Would you blindly choose a career with no idea if it would suit you? Of course not. It's a serious decision, just like your college decision. So get a college reality check by going on campus.
Believe it or not, there are plenty of students who enroll in a college based on pretty pictures or someone's advice, only to experience a sinking feeling upon arrival. Don't be one of them.
Two Types of College Visits
College visits can help in two ways. Visiting before you apply can help you figure out what qualities you want in a college. Visiting after you apply can help you validate whether a college will give you those qualities.
Before You Apply: What College Experience Is Right for You?
Get a feel for what sort of college life you want. Tour a variety of campuses for a few hours each. Since your goal is to check out different college experiences, see as many types of colleges as possible. Choose a range of colleges to visit: small, medium, large; urban, suburban, and rural. Walk the campus, talk to students, and check out the surrounding area. These visits can open your eyes to the kind of experiences you want—or don't want.
You don't have to go on an expensive "road trip." You can visit a range of campuses within driving distance of your home or any other geographic center that is convenient.
Before you visit, look over the college website, brochure, and other publications so you'll have an idea of what you want to see. If you have time, take the official college tour. Be sure to talk with a few students and take time to just hang out and check out the "vibe." If summer is the best time for you to visit, go when summer school is in session.
As you do your visits, ask yourself:
- Which sorts of students appeal to me?
- In which environments do I feel most at home?
- What makes me feel most excited about going to college?
After You Apply: What College Is Right for You?
Once you are serious about specific colleges, no brochure or website can tell you what a campus is really like. Stay overnight in a dorm if you can. Hang out with current students, talk to professors, and otherwise get as close to a real student experience as possible. Ask lots of questions of everyone you meet. Colleges welcome such visits, and many will help you arrange them. If a parent goes with you, try to get time apart. You are going to college, not your parent.
Some people think it is best to visit a college after you are accepted, but certainly visit if you think you might attend if accepted. Even if you visited a campus before you applied, go back. Many students find they see a campus entirely differently once they visualize themselves actually going there. Trust your instincts in the end. Choosing a college is like choosing a mate. The decision is both rational and emotional.
By the way, let the admissions offices know you are coming. For some colleges, a visit counts favorably in your admission chances because it shows your serious level of interest.
If You Can't Afford to Visit
If the cost is preventing you from traveling to a college, ask the admissions office about financial assistance for visits. Some colleges offer this. Car pooling and group tours may also be more affordable than going on your own.
While You Are There: Campus Tours and Interviews
Tours. Most campuses have visitor or information centers that coordinate tours and information sessions. These are great vehicles for getting an efficient introduction to the college. You may need to make a reservation, although some schools have an open policy. You can usually get a schedule on the schools' website or via a recorded phone message. Make reservations at least two weeks ahead of time.
Current students usually lead tours and answer questions. You will see campus highlights such as the dorms, classrooms, labs, libraries, museums, chapel, student store, stadium, gym, theater, and student union. An information session addressing admissions policies and general campus information may be part of the tour or offered separately.
Interviews. Some colleges offer—or even require—one-on-one interviews, usually with an admissions officer or a graduate of the college. The interviews are held on campus or at a location more convenient for you. Seize the opportunity even if an interview is optional. Write down any important questions you still have about the college. Make it clear at the outset that you've read the college's information but need additional information. Relax, be yourself, and show how interested you are in the college. The interview may help your chances for admission if you show your enthusiasm. The College Profiles in CollegeData's College Match tell you whether interviews are required or optional at any college.
If you are seriously considering a college, pull out all the stops to arrange a visit. There's no substitute for walking on campus and imagining yourself as a student there.