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College Prep Advice? Visit, Visit, Visit

By Maureen Delaney

There’s no substitute for putting your feet on the ground and trying a campus on for size. A good fit is made in the details, so when you are visiting, remember to check out what stands out about the college and campus culture. You’ll want to take a look at everything: academic programs, campus location, dorm life, cafeteria, athletics, community spirit, extracurricular activities, Greek life and study abroad/internship opportunities. 

Whether you’re hitting the road for campus visits this year as a senior, junior, or sophomore, there are a few tips you’d be wise to consider before pulling out of the driveway. 

Plan ahead: Colleges offer guided tours and information sessions for prospective students. Register online before you leave home, because both events will provide valuable information about the college. You will be able to get down to specifics and, perhaps, gain some insight about the type of applicant the college values. If you have a specific interest, such as art or music, you should also ask about the opportunities to view those areas of campus which may not be included on a general tour. If possible, plan to sit in on a class. Colleges are tracking student interest, so registering online puts you on their radar early. Try to keep the visits to two colleges a day at the most, and take notes. Your notes may be useful if you end up applying and have a supplemental essay to write. Be mindful of the impact of temporary occurrences, such as lousy weather or travel fatigue. Remember that the luster of many sights can be dampened by a good downpour. 

Engage in the buzz: Explore colleges when classes are in session and students are on campus. Many schools start mid-August, so early fall can be a great time to visit. Traveling during spring break is another great option. Don’t anticipate getting a sense of a typical day if you are visiting on Thanksgiving or during the summer months. Seeing the daily movements of your potential classmates make for a dynamic experience.

Make a list: Talk with your parents, counselors and friends about what’s most important to you in a college. Is it a specific academic program or the school spirit? There is certainly a lot to consider, and it is perfectly natural for your priorities to shift once you actually visit a few campuses. That being said, it’s still good to keep track of the attributes you are looking for in the college you hope to attend. Our College Visiting Scorecard is a great resource for organizing your thoughts. 

Go solo: I recommend splitting up for the tour – for parents to go with one group and the student with the other. It will give you multiple perspectives of the campus. If one is either unduly attracted to or put off by a college because of the tour guide, perhaps the sharing of information afterwards will offer more clarity on what is really offered. This will also give you time to speak with current students and ask them what they like about their school. 

Participate in an interview: If the college requires an interview, be sure to arrange your meeting in advance with the admissions office, and practice with a mock interview before you leave home. Although some interviews are informational rather than evaluative, it is always best to prepare a response to, “tell me about yourself.”

Investigate the campus culture: In addition to speaking with current students, check out the activities. How do students spend their time when they’re not in class? You want to consider the community beyond the quad and determine your comfort level with the wider outside community. Note whether a small town or large metropolitan area is important to you. Check out the bulletin boards and investigate the evening activities. Consider the calendar of guest speakers, opportunities for service or internships, environmental, religious or athletic activities. 

Check out support services: If you are planning to arrange for accommodations in college, swing by the supporting office. Be clear on the documentation you will need to submit and know how to advocate for yourself. In addition to the library, the writing center is always an important resource stop on your journey. 

Remember to take notes: College visits all begin to blur together after a while. We highly recommend taking notes during the information session because, again, good notes will make the evaluative process much easier. 

There’s a lot to take in on a college campus, so make your brief experience as broad as possible. Whenever possible, eat in the cafeteria, talk to students, sit in on classes, pick up a student newspaper, attend an event – and enjoy yourself! At the end of your trip, be sure to take time to reflect on your experiences, discuss your impressions with others who have visited with you (or at other times), and evaluate schools based on your developing personal preference. Refining and honing your choices will eventually bring you to your final decision – the right college for you!

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