One of my favorite parts about the whole college admissions experience (especially since there are so many stressful aspects) has always been college visits! I’ve visited well over 90 college campuses – and when I’m there on campus, I like to stand outside the bookstore or wander around the grounds and just think about all the excited kids who will become themselves in the dorms, the library, and in the classrooms.

WHY COLLEGE VISITS?

Whether you’re a junior starting to explore campuses as you create your college list or a senior who’s trying to get a feel for the best fit out of your options, nothing beats standing on campus, exploring what you can, marinating in the atmosphere, and paying attention to how the experience makes you feel. You may think, “Oh my gosh, this library is freakin’ gorgeous! I have to go here!” or you may think, “Um…there’s no way I can handle how hectic this quad is.”

The point is that there are few experiences in the whole college admissions process that allow you such a clear and immediate impression of a college. That’s why I’ve always encouraged my students to try their best to visit as many colleges as they can.

And then a global pandemic hit. And we all had to pivot. We all had to get creative, and colleges became the kings and queens and all other kinds of royalty of Zoom sessions, with their ramped-up virtual tours and info sessions. Still, I can’t help but think that just being on a college campus and getting a feel for what you like is the best way to discover what kind of college you’re looking for. You might not be able to have in-person visits with all the colleges on your list, but stopping by and hanging out on even a few visits can be helpful and fun!

ON-CAMPUS VISITS

While there are absolute benefits to the organized tour and info session — and I definitely think you should do them — I think it’s even more beneficial to explore the campus on your own, wander around, get a little lost, and soak in the vibe. This is your chance to feel what it’s like to walk the campus, to see what the dorms look like, to get to know how crowded the main hall gets between classes, to tour the classrooms, dining halls, gyms, or whatever building is essential to you. More importantly, a college visit is your chance to talk to current students about their experiences with the school. You get the chance to interact with the campus, students, and professors and see how you’d fit in as a student. When you’re figuring out where you’re going to spend the next four years of your life, that’s a big deal.

When I visit campuses, I always make sure I have time to wander around. I ask students for directions. I eat in the student union or the cafeteria. I buy my magnet in the bookstore. I visit the library and sit and read a little. I sit on a bench in the middle of campus and watch. And listen. I investigate what’s going on around campus and just off campus.

Here’s a suggestion: try to get on as many campuses near you as you can and do some self-guided tours. Even if it’s not a college you think you’re interested in, just being on a campus can help you figure out what you like and don’t like.

All you need is a campus map with some points of interest marked, and then you can take things at your own pace and experience life on campus more naturally. If you still have questions about the school after, you can always contact the admissions office and they’ll be happy to give you answers. See below to find my game plan for a self-guided on-campus tour, and be sure to take notes so when it comes time for those inevitable Why College Essays, you’re prepared with details!

ON-CAMPUS SELF-GUIDED TOUR

Even if you’re not doing the official tour and info session, be sure to sign in at the admissions office if it’s open — just to let them know you’re on campus. If they’re not open, you can send a quick email afterward letting them know you were able to visit and maybe with some feedback about what you enjoyed about your visit.

The Bench Test: Sit in the space. Put your phone away and simply sit on a bench in the middle of campus, like in the quad or at the student center, and absorb the vibe for a while. Eavesdrop. Maybe get a book out on your lap, so you don’t look weird. What do you see? What do you hear?

Spot a Professor: Walk through an open academic building. See if you can spot a professor. Bonus points for saying hello and double bonus points for asking a question (remember to make sure they are OK with speaking with you first).

Check out the Dining Halls: Eat some food if they’ll allow you to come in. Listen to the conversations.

Class Time: Sit in on a class if they’ll let you. (You will need to arrange this ahead of time with the admissions office).

Books and Barbells: Check out the gym. Do you see yourself working out here? Do they have activities and amenities you care about? Visit the library. Can you picture yourself studying in this setting?

Visit the Bookstore: Are there kids shopping there? Maybe buy a tchotchke or a t-shirt. I like to add to my magnet collection, but maybe you’d prefer stickers or snow globes.

Dorm Life: Hang out outside a dorm for a few minutes. Do the kids seem happy?

Support Systems: If you have learning issues, go to student support services and ask questions. This is essential. If you experience mental health issues, go to counseling services and ask questions. This is also essential. It can be helpful to arrange these meetings ahead of time.

Spiritual Visits: Make a spiritual visit to the religious facilities — Hillel, a chapel, a meditation room…if you have a spiritual side.

What’s Going On: Find the wall or post with posters and flyers about club activities plastered all over it. Pick up a copy of the student newspaper and read about what’s happening on campus.Do you see something fun and interesting to you?

What’s Nearby? Find a local coffee shop or bookstore nearby. Sit and observe. Can you imagine yourself hanging out here with your new friends and classmates?

Get Lost: Wander aimlessly for a while. Do you feel comfortable? How many kids are wearing college gear? Are kids walking alone and staring at their phones? Or are they interacting and smiling? Try to imagine how you’ll ft in on the campus. What’s the vibe? How does it make you feel? Can you easily picture yourself here, happy and excited? Your college visit is about you, so you do you. If you see something interesting, follow your instincts. Watch the kids toss a ball around or read on the quad. It’s all about feeling it out and seeing if the vibe fits with how you like to spend your time. I can’t tell you how to do that. I can only point you in the right direction.

Talk to Students: You should also do your best to talk to kids on campus. This is a big one! You’ll find that most kids are open to the conversation because it wasn’t that long ago that they were in your prospie shoes. If the first or second person you approach isn’t available, then ask someone else. Here’s a list of questions to ask. Pick a few people and ask them a few questions like “Why did you consider attending this school? Are you happy to be here? Knowing what you know now, would you make the same choice? Would someone like me be happy at this school?’

Here are a few more questions for you to consider asking a current student:

  • “What do you like about the school?”
  • “What would you change?”
  • “What do you think prospective students should know about the school?”
  • “What’s close to campus that’s walkable for you to do?”
  • “What’s the general vibe?”
  • “What do you and your friends do on a Wednesday night?”
  • “What about a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon?”
  • “How late do people stay in the library when it’s not midterms or finals time?”
  • “What kind of student support services do they have? Mental health? Tutoring? Health services? Does it cost extra?”
  • “Do students wear college name stuff?”
  • “What’s your favorite cafe or coffee shop nearby?”
  • “Where do you go to study when you don’t want to use the library?”

Now, you might find that all your visits start to feel the same, and end up in just one big ole college campus blur, so be sure to take notes and organize your photos. 

VIRTUAL AND ONLINE VISITS

Even if you can’t get on a campus to get the vibe, self-guided virtual and online tours can be a great way to learn more about what you’re looking for and about colleges themselves. So, what do you need for those virtual visits? You need to gather your resources. 

SELF-GUIDED ONLINE TOURS, MY AWESOME CHECKLIST

Numero Uno — The Mailing List: be sure to sign up for any college’s mailing list (Request Info) you’re exploring. That gets you on their radar, and if they care about your engagement (or interest) (you can find that out on the Common Data Set), then you’ve got your first step! (Helpful Hint — make a new college-only email address before you start. That way, all the amazing mail you get from colleges will be funneled in one place, and you won’t accidentally overlook something from them).

Walk in their Shoes: Explore popular hashtags about the college on social media and scroll through posts from current students or explore that school’s subreddit. Maybe even send a DM asking about their college experience. They were in your shoes not too long ago and will likely be happy to help. Write down their best words of wisdom to use in your Why College Essays. Look at the questions above for an in-person tour to get some ideas.

Architecture: Colleges and universities have some amazing architecture. Watch virtual tours or explore the college’s website. Take a screenshot of your favorite building or two on the campus and write down its name and what you like about it so you can remember.

Feelin the Vibe: Read on the colleges’ subreddit or through their social media and watch some of their YouTube videos. What do you think the vibe is?

Spirit on Campus: Can you spot a campus statue or a school mascot on the virtual tour or the website? Take a screenshot! What’s the name of it? Does it have any stories or meaning to it? Be sure to find out what the story behind it is and how it represents the campus and students.

Spot a Prof: Look through professor bios until you find one whose background, work experience, or research interests fascinate you and that you’d like to be involved in. Who is it and why? Bonus points for sending an email asking about their research or one of the classes they teach.

The Bench Test: During your virtual visits and website explorations, find your favorite spots on campus—one indoor and one outdoor. Where can you imagine yourself studying? Relaxing? Hanging out with friends? Enjoying some quiet time? This is your time to picture yourself on campus.

Books or Barbells: Check out the webpages for both the library and the gym, and find a special book or activity at the gym you’d love to be a part of. Take some screenshots and write about what you imagine you’d want to be doing in each one.

That Dorm Life: While watching the virtual tours or exploring the website, snap a screenshot of the inside of a dorm room. What’s the vibe of the room? Where would you place your most treasured object from home if you lived there?

Tonight’s Wish List: Of everything mentioned on your virtual visits or your website explorations, what would you most want to do if you could spend the night there? If you need more ideas, check out the Student Life section of the college website. Plan out your ideal evening on this campus.

The Daily News: Read the college’s online student newspaper. What’s important to them? Do you see issues you care about? Activities you want to be part of? Be sure to list them somewhere so you can be specific later.

Basically, for more information about a specific college and its vibe, the internet is your friend. Specifically, you should:

  • Watch all the videos about the school you can.
  • Dig deep into the colleges’ websites.
  • Read the online student newspaper.
  • Follow the colleges and their admissions offices on social media. Most are quite active on Twitter and Instagram, as well as TikTok, Facebook, and Snapchat.
  • Go to the college’s subreddit and read what the students are writing about.

FLY-IN PROGRAMS

Lots of colleges like Dartmouth, Swarthmore, Tufts, and Hamilton (and many more) offer free overnight visits to their schools for low-income or first-gen prospective students. These programs, often called “fly-in programs” give you a chance to experience life on campus, partake in sessions with and get tips from admission counselors, and frequently can be a great way to give your application more attention. I think some colleges are beginning to open them back up, so definitely be on the lookout! I’ve found these sources helpful when looking for info about fly-in programs:

  1. Get Me to College
  2. Scholar Match
  3. College Greenlight

Many of these programs are by application, but don’t worry. Even if you get rejected from the fly-in, don’t be too sad. Simply putting in an application for a fly-in often counts as demonstrated interest for those schools who consider interest. I know of kids who’ve been rejected from fly-ins and still gotten admitted.

JUST VISIT

For lots of schools, visits are important to show demonstrated interest, whether they’re on campus or virtual, so be sure to take your time to check out colleges that interest you. You can check the school’s common data set to see whether or not they value demonstrated interest. More importantly, though, they’re a good way to gather intel and start learning more about what you’re looking for in a school and its vibe.

Still, college visits can be tough to figure out. If a college is within a one- or two-hour drive or an easy train or bus ride, I suggest you make every effort to get there on campus if they’re open to visitors. For those schools that are further afield, sometimes you just can’t make the trip. And that’s ok. Maybe your family can’t afford it, or you have an accessibility issue, or you simply can’t fit the visit into your schedule. If you encounter this obstacle, no worries. There are still ways to find out more about how you will fit in with a school’s environment. One thing you should definitely do is visit all the schools near you so you can get a feel for what kind of vibe feels right for you. Try to visit large schools and small schools, rural schools, and city schools. That way, you’ll begin to know what’s right for you.

tl;dr

  1. If you can, you should visit the colleges you’re interested in live and in-person. If that’s impossible, be sure to visit them virtually.
  2. At the very least, visit some of your local colleges to get a feel for what college campuses feel like.
  3. When you visit, go on the official college tour, but also leave time to wander around without the tour guides. That’s your chance to talk to students, sit on a park bench and soak in the atmosphere, and check out parts of campus that the tour doesn’t cover. Be sure to think about the amenities or qualities that you want a college to have.
  4. Research online. Find videos and tours on the colleges’ own websites, read the online college newspaper, follow the college on social media, and reach out to current students online.