Best of the Blog: College Visits 101 – Talking to Students

Nothing like a nice stroll through Harvard yard, right?
Nothing like a nice stroll through Harvard yard, right?

Since many of you are embarking on college tours, we’ll be presenting one of our favorite blog posts on college visits, originally posted by Calvin. Enjoy!

You can learn a lot about a college from its website, its guided tours, and its employees. However, there are some questions that can only be answered by a real, live college student. In fact, speaking with a university’s current students is one of the best ways to find out whether a college is right for you. There are many ways to interact with students when visiting a college campus, some more mediated than others. Current students (hand-picked and trained by the administration) will usually lead campus tours when you visit, and it might be possible to meet with students from a particular major by contacting the office of admissions. Simply call them up, tell them you are a prospective student who wants to major in X, and that you would like to talk to a current student who is majoring in X when you visit. They may be able to set something up for you.

For a less mediated experience (one in which you are not talking to current students selected by the admissions office) you have a number of different options. If you have been admitted already, you might receive an invitation from the university to spend the night on campus. Some universities allow you to do this even before you have been admitted (although it can still be restricted to high school seniors only). These overnight stays give you a good chance to see what residential life is really like at a university, and you can meet many different kinds of students in a relaxed, authentic setting (their natural habitat, as it were).

“Ah, yes! You can see the rare blue-footed pre-med in the brush there.”

If you would rather not spend the night, you can still meet students in other ways. For instance, many colleges allow prospective students to observe classes during their visits. Before or after the class it would be easy to introduce yourself to the students around you, explain that you are a prospective student, and ask them if they have a few minutes after class to talk to you. Another way you can try to meet current students is by visiting meetings of extracurricular groups on campus. This can be a great way to meet current college students, since these kinds of clubs and organizations already have a social atmosphere and if you pick clubs that you would be interested in participating in, you’re bound to have common interests with the students there.

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Of course, when you meet college students, you should be prepared with good questions to ask so that you get the most out to your interactions. Don’t just badger them with a list of questions of course, but do make sure to steer the conversation toward topics that interest you. Good questions you could ask any college student might include:

  1. What is the best thing about going to this college? The worst?
  2. What are students here like?
  3. Which dorms are the best? Which are the worst?
  4. How is the food?
  5. What is the administration like?
  6. Does this college have any famous traditions?
  7. Is there Greek life on campus? Do you participate? What are the reputations of the various sororities and fraternities on campus?
  8. Are students here politically involved? Are most students more liberal or more conservative?
  9. Do you feel safe on campus? What kind of security protections exist on campus? How common is theft?
  10. What sorts of extracurricular activities/clubs/volunteer organizations exist on campus? Which ones are the most active?
  11. How easy is it to get a job on campus?
  12. How diverse is the campus? Do people of different races/classes/religions mix together socially? How do you believe minorities and women are viewed/treated on campus?
  13. After orientation, how easy is it to meet new people and make new friends? Are students friendly?
  14. How would you describe the campus culture? What kinds of activities are popular with students?
  15. Are you happy here?

You should also try to find students who are majoring in subjects you might want to major in and who are pursuing career paths you might want want to pursue: students who could be a future version of you. Have you ever wished that you could go back in time and give a younger you some good advice? Well, finding a “future you” is the next best thing. Ask these students specific questions about professors, departments, internships, and other opportunities. If you haven’t already run into students like this, try asking the admissions office (as mentioned above) or simply ask any students you meet if they have any friends who are majoring in whatever subject interests you. If you ask enough people, chances are someone will know someone who fits the bill. Good questions to ask students majoring in a subject that interests you might include:

  1. Which classes have you enjoyed the most? The least?
  2. Which professors should I seek out/avoid?
  3. Does the department take undergraduate education seriously?
  4. Have you gotten to know any of your professors? Do your professors seem to care about your future success?
  5. What kinds of internships/opportunities are there for students in this department?
  6. What are some common mistakes/pitfalls I should avoid?
  7. What do most majors in this department do after graduation?
  8. How heavy is the workload usually?
  9. How easy is it to do research/get published as an undergraduate?
  10. How is the pre-med/pre-law/pre-whatever program? Do you feel like you will be well prepared for graduate school when you graduate?
  11. If you could start over as a freshman, what would you do differently?
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Remember, one student’s response does not necessarily reflect the feelings of the student body as a whole, so try to talk to as many different students as you can. Also remember that the fact that something about a college makes one student unhappy doesn’t mean that that same thing will also make you unhappy. Maybe the soccer coach is awful, but if you don’t play soccer, who cares? Likewise, even if something doesn’t bother one student, that doesn’t mean that that same thing won’t bother you.

If only we could time travel, deciding where to go to college would be so much easier.

Remember what I said about trying to find “a future version of you.” The most useful answers to these questions are going to come from students who have values, interests, and goals that are similar to yours. This won’t necessarily be just one person – there may be an extracurricular “future you” and an academic “future you,” and you might not even be sure what you want to major in, so be open to the advice and experiences of all different college students you meet.

Also remember that as with visiting professors, when visiting students you are there just as much to observe as to listen. Keep your eyes and ears open and take note of the environment around you. See if you can find any campus publications – newspapers, literary journals, satirical publications, etc. These are the sorts of institutions that will be around you if you go to this university. What do you think of them?

Most people only ever go to one college for an undergraduate degree, so it can be hard to know how your undergraduate experience compares with those of others. After all, if you only ever go to one college, how can you know if you would have been more or less happy at another college? Doing your research and making the most of your college visits can help you make the choice that’s best for you when it comes to deciding where to spend the next four years of your life. Hopefully, with the help of this guide, you’ll be well on your way to success at a college that’s going to give you just what you need to achieve your dreams. Best of luck, and keep up the good work!

This post is part of a series. Previous posts include:

College Visits 101: Info Sessions and Guided Tours

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