Looking at college marketing materials and websites, you may get the impression that every college campus in the country has an abundance of gleaming state-of-the-art buildings, classrooms full of students engaged in active discussion or incredible lab experiments, and a population of culturally diverse, perpetually happy individuals. While some or all of these things may be true of many campuses, you can be sure that these images are carefully chosen to entice you. Some are even staged. So how can you discern what is real and what is a mirage? Visit the campus and see for yourself!
It’s that easy: go to the admissions page of a college’s website and find out the days and times of campus tours and information sessions. It is wise to participate in both, and to sign in when you arrive, so there is a record of your visit to campus — this will be considered “demonstrated interest” on your part, which many admissions programs use as a gauge of how serious an applicant is about that institution. College tours are usually led by a student who can offer perspectives on student life, campus culture and traditions, and the information session is usually presented by an admission professional who can discuss the admissions process and requirements as well as offer insight into programs, procedures and offerings.
See if there are several campuses on your list in proximity to one another so that you can see a few schools in one trip. It is reasonable to take a tour and sit in on an information session at two campuses per day, if the distance between the campuses isn’t too great. Some students manage to get to three campuses in a day, but they have less time to linger on any campus. So why linger? Because it gives you the chance to explore the campus on your own terms after a tour and spend some time observing:
- Visit the student union and sit for a while with a cup of coffee or a snack and see what goes on.
- Grab a student newspaper and find out what’s been happening on campus.
- Look at all of the posters, flyers and announcements that are hanging up to see what kinds of events or opportunities are being advertised.
- And if you feel comfortable, ask a few students other than your tour guide some questions about things that are important for you to know about the school.
As for when to visit colleges, it is of course best to see a campus in the midst of everyday life — when the semester is in full swing — however, this may not always be possible. If it’s a choice of not visiting at all or visiting when school is out of session, visit. The campus will still be there, and some students may even be around. If you like a campus you see out of session, put the school on your short list of places to return to when students are back on campus.