In the College-Town Tour Guide series, I will provide info on visiting U.S. colleges and the cities they call home.
But before I talk about specific cities and towns, I want to provide some information on the different types of campus visits you might make. A daytime visit, for example, won't be the same as an overnight visit, and neither will be like an open house. Check out the info below, which I’ve adapted from The Princeton Review’s Guide to College Visits.
Tomorrow I’ll provide advice on how to prepare for your visit.
To read why a college visit is so valuable, click here.
When Is the Best Time to Visit?
The best time to visit a school is when school is in session. Yes, it’s probably easier to visit schools during the summer when you are on vacation. The trouble is that the school is on break then, too. You’ll be able to see the campus and take a tour, but you won’t be able to attend classes (summer classes are nothing like classes held during the regular academic year), and you won’t get to see what the campus looks like when it is full of students. As you won’t see the students (or most of the professors and administrators, for that matter), you won’t get a sense of how well you’ll fit into the campus community. You just won’t get a good feel for the school.
During the school year, avoid visiting during school holidays such as Thanksgiving and Spring Break. Check the school’s academic calendar on its website before planning your visit. Also, try not to visit during exam periods or the reading period that precedes final exams. Visit during these periods and you’ll get a skewed impression of the school. You’ll probably walk away thinking that the students are a frazzled and stressed-out bunch.
Exploit your vacation time and days off. When is your high school’s Spring Break? Use it to visit colleges that aren’t on break at the same time. Check your high school’s calendar for three-day weekends; some colleges don’t observe national holidays, meaning you can use those weekends for a Sunday overnight visit and attend some college classes on Monday. Overnight visits should be planned well in advance as they require extra planning both on your part and the part of the school.
When is the best time in your high school career to visit colleges? Any time after you start seriously considering your college choices. Before the spring of your junior year, you should try to visit as many different types of schools as you can. In the spring of your junior year and the fall of your senior year, you should focus on the schools on your short list. Try to plan daytime visits to all of them and schedule overnight visits for at least some.
There are three basic types of college visits:
A daytime visit is optimal for students who are trying to cram a number of campus visits into an abbreviated period of time. Although a daytime visit won’t yield as much or as varied information as an overnight visit will, it will allow you to get a feel for the campus and its community. Don’t underestimate the value of setting foot on a campus, even if it’s only for a brief time.
Most daytime visits begin with a stop at the Admission Office. Don’t forget to sign the guestbook or check-in so that your visit is documented; the fact that you visited will work in your favor when the school makes its admissions decisions.
Next, you and other prospective students will meet up with a guide who will lead you on a campus tour. Your tour will no doubt be planned to show you the best side of the school. If the school has run-down dormitories or out-of-date classrooms, the tour guide will not be showing them to you. The quality of tour guides varies from school to school and individual to individual. Try to keep your impressions of the school separate from your impression of the tour guide. Remember, you’re choosing a school, not a tour guide.
The tour is often followed by an information session (note that some schools reverse the order—they start with the information session and then offer a campus tour). Information sessions may take a variety of forms and vary greatly in their formality. No matter what a session is like, however, at some point you’ll get a chance to ask questions. Do so—it gives you a chance to learn something about the school and to impress the section leader with how articulate and thoughtful you are. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when asking questions:
- Ask about something that is of particular interest to you.
- Don’t ask about data or other information that can easily be found in the school’s promotional material.
- If you are accompanied by your parents, politely suggest beforehand that they keep quiet and let you ask the questions.
- Be polite.
Leave time after the tour/information session to walk around the campus. Visit whatever buildings you can access without a school ID. High on your list of “must-visit” places should be the main freshman dormitory (you’ll probably be living there if you attend), the dining hall (buy lunch and try to imagine yourself eating this food every day of the week), and the main library.
Finally, you should try to attend at least one class on campus. This will require some extra planning, as you will probably need to schedule your classroom visit in advance with the Admissions Office. Ideally, the school will send you to a class that’s required for all freshmen. Unless the professor specifically calls on you, do not try to participate in the class. You are just there to observe, not to overwhelm your future classmates with your brilliance. And stay for the entire class, not matter how boring it is; it’s rude to get up and leave a class while it’s in session.
Daytime campus visits can be very informative, but they can feel a little rushed, especially when you’re trying to visit two or more campuses in the same day. The feeling of being rushed is not an issue with overnight visits, which ensure plenty of time to relax, chat with students, collect your thoughts, and soak in the campus vibe.
An overnight visit should include all of the daytime visit activities. It also typically includes an overnight stay with a host student in the dorms (in such cases you will probably be required to bring a sleeping bag and pillow), although some schools put visitors up in separate guest facilities. The former is preferable, as it ensures that you’ll have time to chat at length with at least one current student.
Most schools schedule overnight visits Sunday (or Monday) through Thursday; Friday-night stay-overs are usually reserved for special recruiting events. Note that schools rarely provide accommodations for parents accompanying the visiting student—your parents will have to stay at a nearby hotel or motel.
Also note that school policies regarding who can visit overnight vary widely. Some will allow any high school junior or senior to visit. Others limit visits to high school seniors and potential transfers only. Others are even more selective, offering overnight visits only to applicants who have been admitted to the school.
If you want to visit a campus overnight, make sure to schedule your visit at least a month in advance.
Open houses and special-event visits
Many schools offer weekend recruiting events several times a year, and these are usually called “Open Houses.” They are more elaborately planned than your standard weekday campus visit. They typically include multiple tours (e.g., a general tour of the campus, a tour of athletic facilities, a tour of the dorms), admissions and financial aid sessions, presentations by different academic departments, and other organized activities. Open houses draw larger crowds than do weekday tours, and you’ll get to meet representatives from most academic departments. Of course, you’ll also be vying for attention with a much larger group of prospective students, which isn’t so good.
Some campuses schedule special-event visits for select groups. These may include weekend-long visits devoted to applicants who have been admitted but have not yet decided to attend, or special interest groups such as children of alumni, home-schooners, students with physical or learning disabilities, and minority students. The details of these events vary widely. Check with your prospective schools to see which, if any, of these events are scheduled.