Most of us understand the importance of the campus visit. It should absolutely factor in to your decision of where to spend four very critical years of your life, as you should feel comfortable and in your element on your chosen campus. I'm certainly not saying that frisbee playing on the lawn and amazing dining hall food should take precedence over academic programs, extra-curricular offerings, and employment outcomes. After all, you are attending college to get an education! What I am saying is that with several thousand colleges and universities to choose from, many schools will check the right academic and educational boxes. You have your own unique fingerprint, and you should find a school that complements it. Studies (and common sense) tell us that we tend to perform better when we are happy in our environment.
So, what should you really be looking for on a college visit? What questions should you be asking, and how should you best prepare? Here are some general guidelines that my students find helpful.
1. If possible, try and visit colleges when they are in session. While summer visits are popular and practical for busy students and their families, there really is no substitute for seeing a campus teeming with students. What is the energy like? How do the students congregate and interact? Can you see yourself in that environment? For this reason, I recommend that families make good use of their fall and spring breaks to visit campuses.
2. Do your homework before you get there! Utilize the resources at your fingertips and scour the school's website. Learn what you can about the curricular offerings, campus life, study abroad options, and anything else that matters to you. As you're doing your research, jot down your questions. You might get the chance to ask them later!
3. Observe "visit etiquette". Start by being on time and dressing appropriately. You are certainly not expected to show up in a suit and tie, but wear something clean and casual, yet professional. When in your information session or on your tour, avoid being on your cell phone or chatting with others to excess. Act - and BE - interested in what the admissions representatives and tour guides have to say. When asking questions, don't interrupt others or monopolize the conversation. Being respectful of your peers is not only nice, it's a sign of professionalism.
4. When asking questions, avoid ones the answers to which are patently obvious had you done the slightest bit of research. Examples of this could include? "how many students go here?" or "does this university have an engineering school?" Instead, aim for thoughtful questions that could actually have an impact on your final decision of where to attend. Examples of these types of questions could include: "what types of services does the university offer to help students get internships?"
5. Have a meal in a school dining hall or food court. I recommend this not merely to taste the food, but to see how students interact with one another casually. Campus tour guides and admissions representatives are charged with presenting the university in the best possible light - that's their job! It's nice to observe things when the "cameras aren't rolling" as it were.
6. Nothing can give you a better feeling of what it will be like to take classes at a particular school than to actually sit in on a class. If you have the chance, by all means do so!
7. If you have time, consider dropping by the school's career center. Internships, experiential learning opportunities, and jobs will probably compose a vital part of your undergraduate experience, and will certainly be relevant to your post-graduation plans. Seeing what the career center has to offer is a great way to get a taste of what is in store and what resources are available to you.
8. Consider spending the night on campus if you have a friend willing to host you. This way you can get a firsthand look at the social life. Of course, remember to obey the rules and stay out of trouble during your visit!
9. If you interacted with an admissions officer, make sure to send a thank you email to him or her within 24 hours.
10. Finally, if you are considering applying to a school early decision, try and visit a second time if at all possible. Early decision is a big commitment and you want to be sure before making it!