School Counseling

Visiting Colleges

Getting the Most from a Campus Visit

A high school senior and their parents walked into the dining hall at a small, well-regarded, rigourous college in the Pacific Northwest  and found many students eating alone. That was all they needed to see. While the intellectual rigor of the school appealed to her, this student also wanted a more social environment, and decided this wasn’t the place for them.

Atmosphere is something you don’t get from viewbooks and websites. There’s nothing like a campus visit to find out if a college is a good fit.

Often, students don’t know what they really want until they see a college. One student loved the idea of a lush, sprawling campus. But when they visited a New England area college with its 700 acres of greenery, woods and water, they thought it was too quiet and decided to look at schools with a livelier, bustling atmosphere.

The more colleges you visit, the better you get at evaluating whether the school is a match. That’s why it makes sense to start with local colleges, even if they’re not on your list. Since you live in the Nashville area, visit MTSU, Vanderbilt, and Sewanee to get a sense of how a large public university is different from a mid-size research school is different from a small, private college. After visiting a couple of colleges, you’ll know what to look for, and will be in a better position to evaluate what you’re seeing.

On college trips, it’s tempting to see as many schools as possible. But visiting more than two schools a day becomes a frantic rush from one college to the next, with no time to fully experience each school. Plan on spending at least three hours on campus to allow time for a tour, information session and lunch in the dining hall. If there’s time, parents should give their student an hour on his own to imagine himself as a student at the school, while they check out the surrounding community.

While student tour guides are very knowledgeable, they’re also boosters of the school. That’s why it’s important to talk to other students. They have all gone through the college application process in the last few years, and they’re usually happy to share their wisdom. Ask what other colleges they applied to and why they chose this one. How has the school met their expectations or disappointed them? What kind of person is a good fit for this college? What do they love about the school and what would they like to change?

You also want to know if students have trouble getting courses they want. How many classes are taught by teaching assistants rather than professors? Get a feel for the intellectual climate by asking what the most popular classes are, how much time students spend studying, and what they do on weekends. Check bulletin boards for information about club meetings and internships. Pick up a school newspaper to see what issues are hot on campus as well as what lectures and concerts are scheduled.

Parents – a word of advice.  Slow down and let your student absorb what they are seeing without having to make immediate judgements.  Don’t force them into making a judgement about a school until they have had some time to process.  They are evaluating, in a few hours, the place where they may live and be a member of a community for the next four years.  It should be ok for them to think about it for a while. Set a time at the end of the day to talk about their perspectives.

For a prospective student, it comes down to a gut reaction. Do they feel excited being on this campus? Can they see themsef walking to class, hanging out with these people? If they feel good about themself while visiting this college, if they see people they would like to get to know, then they are that much closer to making a good match.