College Visits: Why Spending Spring Break in School Is a Good Idea

What would you say if someone handed you a few pictures of an unfamiliar community and asked you to spend a considerable amount of money to live there for four years? You’d call them crazy, right? But this is essentially what you’re agreeing to when you apply to a school you’ve never visited. That’s why the college visit is an important aspect of the application process. Careful research is crucial, but it cannot replace your actual first-hand impressions of a school.

Schools like to see commitment and interest from applicants, and many colleges now track “demonstrated interest,” which is the number of times you have made contact with the school. Some schools, like Boston University, actually factor in this information when assessing your application. Show a school your IQ, or “interest quotient,” by requesting information, attending information sessions, visiting the school’s booth at your local college fair, or going on a campus tour. The earlier a college knows you are interested, the better. And the more you are in contact, the more your interest will pay off.

To help you get the most out of your college visits, the expert counselors at IvyWise and I have put together the following tips.

First and foremost, you shouldn’t miss school to visit a college, as your grades are always your number one priority. If possible, you should plan your visits throughout your junior year during the time you have off, such as holidays, breaks, and weekends. A summertime visit, while easier to plan, can be less informative since most students—as well as classes, activities, and social events—will be absent. You will get a much better feel for a campus’ atmosphere, student diversity, and size when students are present. That’s why spring break is a great time to visit, as many colleges have a different spring break than high schools.

Another good reason to visit during the school year is to become familiar with the area’s climate. If you are traveling to a different part of the country, you will get to see first-hand what the weather is like. For example, visit northeastern schools during winter months (particularly if you’re from a place like sunny Southern California) because while you may love the ivy-covered gothic architecture, you may not be able to live through snow and chilly temperatures for four or five months out of the year. If you’re traveling to Oregon or Washington, consider whether can you thrive in the seasons of rain and fog in the Pacific Northwest. How about your tolerance for humidity in the Southern U.S.? No matter what area of the country your top schools are located in, scheduling your visits during the school year will help you get a sense of how location and weather may affect your school choices.

You should plan to spend about half a day at each school you visit, which will give you enough time to go on a campus tour, attend an information session, eat in the dining hall, and maybe even sit in on a class. You could also visit another school that day if they’re in the same city or area. Try to avoid visiting more than two schools in one day however, as you’re likely to miss some important aspects of campus life (this is true even if you’re in college towns like Boston or the Raleigh-Durham area—just because you can see it all, doesn’t mean you should). The quality of a visit is more important than the quantity of campuses visited.

During your college visit, make sure to attend both the information session and the tour. An admissions officer usually leads the information session, whereas the campus tour is arranged through the admissions office but usually conducted by a student. Both events offer valuable insights and different perspectives on academics, campus activities, and student life. The admissions officer heading the information session is a great resource for any questions you may have on academics, research, and applications, while the student tour guide can give you first-hand information on campus life and student activities. Bring a notebook, tape recorder, or camera so that you can record as much information as possible, as well as your thoughts and feelings throughout the day. These notes will help you immensely, especially when answering “Why this school?” in an essay or interview.

If you are visiting two colleges in one day, plan to eat lunch at one school and dinner at the other. That way you can sample the menu and, more importantly, sit with current students and ask them questions about life at that campus. If given the opportunity, try to arrange an overnight stay in a dorm. You’ll get to see first-hand what students’ study habits and social life is like. Taking advantage of school amenities such as the cafeteria and dorms is also a way to cut down travel costs (for more cost-saving tips check out this article [http://community.todaymoms.com/_news/2010/02/04/3853789-nine-tricks-for-visiting-colleges-on-a-budget] from the TODAY show).

If you are absolutely unable to visit a school, you can still get valuable information and express your interest without leaving your hometown. College representatives will most likely be visiting your high school or your area to give information sessions. Even if you’ve already visited the school, be sure to attend these sessions—they are excellent opportunities to learn more and ask any specific questions you may have. Also be sure to get the representative’s card and e-mail address so that you can open a line of communication. Often schools will have promotional videos that you can watch online or request through the mail. Balance that media with more objective fare: TheCollegiateChoice.com, for example, offers candid one-hour walking tours of major college campuses across the country. Another option is attending an online college fair, like those held by CollegeWeekLive.com.

You can follow up on a real or virtual college visit by following your favorite schools on Twitter or Facebook. You can also keep up-to-date with campus news by reading the school newspaper online.

Once you’ve finished your college tours, it’s time to re-examine your initial choices. Has your college list or your preferences shifted? Visiting schools will help you narrow down your choices and refine your college list. Who knows, a school that was so-so may become your top choice after spending time on campus.