When it comes to choosing the right college, there are many factors to consider, chief among them the academic offerings. While much information can be gleaned from the internet, the atmosphere, the classroom experience and student life are harder to discern online. That makes a campus visit an invaluable part of the application process.
Most students visit campuses during their junior year of high school, either over spring break or in the summer. It’s best to narrow down the choices before picking which schools to visit, whether by deciding on a major or an urban or rural setting. “I always recommend students come when school is in session because you get to see the hustle and bustle of the college campus and the real environment,” says Dave Tobias, vice president and dean of enrollment management at Ursinus College in Collegeville.
Depending on the school, students can sign up for different types of visits. Colleges with larger applicant pools may offer general information sessions and a tour, while smaller schools may provide custom experiences. Either way, prospective students get a valuable look at the place they may call home for four years.
Most tours hit the highlights on campus, including dorm rooms, dining halls and libraries. “A lot of students are going to be living independently for the first time, so you really want to emphasize and hit home how resident life works at the college, not only for the students’ benefit but also the parents’ peace of mind,” says David Drea, a politics and economics double major at Ursinus who’s the head admissions tour guide.
Drea personally found tours to be important during his own college search. “Being there—being able to walk around campus and see the community, how the students interact with each other, how the professors interact with each other—is something that you can have in the back of your head in your college search. You can use it to compare schools to other schools,” he says.
First-time visitors may feel overwhelmed, so it’s best to come with an open mind and some prepared questions. “Feeling comfortable asking those questions about the student experience on campus is also really important,” says Maureen Mathis, assistant provost for undergraduate enrollment at Saint Joseph’s University.
Mathis recommends asking if classes are largely lectures or seminars, what the opportunities are for internships and co-ops, and about clubs and other on-campus activities. While she encourages students to take the lead on this, parents should feel free to chime in if their son or daughter is feeling timid. “Parents should have a tough arsenal of questions they can ask the tour guide to really get the nitty-gritty answers,” Drea says.
Tobias agrees. “One of the questions that I always encourage students to consider is: What differentiates your program—whatever program that might be—from the other schools that are out there?” he says. “Because that’s a much more pointed question.”
Prospective students can also spend time meeting professors, especially in the field they wish to pursue. Some institutions even offer one-on-one meetings. Admitted students sometimes sit in on classes, too. But both options need to be planned several weeks in advance. “Our faculty are exceptionally open to students, regardless of the timeline of the process, so if there’s a sophomore or a junior in high school that really wants to sit down with one of our faculty members, they’re very open to that,” Tobias says.
Campus visits often solidify a student’s desire to attend a school, but they also can serve as a tool for ruling one out. “Every student that walks through our doors is not necessarily going to be a student that ends up enrolling, and there are going to be a variety of reasons why that may be the case. Maybe the things that we say don’t resonate with the student, and that’s totally fine,” says Tobias.
For those still interested in attending, it’s common for schools to make financial-aid and admissions officers available during visits for an informational interview or to go over the options. Tobias recommends having an idea of the aid required beforehand. “One of the things we try to do is help the parents understand that sticker price is not always the bottom line at most institutions. It may be the case for some, but it’s not the case for all,” he says.
Prospective students can also benefit from wandering campus independently and discovering some of the town or city beyond. Tobias recommends attending a student experience, like a sporting event or theater performance. “Those, to me, are ways that students can get an authentic, sort of unfiltered [view] of the college campus,” he says.
Mathis echoes that sentiment. “I always think the cafeteria is a great place to people-watch, to just see how people are interacting with each other, to overhear conversations and what students are talking about, what has them engaged,” she says.
No matter the college, getting a feel for the students and campus can be a critical part of the final decision, whether that’s simply applying or choosing which school to attend.