The importance of campus visits

Visiting a college in person is often the best way to get a true feel for an institution. Here, Lee Bierer discusses the importance of campus visits in determining whether or not a college is more than a ‘best fit’ on paper.

It was perfect on paper. Really, the college seemed like it would be a perfect fit - small class sizes, beautiful campus, friendly students, academically selective, great depth of courses in her area of interest - but it didn’t work for her in person. It was that gut reaction you hear about. She just didn’t feel like it was the right place for her to spend the next four years of her life.

One of my students remarked, "boy was I glad I went to visit before I spent a lot of time working on application essays. I expected to love it and was sure I would leave the campus having my heart set on going there." She didn’t hate it. In fact she believes that she could have been happy there, she just knows that she can be happier someplace else. 

Besides a home purchase, a college education is the single largest expense and investment you're ever likely to make. Just as you would never think to buy a home without seeing it, selecting a college shouldn't be made solely on information gathered from a guidebook, a website or a school's reputation. Seeing a college in the flesh, walking around the campus, getting a feel for the college culture and talking to students will enrich your decision-making process.

Going on a campus visit, is basically taking the college out for a test drive and should always include, at a minimum, a campus tour and an information session. Just as you would like to get behind the wheel, see the highway pick-up and critique the car’s bells and whistles, when evaluating colleges you need to appraise factors that are important and relevant to your definition of college fit. 

Don't do a 'drive-by' visit where you don't get out of the car. While you may be able to decide if you like the campus, you won't be able to determine if it's really a good fit. If the college has made it beyond your exploratory list, you owe it to yourself and the college to do it right. 

Here are some items to consider as you kick the tires on your next campus visit:

  • Climate: if possible, visit the college in its "extreme" season 
  • Topography: there are hills and then there are hills! On many campuses the dorms are clustered at the foot of a hill and the academic buildings are at the top of the hill. While it may build strong muscles, for some students it is a negative feature. 
  • Campus energy: school spirit is a bit intangible. Some students evaluate how happy college students are based on the number of students wearing their own college paraphernalia.  
  • Architecture: Do you like the architecture? Is it varied? Is there a lot of construction going on? How will that impact you as a student? 
  • Getting around: Is the campus walkable? If not, how do you feel about taking shuttle buses to class? 

College Tour Tips

  • Try not to be judgmental. Don't hate or love a school because the food was terrible or you had a fabulous tour guide.
  • Do your homework at home, and ask good questions when you're on campus. Don't ask questions you can find out from the web.
  • Look for consistency in the message presented. Ask the same question of several people.
  • Plan ahead. Call the Admissions Office to schedule your visit. If possible, go when classes are in session. You'll want to see the crowds between classes. An empty campus is not very appealing. Be aware that spring break is a popular time to visit, and some schools have limited space for their information sessions.
  • Dress appropriately. Most tours will take place regardless of the weather, so be prepared. Don't forget an umbrella. If it's too hot, it makes great shade. If it's rainy, you'll stay dry. Wear comfortable shoes; you'll be walking across campus.
  • Document your trip. Take notes from each session. Bring a camera. It will help you remember the schools when you return.
  • Grab a campus newspaper. Read through the latest issue, find out the hot topics on campus, check out what people do for entertainment.
  • Tune in to campus radio. It's a great way to investigate the range of musical tastes, politics and cultural opportunities.
  • Sit in on a class. Make arrangements ahead of time. Research the online syllabus, e-mail the professor requesting permission and arrive early to introduce yourself.
  • Ask questions. Wander around. Ask students, not guides, what they love about their school, what's the one thing they would change and why they chose this college.
  • Eat on campus. Try the cafeteria food and talk to students there.
  • Check out dorms. Try to see a freshman dorm room that wasn't shown on the tour.
  • Stay in touch. Make sure to get the business cards of anyone you meet - admissions officers, professors, even tour guides. Send them thank-you notes and keep in touch.

Written By Lee Bierer
President and Coach

College Admissions Strategies

Author of weekly "Countdown To College" column in the The Charlotte Observer and syndicated nationally through McClatchy Newspapers.