You can read all the brochures, guidebooks, and websites you want, but the best way to learn about a college is to go there and see it for yourself. If you’re a high school senior, you’ve probably sent off all your applications and are now awaiting replies with baited breath. If you aren’t a senior yet, you’re probably still trying to figure out where to apply to in the first place. Either way, visiting colleges can be very helpful when making your ultimate decision of where to go.
If you’re a senior, then once you start to hear back from schools in April you may begin to get invitations to visit the campuses of schools you got into. Often, there will be special weekends for admitted students to come tour the campus, and some schools even give admitted students the option to spend the night in a dorm. From the school’s point of view, the purpose of these weekends is to convince you to actually attend now that you’ve been accepted (the percentage of admitted students who actually decide to go to a school is an important factor in ranking schools), so they are going to be selling the school as hard as they can. From your point of view, you want to find out whether you would actually be happy there and if the school is actually going to prepare you for whatever you want to do after college. Whether you decide to visit during a special weekend event or at another time, you’ll need to have a plan to get the most out of your visit and find out what you need to know.
If you aren’t a senior yet, visiting schools can be a great way of narrowing down the list of schools you want to apply to. For all that colleges go on about how unique and special they are, many of them can sound kind of the same on paper, and it’s only when you go there in person that you discover what sets them apart. You, too, need to know whom to talk to and what questions to ask in order to make sure that you only apply to schools where you will be happy and successful.
In the following posts, we’ll be discussing exactly how to get the most out of your college visits, including what questions to ask, what people to see, what to do, and what not to do.
Let’s begin by talking about the official info sessions and guided tours that just about every university offers to visiting high school students and parents. Info sessions usually consist of an admissions department employee giving a short talk about the university, followed by a question and answer session. Afterwards, a current student at the university will usually lead a tour of the campus, showing you the sights, discussing the campus’s history, and answering your questions as best they can.
Information regarding these info sessions and campus tours can usually be found on a university’s website. For an example, take a look at Harvard’s websites here and here. Note that some schools may require you to make a reservation in advance for an info session or campus tour, so call and ask or check the university’s website before you show up.
Info sessions and guided tours are primarily useful for finding out information about official university policies and admissions statistics, although much of this information can also be gleaned from a university’s website. Still, it is nice to be able to ask an actual human being whatever questions come to mind in real time. Also, the campus tours can give you a feel for the atmosphere of a university, and can potentially give you opportunities to observe and interact with current students (more on this in a later post). One word of warning, though: if your tour guide tells you about a tradition that involves touching a famous statue for luck, you might prefer to abstain – drunken college students often have their own traditions involving famous campus landmarks.
Good questions to ask at an info session might include:
- Is it possible to graduate early/late? Are there any programs that allow students to complete a Masters degree in 5 years?
- Do my AP/IB scores count for college credit? Do they allow me to place out of classes?
- Does the college have distribution requirements or core classes that all students must take?
- Does the college have any special relationships with other institutions (other colleges, hospitals, research centers, etc.)? How many students are actually able to take advantage of these special opportunities?
- If the university has multiple undergraduate colleges (liberal arts, engineering, etc.), how easy is it for students in one college to take classes at another? How easy is it to transfer from one to another?
- Where can I study abroad? Do I have to study a particular language in order to study abroad in a particular place? How easy is it to study abroad if I major in [insert major]? How much does it cost to study abroad?
- What research opportunities are there for undergraduates? How often are undergraduates included in publications?
- How easy is it to live off campus? If I live on campus, do I have to have a roommate? Is the meal plan required?
- What percentage of your pre-med students get into medical school? What percentage of your pre-law students get into law school? Business school? Other graduate programs?
- What are the most popular majors at this college?
- What kind of an alumni network does the college have? Does the college have a career center? What industries/companies regularly recruit students from this college? What internship opportunities are there for students?
- Can I double major/triple major? What is the difference between a minor/major/concentration?
- What kinds of scholarships does the college offer?
- At what level do the sports teams play? How easy is it to be involved in sports? In what sports/athletic activities can students participate? Is a swimming test required to graduate?
- How diverse is the campus? What organizations/opportunities are there for minorities/women?
- How cold/hot does it get? What is the weather like? What clothes will I need?
- What health services does the university provide? Does the university offer health insurance to students?
This should get you started. Note that the speakers at info sessions and tour guides are paid to put a positive spin on everything, so now is not the time to ask about problems students might encounter at the university. Also, always be nice to the speakers and guides. Oftentimes the admissions officers who lead the info sessions are the same people who go through all the applications each year (indeed, the woman who led the info session I went to at Columbia was the same one who read my application essay). Chances are they won’t remember you, but if they do, they should have positive memories.
While these official visits can be useful, as you can see there are many questions that they either can’t or won’t answer. To find out all you need to know about a college before you decide to go there, talking to professors and current students can also help a lot. To find out how to meet with professors and get the inside scoop from current college students, check back soon for the next post in this series – College Visits 101.