Do you ever stare out of the window in physics class, wondering what it will be like to go to college and never have to take science again? Or ...
Are you the one who wonders what it will be like to go to college and only study science? In either case, you are likely an American high school junior with the itch for School 2.0: when you’re 18 and can do education on your terms.
Perhaps you’re distracted by other questions: can I handle living in a dorm? What about campus parties? Or what's it like addressing teachers by their first names? Do these places really look as fantastic as their websites show them to be? Can I even get in?
Good news: you can (and should) answer these questions for yourself right now through college visits (and then focus on finishing physics class). Second semester junior year is the best time to use all those long weekends and breaks to get in the car or even the plane and visit colleges to learn more about where you belong.
First, I cannot stress enough the game changer visiting a school can be. Don’t assume you already know what you will like or not like. You may love the look and promise of the campus on the website (or in your mind), but the in-person reality is another thing. Would you commit to four years with someone without meeting him or her in person first? Perhaps you’ll learn the weather really does not work for you and the campus culture is not your cup of tea. Or the inverse: you have major doubts about a school in, say, Tennessee, but you go and learn it’s everything you didn’t know you wanted.
So here are our top six tips for college visits.
1. Go Wide
Visit many types of schools - urban, rural, small, medium, huge, liberal arts, collegiate, private, public, near home and far away, your dream school and one currently not on your list at all. Visiting a school is not marrying a school. It’s personal research. You are learning about what you would love to do and where for the next four years, but you don’t have all the info about what clicks with you. You need more exposure. If you go to the Boston area, for example, you can visit the sprawling Boston University and compare that to the contained Boston College, or take a day trip out of the city and visit nearby rural New England schools like Brandeis or a public school like UMass Amherst. You could do the same for the schools in and around other major cities like Philadelphia, D.C., or Atlanta.
2. Live Like a Student for a Day
Before you go, reach out to the admissions office and ask if they have a shadowing program in which you can shadow a real student for the day. Shadowing current students is the best way to get the inside scoop on what it’s like actually be a student at a particular school. You can follow your host to her classes, clubs, dinning halls, gym or even social hangs with friends and ask them your questions. Remember, though, the most important info is within you. Ask yourself, how do I feel in these places? After you shadow, take a tour by yourself (aka without one of your parents). Walk around the campus for an hour. Notice, do you feel happy? Do you see yourself clicking with the people walking by?
Another tactic is to research any personal connections you have at the school that could host you. An alumni of your high school? A friend of your parents? These connections can be even more valuable because the host has more natural interest in sharing the real experience.
3. Attend a Class You’re Curious About
Whether there is a shadowing program or not, ask the admissions office what classes allow drop-in visitors. Look at the course catalog and see what professors and courses pique your interest and ask if you can sit in on one of them. When you attend, continue wondering: how do I feel here? Could I spend a whole semester doing this? If you can, introduce yourself to the professor at the end and ask them any questions you might have about the course or the discipline they teach. These interactions are gold in the application. They show your drive and willingness to go out of your way to pursue your own learning.
4. Back-Up Plan: The Official Tour
If none of the above are available, every school has official campus tours led by current students where you visit dorms, dining halls and libraries. You can glean great amounts from these more curated experiences, too.
5. Back-up Back-Up Plan: Video Tours
If you can’t make it to a school you are keen on, many post a virtual tour to their website in which a video walks you around the campus and displays information about different facilities and amenities. Next, reach out to that school’s admissions office to ask to connect with students and teachers willing to chat over email or video. When in-person interactions and visits aren’t possible, these communications are an excellent alternative.
6. Debrief the Visit
Write in your journal about what resonated and what didn’t. College is 100% about you, so do not hide your preferences from yourself. Did it have the kind of courses, weather, class size, clubs, sports, campus culture, and proximity to the city or to nature that excite you? Again, you’re looking at the next four years, so you want to land where you feel a connection. Any surprises? Revisit your current list. Could it use a change? Expand your search to a new type of school you hadn’t considered much before - or trim another? Is there anyone whom you met who impacted you? Can you write them a quick thank you note?
After your visits are done and you are shifting to application time, you will be so much more equipped to talk to your dream schools about exactly why you are a perfect match with specifics like names, locations, courses and events. The number one thing you want to do in your applications is help the admissions officers imagine you as a student at their school, and there’s no better way to prepare for that then trying it on for a day.
So open up those calendars, contact those admissions offices (their emails are easily searchable on school websites) and start planning those college visits!
Meet the Author: Justin Taylor
Justin is a college application expert with more than ten years experience helping students raise their admissions prospects. Yale, Georgetown, Vanderbilt, Boston College, and NYU are some recent admits for happy students. He has taught writing at Yale University, Wesleyan University, the Sorbonne, in high schools and privately throughout New York City with all ages.
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