a pair of students walking between classes. Consider even going beyond conversational data gathering; pick up a copy of the schools newspaper and peruse the Op-Ed section, examine the posters and leaflets surrounding the dining halls. The more data you gather, the more likely you are to zero on in the authentic experience at a college.

4. Know what you plan to ask

The vast majority of college kids want to talk about where they go to school. They’re proud of it! (And if they’re not, that’s saying something too.) They’re also a diverse population of students with a whole range of goals and interests. Know what you want to get out of your conversations. You can ask students about their college search and the process that led them to choose their school. Ask what they love most on campus, and what they’d most like to see change. Encourage them to discuss recent interactions with faculty and staff, or the culture of their residence halls. If there’s something you’re really concerned about, like safety, substance use, or diversity, ask about the lived experience of students on campus. This is your chance to get the story straight from the horse’s mouth; be bold, be engaged, and enjoy the experience!

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.