A key part of deciding which college to go to is finding a good fit. And a great way to get more information is to visit the colleges in person. College is not simply the next school, but also your home for the next several years. The campus, the city, the people will shape your education as much as your classes.
Of course, visiting colleges may not be possible for everyone, but it’s a good idea to make the trips, if you can. It can help you determine whether a college is the right place for you. To make these trips more cost effective, I always suggest to our students that they categorize their school choices by type and size and try to visit at least one from each category as close to home as possible. For example here in the Chicago area, Northwestern University can serve as an example of a small top level school, but also give a taste of large school athletic experiences; University of Chicago serves as a model for the Northeast Ivy League schools, with limited athletics but an elevated intellectual culture; Loyola University, DePaul University and University of Illinois at Chicago are good examples of parochial, private and public urban schools with small campuses and a large commuting population. Without even leaving town students can get a better sense of the type of college they want to apply to. This can also help narrow the choices for more expensive campus trips.
These are a critical component of the college selection process. A campus visit is your opportunity to get a firsthand view of a college. A visit also gives you the chance to talk to students, faculty, and financial aid and admission officers. You can get answers to important questions, including:
- What is the average class size and the student-to-faculty ratio? Are most classes taught by professors or by teaching assistants?
- What is the makeup of the current freshman class? Is the campus diverse?
- What's the social scene like? What kinds of activities are available?
- How many students are commuters and how many are campus residents?
Your family members can also participate in the visit and any information sessions. They can help you think through your decision about which colleges to apply to, and ultimately, which college to attend.
Pick up any official college material you see, such as brochures and financial aid forms. Don't forget to get business cards, too, so you'll have a real, live contact if you have a question about admission or financial aid. Student newspapers and activity calendars give you a sense of what campus life is really like. Check out bulletin boards to see what bands are coming to the campus, what parties are advertised, what internships are posted and generally what the day-to-day energy of the place is.
Ultimately, it's your decision. Trust your instincts. Do you feel comfortable walking around campus? Do you feel at home? Do you click with the students and faculty? Is this what you imagined college to be like? Spending time on a campus helps you determine whether a college is a good fit.
Be Prepared For Your Visit
Make a list of the college characteristics that are most important to you, so you know what to look at. Do you like large lecture halls or intimate classroom settings? Check out class sizes. Are you interested in joining a sorority or fraternity? See what the Greek system is like. Is there a particular major you want to pursue? Talk to current students or professors in that department.
First, know yourself. Put together a list of your preferences, take it to the colleges you decide to visit, and take notes about each category. That’ll make it easier to compare the colleges when you get back home.
Second, research the school. It's important to know as much as possible about the college before you arrive on campus, especially if you have an interview scheduled. Use every source available to you:
- Review the admission packet, current course catalog and any other materials the college publishes, including their website.
- Talk to currently enrolled students or alumni about the college; get their contact information online or from the admission office.
- Get a map of the college and the area, so you can find your way around.
Certain data speaks volumes about colleges. Find out the college’s retention rate — how many freshmen return for sophomore year. You should also research how many students who enroll actually graduate, and how long it usually takes them. This is information that tells you great deal about a college. These few pieces of information tell you how happy students are and how supportive the colleges are of their students.
When you’re planning your trips, make sure that you allow enough time to explore each college as fully as possible. Leave your parents in the hotel room. Then wander around the campus by yourself and imagine being a student there.
Scheduling Your Trip
Pick a time to visit that's convenient and when classes are in session. That way, you can sit in on a lecture or stay in a residence hall overnight. The best way to get a good feel for the campus is to be there when students are in class.
You’ll want to make the most of your time on campus. By planning ahead, you can make sure you have a chance to explore everything on your list. Arrange your schedule around your most important needs:
- Find out when college tours and information sessions take place, and whether you have to register in advance.
- Schedule an admission interview, if possible. And remember that it’s not just a chance for them to ask you questions; go prepared with questions of your own. Admission offices will note that you visited and consider it when reviewing your application. Schools want to accept the students most likely to accept them.
- Make an appointment with a financial aid officer.
- If you're curious about a club, major or sport, arrange to attend a meeting, class or practice.
Record your immediate impressions, and any crucial information, for future reference. Take pictures, make notes and talk to your family while your thoughts are fresh in your mind.
The following are things to consider when planning your trip:
- Mondays through Thursdays are ideal for visits since campuses are generally in full swing. Visiting on a Friday may not be as practical, as students, faculty and staff might be busy with social activities starting Friday afternoon.
- High school holidays that fall on Mondays are often great opportunities for making college visits. Many colleges are in session on these days — and you won’t be missing any of your high school classes.
- The late summer and early September before senior year are convenient times to visit, since many colleges begin their fall semester as early as mid-August.
- The spring of junior year is a good time if you’ve already researched colleges. Spring break is also good if you play fall sports or are considering applying under early action or early decision plans, which usually have application deadlines in November of senior year.
- Check specific dates with each college so you don't arrive when the campus is deserted. Call the college or look on the college’s website for the academic calendar to find out when breaks, reading periods and exam periods are scheduled.
- Colleges are not in session during: Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas week, Winter and spring breaks, Summer, unless there is a summer session
- College classes don’t meet during: Reading period, Exam weeks, Weekends
- The admission office may be closed to visitors at certain times. For example, admission officers may be too busy to meet with you in May and April — that’s when they’re reviewing applications. Check with the college.
Below are several considerations you should take into account when visiting the campus. You will only have that short visit to absorb all that you need in order to make the best decision.
- The Admission Process
- Find out what you need to do to apply. And see if the college environment supports your educational goals.
- Participate in a group information session at the admission office.
- Interview with an admission officer. Make note of the names and contact information of people you meet for future contacts. (This applies to anyone on campus.)
- Pick up financial aid forms.
- Your Education Environment
- Sit in on a class that interests you.
- Meet a professor in an area that interests you.
- Campus Life - This is one of the biggest factors in your happiness and success at any college.
- Take a campus tour.
- Find bulletin boards (actual and virtual) to see what day-to-day student life is like.
- Talk to the coaches of sports in which you might participate.
- Go to the career center and learn what services it offers.
- Plan an overnight with a student when possible.
- Ask to see the residence hall where most freshmen live.
- Visit the cafeteria, fitness center, library, bookstore and other campus facilities.
- Walk or drive around the community surrounding the campus.
- Campus Media
- Tune in to learn what’s happening on campus and what’s on students’ minds.
- Listen to the college radio station.
- Read the student newspaper.
- Current Students - Talk to the students to learn what their experience is, and what yours might be like:
- What are the best reasons to go here?
- What do you do on weekends?
- What do you love about this college?
- What do students complain about most?
The campus visit can be an invaluable experience in making a critical decision. To take full advantage of it, do your research, be prepared and organized. Our college coaches always teach that you should have an idea of what makes you happy in life and what aspects of your environment most contribute to your success before beginning to choose a college. Do not try to know everything ahead of time. Each visit will shape your understanding of yourself and the best school for you.
- By Gil Gibori, Director CHICAGO ACADEMIC TUTORING