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The College Visit: an Opportunity to “Test Drive” Your College

Winter and spring breaks provide an excellent opportunity for sophomores and juniors to visit potential colleges and universities. A first-hand experience of campus life and academics can be a helpful indicator of how well you will mesh with that school. Since you may be spending the next four years there, it’s definitely worth the trip! Here are some tips for what to do before, during and after your visit.

Before your visit

You may ask, “What can I do to prepare for my visit?” As helpful as a college visit can be, you can increase its effectiveness by doing three things beforehand.

  1. Establish your priorities
    • Divide a paper into three columns and label them “need,” “want,” and “like.” If your sole reason for going to college is to master a foreign language, put that on your “need” list. If aesthetics are really important, but not essential, put that aspect in the “want” list. By dividing your interests into these three groups, you are ranking your priorities for your ideal college. Creating this list beforehand will help you identify whether or not a college “passes the test” when you visit it.
  2. Compile a question list
    • You’ll want to create a list of questions you want the answers to. Consider the following:
      • Can freshmen bring their cars? What is the parking fee per semester?
      • What is your favorite meal in the cafeteria? Are freshmen required to enroll in a meal plan with the school?
      • What were some recent activities/events held by the student union? What do you do on the weekends?
      • Explain the housing system: can I choose my roommate? When were the dorms last renovated? What percentage of students live on campus?
      • How are freshmen advisors assigned? Will I have the same advisor all 4 years? What is the ratio of students to advisor?
      • If you were in my shoes, what would be your 3 most important aspects of your college that you’d want to know more about?
  3. Listen to others
    • Schedule some meetings in advance. Since you will not see many students during your visit (college students have vacation also!), you’ll want to have some other face-to-face encounters besides the admissions officer.
    • The college’s website will have the email addresses for professors. Email some for a major you’re interested in and ask to meet with them.
    • In addition, consider also asking your college advisor, your high school teacher, your tutor, or a family friend for any feedback they may provide. They would love to share more about their experiences and help you out. Even if they didn’t attend the college you’re interested in, they most likely have friends who went there.

Spending some time before your visit and doing these three things will greatly enhance college visit experience. It will also help you learn more about yourself and what makes you tick.

During Your Visit

Before you visit your college, you will have established your priorities, made a list of questions, and set up some meetings with students/professors/graduates to get a better feel of the school. Now the big day is here, and I have some suggestions for you during your visit.
  1. Observe everything
    • College life consists of the basics (food, shelter, protection) plus the academics (facilities, course offerings, majors, professors) plus everything else that makes college a unique experience (extra- curriculars, friendships, weekend activities, sports, etc.). You’ll want to observe how the college satisfies these different aspects. Consider the following questions:
      • Food: Does the cafeteria food look abundant or insipid?
      • Shelter: Do the dorms look restful or prison-like?
      • Protection: Would I feel safe walking back to my dorm from class at 9pm?
      • Facilities: Do the classrooms have the latest technology?
      • Course offerings: Is the college’s course catalogue brimming with potential or lacking significant classes?
      • Majors: What majors offered here would I be interested in pursuing?
      • Professors: What kinds of office hours do professors usually hold?
      • Extra-curriculars: What options are there for fun around here?
  2. Take notes
    • You’ll want to write down your observations. It will be an intense day, and you’ll most likely be exhausted by the end. Tired brains do not remember things well. You will want to make sure you can recall important information when you sit down, evaluate that school, and compare it with others.
    • Write down answers to questions that admissions officers/tour guides provide. Record what your senses pick up (sight, smell, hearing, etc.). Pick out helpful adjectives (from your SAT vocab!) to describe aspects of your visit (e.g. dilapidated, clandestine, homogenous, specious).
  3. Hold off on your decision
    • One phenomenon that often occurs with college visits is the self-fulfilling prophecy. If we decide beforehand that an experience will be positive or negative, it usually happens that way.
    • Don’t let this phenomenon happen during your visit. If something happens to give you a negative feel about the school, definitely take note of it, but don’t immediately cross that school out. Conversely, if there’s something you like about the school, write it down, but don’t then-and-there commit to this school because of that positive experience.
    • Instead, wait several days to make your preliminary decision. Then, with a cool head, you can take out your “need, want, like” list and your observation sheet and compare the college with your ideal school. You’ll also be in a better place to share your concerns or interests with others and ask for their feedback.

Important note: Colleges care a great deal about your demonstrated interest. When the time comes to review applications, they will want to offer an acceptance offer to someone they feel confident will attend their institution. Make sure, on your visit, that you sign-in at every opportunity. It takes no time, but it speaks volumes to the college about your interest in them.

After your visit

So far, we have looked at important things to do before and during the college visit process. Now comes the most important part — evaluating the college you visited.

Spending time critically evaluating what worked and didn’t work during a college visit will determine the success of that visit.

  1. Compare the college with your “need, want, like” list
    • Now is the time to compare your college(s) to the list you created at the beginning of this process. Start with the “needs” column. If the college you visited met all of your “needs,” that’s great! If not, take note. Remember: the items in your “needs” column are more important than your “wants” or “likes.” If the college you visited does not match up with your “needs” column, do not adjust your ideal list to make that college fit.
  2. Get feedback from others
    • If you have areas that concern or excite you about a certain college, share those with a few people whose input you trust. They may help you to see a perspective that you may have missed on your visit.
  3. Build your portfolio
    • If a college doesn’t quite fit your ideal list, don’t throw it out immediately. Your college counselor should have given you a list of “foundational,” “mid-range,” and “reach” colleges, and you’ll want to break it out at this point. Depending on your GPA and SAT/ACT scores, place the college you just visited in your college portfolio.
    • As you visit more colleges and begin filling up your portfolio, then you can start thinking about which schools to drop and which to keep. Ideally, you would want foundational, mid-range, and reach colleges that meet all of your “needs,” some of your “wants,” and a few of your “likes.”
After having read this article, you may feel somewhat overwhelmed. This seems like a lot of work, even before I actually go about applying to this college! I agree that it takes time to create your “need, want, like” list, create a question list, meet with teachers and graduates, and visit the college. It’s worth the effort. This work beforehand will help save you time, energy, and money when it comes to applying to these colleges. Come November of your senior year, you will be applying to colleges that have “passed the test” and that you would be thrilled to attend.

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