College Visits 101: Tips from a Former Admissions Officer
By Mari, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
Spring is prime college visit time! Many families will be hitting the road to visit students’ top-choice schools this semester, so it’s important to ensure that students (and parents!) are making the most of their time on campus. How? By getting back to the basics.
In the excitement of jetting off to visit a student’s favorite schools it’s easy to put off the planning and prep that’s required to have a great college visit. Many families get caught up in the thrill of this milestone in the admissions process, leaving them confused on what to do next as soon as they get to campus. As a counselor, and former admissions officer, I’ve helped a lot of families through the tried and true “basics” college visits. Here are my tips on what families need to do to master college visits 101.
Research in Advance
It’s wise to learn as much as you can about a school before you visit. During an information session and tour, you will be bombarded with a ton of information, so if you’re already somewhat familiar with the school from your advanced research, you’ll have the bandwidth to digest the campus visit experience more fully. You may also discover during your pre-visit research that the school isn’t a great match for you after all, and it’s best to figure that out before a costly trip to the campus. Research by thoroughly reading the admissions web site and familiarizing yourself with the basic application process and requirements for that school. Fill out the school’s net price calculator to determine what kind of aid you can expect to receive from the school. Take a virtual tour, if available, or click through interactive maps to get a feel for the layout and look of the campus. Explore the school’s academic offerings, drilling down into department web pages for in-depth information about specific programs and resources for particular majors and the research emphasis of the faculty in the department. Learn about student life by researching their residential options and policies. Look at lists of student-run clubs and check out club web sites to find out how active they are in your areas of interest. Network with local alums to learn about their experiences. Take copious notes and create a list of questions that emerge from this research.
Don’t wait until the week before you leave to make your college visit itinerary. During popular school break weeks, campus tours and information sessions can fill up fast, so I recommend that families plan ahead as much as possible. If you end up being unable to attend for whatever reason, cancel your registration to provide space for another student and also to be considerate to the admissions office as it plans for a certain size crowd. For schools that track demonstrated interest, being a no-show at an admissions event could work against you. Planning ahead can also help you identify other campus visit opportunities. Some options include sitting in on a class, shadowing a student for a day, doing an overnight, or conducting an on-campus interview. Many schools run information sessions and tours for particular interest groups, like prospective engineers or science majors. Some schools do special open house events on particular weekends in the spring or fall, which give prospective students a much more in-depth look at the school, providing opportunities to meet students and faculty and attend panel discussions. Also, find out about parking policies before you visit. Some schools can email you a parking pass if you ask them in advance. Parking is a huge problem around urban schools in particular, so know what to expect and plan accordingly, taking public transportation or a car service as necessary. Finding your way around a small, rural college can be stressful, too, so plan to arrive early when creating your college visit schedule.
Personalize Your Visit
Most students spend half a day visiting a college, doing the requisite information session and tour and quickly zip off to the next campus on a whirlwind college tour. For practical reasons, this is often necessary. However, if you have the time to spare, spend an entire day at the school and personalize your visit by meeting with administrators, faculty, and students who can provide additional perspectives on the school. If the school allows it, make an appointment to meet the admissions officer who reads your geographic region. This kind of personal interaction can make a difference at some schools. As I already mentioned, try to take advantage of opportunities to sit in on a class or shadow a student. Another way to enrich your campus visit is by making an appointment (in advance) with a professor in the department that most interests you. If there is a particular class that you would love to sit in on, but it’s not on the list of admissions office approved classes, contact the professor and respectfully ask if it would be okay for you to be a fly on the wall in their class. For some students, specific things about student life are paramount. If you’re a Muslim student visiting a Jesuit school, it might be a good idea to meet up with a student who is active in the Muslim Student Association to find out about what it’s like to be a religious minority at the school. If athletics are important to you, meeting students who play your sport might be a good way to learn more about whether or not the school will be a good fit for you. Don’t neglect to check out the dining facilities by grabbing a lunch while you’re visiting. You will soak in some of the general vibe of the student body by hanging out in the dining hall as well as find out whether or not you’ll be able to stomach the cuisine!
Make the Most of the Information Session
Let’s be honest, admissions information sessions can be a bit of a snooze fest, unless you’re lucky to get a super engaging presenter. But, don’t allow your thoughts to wander and pull your eyes away from your phone for the duration of the session. These sessions definitely reveal important things about the school’s culture and priorities, which will help you determine whether or not you’re a good fit for the school, and give you clues about things to emphasize in your essays and interview for that school. A school might emphasize a global perspective, commitment to service, or interdisciplinary studies, for example. Consider how your background and future goals fit with the school’s values and priorities. In general, these sessions go over the application requirements, basic financial aid information, the college’s degree offerings, and schools within the college, if applicable. They highlight what makes the school attractive, including special academic programs, like study abroad and career resources, and student life features that they feel differentiate them from other schools. I recommend that you take notes during the information session to stay focused on what the presenter is saying and so that you will be able to remember details later.
Remember all the research you did before hand? Don’t be shy about asking questions from that list you created! It makes the best impression to ask questions that go beyond what one can easily learn by reading the admissions website. Stay away from questions along these lines: “I got a 1400 on the SAT, what are my chances of being admitted?” And don’t ask a question about a complicated personal circumstance that won’t be relevant to anyone else in the room—you can save that question for a private conversation with an admissions representative. Your match with the school rests upon its academic programs and student life, not its admissions statistics, so focus your questions on these areas. For example, you might ask, “What resources exist at your engineering school to support women students?” or ““Does the school provide lots of opportunities for non-music majors to join the orchestra or other ensembles?” If you can, introduce yourself to the presenter before or after the session—you never know, they might remember you when your case comes before the admissions committee.
Engage During the Campus Tour
Your tour guide can be a great source of information about the school because they are a current student actually living the experience. Stay close to them during the tour—when the group is moving from point A to point B on the tour, walk with the tour guide to get your specific questions answered that aren’t part of the tour guide’s script. The tour guide might be more candid about the school’s strengths and weaknesses than the admissions officer could be during the information session, so take advantage of the opportunity to get another perspective. Take pictures to remember things from the tour that made an impression upon you. For example, maybe the tour stopped at the statue of an eminent person in the school’s history whose story inspired you. Take a snapshot and later jot down notes about why this statue was meaningful to you. It might be a great detail to add to the “Why This School” essay later. Also, before finding the fastest route back to the interstate to get to your next destination after your visit, take some time to “tour” the sights you may not have seen yet. Walk or drive around the areas that are adjacent to the campus. Does the area feel safe? Is there stuff to do near the school, and can you see yourself making this your home for four years?
Soon after your visit, it’s a good idea for students to debrief with their parents so they can compare impressions and review notes. Look at the pictures that you took and save some to a file with captions that you can refer to later. Also, once you get home, don’t forget to send thank you emails to the people you interacted with and ask any follow up questions, where appropriate, to keep the dialogue going.
Getting back to the basics of college visits – planning ahead, personalizing your visit, and making the most of the information sessions and tour – can help students better understand what they’re looking for in their college experience and how this school is (or isn’t!) a good fit for them. There’s A LOT that students and parents can do to make the most of their college visits, but the basics never change. As long as you plan ahead, register in advance, and leave enough time to do some extra “exploring,” you’ll have a great college visit experience.