Once your actual college research is complete, COLLEGE CAMPUS VISITS are encouraged and I invite you to reach out to discuss how to determine which colleges to visit as well as how to prepare for your campus visit and potential admissions interview.
Spending time on a university campus is an essential part of the college planning process, providing you a glimpse of what college life entails and helping to shape your thoughts about what might be important or desirable in a university community.
That said, I’d like to begin by addressing some misconceptions about their role and outline things you can do before, during and after your campus visit to make your investment of time and money a valuable one. Taking time away from school and work, plus the added lodging and travel expenses can be significant. For this reason, I don’t encourage visiting a dozen campuses! In fact, a campus visit isn’t essential in deciding whether to even APPLY to a university. It is essential in deciding whether to ATTEND.
The “fit” between a student and a university is based upon three pillars:
1) Academics: The university you attend should provide an outstanding academic experience in your intended major/minor fields of study, along with appropriate internship and career placement opportunities. This is paramount to selecting where to attend. Much of this information is gathered on the college’s website. My earlier note outlined how to evaluate academics outside of lists of college rankings. A brief reminder, navigate to the “Academics” and the “Research” tabs and explore the curriculum maps, degree requirements and the research projects faculty are conducting.
2) Social: The social fit is important as each student is looking to find a “home-away-from-home”. Is the campus inviting, inclusive and are there opportunities for ongoing social and emotional growth as you emerge from young adult to independent and launched adult?! This is exactly why students visit university campuses. Details follow below….
3) Financial affordability: Every family faces unique financial circumstances and we factor those into the choices on where to apply and attend. Please re-read my earlier blog on financial aid and scholarships: FINANCIAL AID and SCHOLARSHIPS. If you’re likely ineligible for financial aid, we can carefully explore colleges that would more likely provide merit-based aid.
WHAT CAN YOU LEARN?
SENIORS (2019) Plan on attending an “Accepted Students” program during April. The best of these programs pairs you with a current undergraduate to shadow their classroom(s) and even spend an overnight visit in their dorm. “Accepted Student” programs also provide the chance to meet the actual students who will be your peers-the class of 2023! You may even find a potential roommate.
Most important, while on campus, talk with as many current students as possible. Don’t be shy, reach out and ask students what they like about campus and what they don’t. Remember, anecdotes and a small sample size don’t allow you to generalize, but is there a pattern to the comments you are hearing? Know that visiting close to final exams will be very different from visiting at the start of a semester or right after their spring break.
SOPHOMORES (2021) and JUNIORs (2020)
There are two “waves” to campus visits. The initial wave – perhaps in the sophomore or junior year is intended to simply feel what it’s like to be on a college campus.
While you may have a clear opinion or no opinion, an actual campus tour can allow you to feel what it’s like on a smaller or very large campus. Did you know that some colleges categorized as “small liberal arts” are two to three times the size of your high school with thousands of students in attendance!?!
Like the size of a salad or a steak, the definition of “small” varies considerably- don’t look at labels, experience it yourself! Sophomores-there are many colleges within a short car ride from your home- a great way to start the process of exploration at little cost.
How do you feel at an urban campus where your walk to classes includes city streets filled with office buildings (NYU) or do you prefer the entirety of your urban campus be contained within a well-defined campus border (Columbia)?
How do you feel about a campus so large that students must take a bus to get from the freshman dorms to the engineering quad? (Michigan) How do you feel about a beautiful green campus containing several academic quads and gorgeous buildings having more students than some cities- yet the nearest major city is two hours away? (Cornell, Penn State, Dartmouth). The initial campus visit is about “feeling” the “fit” of campus types in broad categories allowing you to further define your preferences.
Cornell Clock Tower
*** Buyers beware, students seem to get stuck on a first-impression and fall in love with beautiful campuses and/or the first university visited. Please make sure to keep an open mind about options all the way until May of the senior year (deposits are typically due May 1)!
Please be mindful of my earlier notes- we don’t pick universities because of “name recognition” or broad based aggregate rankings. We aim to first determine the major /minor field of interest. Academics, not “name recognition” guides your choice of where to apply.
Once you have an initial impression about location and size, subsequent college visits should be more carefully planned to yield valuable insights and increase your chances of admissions. Let’s look at how we accomplish this!
Let’s focus on planning your visit based on the assumption you have already done all the important research in selecting which universities provide strong academic programs in your intended major area(s) of study.
Scheduling your visit:
First and foremost- the best time to visit a campus is when undergraduates are in attendance. You’re not going for an architectural tour (although the most beautiful clock towers will yield great photo ops – Purdue, Cornell, Texas @ Austin, UC Berkeley or some amazing modern structures: MIT, Northeastern.) As I note below, you want to evaluate the campus vibe by observing and speaking with current students. So be careful about summer visits and visits during college spring breaks or even their final exam week when students are hibernating in libraries.
What to Expect?
Universities have pre-determined programs which typically include:
To determine availability, head to the “Admissions” tab on the Home page and locate a link to “plan your visit” or “schedule a tour”.
Here’s some examples – some only a single click away and others layered 4 clicks off the home page.
and in 4 clicks
Pay attention to scheduled tour times and admissions presentations and sign-up in advance. Please don’t JUST ARRIVE ON CAMPUS. Scheduling in advance guarantees you a space and you’ll do your homework to make the visit an informative one. Account for travel time from an airport to campus.
While some campuses do give tours during breaks, I really want to reiterate how important it is to speak with students learning more about the campus community: Warm/inviting? Stressful? Isolated?, Inclusive? Student-life at the University is: FILL IN THE BLANK. You cannot assess the social “fit” (1 of 3 pillars noted at the outset of this note), without an actual campus visit that includes observing/meeting current students.
Before your visit:
Have a truly valid reason for wanting to spend time at a given campus. Guided exploration of the available major areas of study is the first step in selecting where to visit. For example, if you are an aspiring physician and also plan to minor in dance as an undergraduate- see if this is even possible. Likewise, how strong is the writing program at the college you know will provide an outstanding engineering degree? Given an interest in Robotics or Bio-Medical Engineering, is there a well-developed set of courses or only an elective or two at most?
– *** If there’s only one thing you caught in my newsletter – this is it: !!!
– Reach out to the designated undergraduate advisor for your intended major/department and request to spend time with currently enrolled upper division students. As a “prospective”, current students will be thrilled to tell you the inside scoop about workload, their amazing and “to-be-avoided” professors and opportunities for research and internships.
How do you find that person? Easy-On the Home page, head to “Academics” and then navigate yourself to the actual major, and then to the “undergraduate” link within the major. You’ll find a designated “undergraduate advisor” not always the same person as the “department head”.
For example: Interested in studying Political Science at Brown? Just navigate to the Department and you’ll find the name and contact information for the Director of Undergraduate Studies. That’s it! The student (not a parent) should send an email in advance to request a department tour if possible.
This proactive outreach can place you in contact perhaps with a faculty who shares a similar research interest. Some of my aspiring STEM students or even niche-based history majors may want to connect with designated faculty. These connections are particularly valuable in smaller universities and can increase your chances of admissions by demonstrating informed interest.
Again, this is why we conduct research about majors prior to visiting a campus.
Are you an athlete or a musician? Plan ahead, see if you can observe a practice and meet current students with your current interests. Colleges have competitive and club teams. There are also performing groups for non-music majors.
: Do your homework- take notes about things that you want to know that you cannot answer on your own by exploring the college website. Please please please don’t embarrass yourself by asking any question of admissions representatives that you know are readily available on the website. This shows you didn’t do your homework and/or you’re lazy. Instead, asking an educated question such as: “I noticed the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program” – how likely is it for freshman to participate in research? Or, “can you tell me more about the academic advising that is available to pre-health professionals?” Please don’t ask: what’s the average SAT score!!
Explore whether overnight visits are available to shadow a current student. These programs are available for seniors in the fall and for accepted students in the spring. More below.
During the Visit
Create your own tour- meet students! Wander the campus after the official tour has ended. Have lunch or dinner in a popular on-campus dining hall and introduce yourself and ask questions
As noted above, plan ahead and aim to observe or attend a club athletic practice or perhaps a music practice.
Is your faith or cultural affiliation important to you? Try to coordinate your campus visit for a Friday or a Monday leaving time on the weekend to connect and/or worship with fellow students. These organizations offer a variety of opportunities. e.g. Hillel, Newman Center, Hindu Cultural Center, Interfaith groups?
WHERE DO YOU FIND THIS TYPE OF INFORMATION?
On the university Home page navigate to the link entitled: “social life or campus life” and you’ll find a list of student-run campus organizations. If you reach out in advance you will be able to meet current undergraduates who will welcome you to join them in events (typically parents hang back at the hotel).
Parent Greek Life? Mom or dad a Greek member? Find the house on campus and visit! You’ll be welcomed as family!
Legacy Parent? Likewise, if you are visiting a campus that either parent or grandparent attended, absolutely call ahead to the Alumni Affairs office- you’ll be give the white-glove treatment (they will also hit you up for a donation!).
If you reach out in advance, you may also be able to be paired with a current student and Attend a class.
Reducing Costs: It is expensive to visit college campuses. You may decide to pair up with another friend and trade places for some visits. Parents don’t have to attend every campus visit and students can travel solo with another family. I’m not however a supporter of those massive bus tours-because there’s no time to accomplish everything I’ve written above.
Land and drive – within a 3 to 5 hour drive you can reach many campuses. Please see my earlier note organizing my top picks of a range of competitive to less competitive colleges in different regions/cities.
***Many universities sponsor campus visit programs free-of-charge, including airfare as part of their effort to recruit under-represented students. Please contact me for recommendations of these competitive programs including those at Emory, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins and many more. You need to apply early- typically some time in the summer to be selected to participate in the fall senior visit programs.
AFTER YOUR VISIT
– Debrief – spend some time evaluating your impressions and reviewing your notes.
– Send a thank-you note to every person you met. You may be reconnecting with the same admissions representative or faculty at some point in the admissions cycle and having a designated contact person shows informed and demonstrated interest. This plays a role in increasing your chances of admissions for some but not all universities.
Best wishes for a meaningful and successful academic year!
Bonnie R. Rabin, PhD
Educational & College Admissions Consultant
Professor Emeritus & Cornell University Alumni Representative