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Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

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This week's question from Jason C. from Boulder, CO asks:

With several campus visits scheduled, I want to make the most of them – what are some uncommon, but important, things to do, look for, and ask while I’m there?

An evaluation form a good tool when visiting colleges.

Estelle Meskin | Certified Educational Planner
College tours require significant planning and expense to make them productive. Remembering what a prospective student and his family have seen and heard after visiting five or six schools over 3-5 days can be overwhelming. To address this problem I have developed an evaluation form for students which helps them assess the pros and cons of each school while touring the campus, during information sessions and while talking to students so they can easily compare schools. The form contains a rating system for evaluating each aspect of a school's academic and social environment including geographic location, dorm life, academics, preferred major, sports, Greeks, costs, etc. plus a column for personal observations. It concludes with the question, "Can I see myself as a student there? ..... for four years?" Students find it very beneficial when visiting multiple campuses in a short time.

Ask LOTS and LOTS of Questions. 

Francine Block | President
Always visit on a school day unless the school schedules a special weekend program  for accepted students.  Take a campus tour, even if you took one earlier.  Read the posters, what are the activities/programs/speakers/concerts available for students? Read a school paper.   Attend an intro lecture class: what is the interaction?  Who is teaching?  How engaged are the students?  Visit the Career Center--do they have active career alumni networks helping students get jobs?  Does the school help you get an internship?  Ask lots of questions: academic requirements, core curriculum, retention numbers, social life, what would students you talk to change about the school?

BLINK! Your first impression of a campus is probably correct.

Marjorie Shaevitz | Author & Founder
Personal visits are the best way of getting to know colleges. What to do? Stop-by the admissions office, sign in and meet the rep assigned to your high school. Then take an organized campus tour or go on your own. Ask yourself these questions: Am I turned on or off by what I see? What’s available in my activity/athletic/other interest areas? Do students seem to be the kind of people I want to spend time with? (Ask a few what they like/dislike about the campus?) Can I see myself happily spending four years here? Have fun!

College tours should include information about academic advising programs.

Joanne Levy-Prewitt | Creator & Founder
When visiting campuses, students should inquire about the specifics of academic advising. Advisors help students choose courses and majors and can ensure that students make informed decisions about their education. Ask the tour guide, or the admissions staff, how you will be assigned an academic advisor. Who are the advisors? Are they professors? Graduate students? Peers? Will you receive an advisor as a freshman or after you declare a major? If there is an inadequate system of advising, how will you choose your classes or your major? This is especially important at a large public university where students will need to reach out and ask for help.

Current students will be more honest about their college.

Wynne Curry | College Advisor
When visiting a campus, students and their families should understand that admissions officers want to showcase the best that their campus offers. Ideally, going on a tour and sitting in on an information session can give prospective students a good all-around view of a campus. But to see more about actual student life, it can be beneficial to talk with current students who are, more often than not, happy to speak honestly about the quality of life on their campus. Walk around library lobbies or student unions after the admissions tour and pick up copies of any campus newspapers (assuming they’re still being printed). Read what students post on bulletin boards. I also advise parents to try to keep their thoughts and opinions about a given campus to themselves and to allow their children to reflect on the visit and to talk about it when he or she feels so inclined.

Ditch your parents!     

Lynette Mathews | Director
Your best bet to get a sense for if a school is a good fit for you is to actually experience it.  Schedule to sit in on a class, attend a band rehearsal or team practice.  Check the calendar of activities on the college website for sporting events, concerts, or other events that you could attend while you are in town. Roam around campus– spend a bit of time in the student union, cafeteria, library and other student hot spots. This will give you an opportunity to talk candidly with students and determine if the school is right for you.

Do/ask things related to your individual interests

Ken Huus | Dean of Admissions
A campus visit is your time to get answers to questions that are important to you and your college search. You should ask to see a class in your area of academic interest and to talk with a professor in that department. Ask about the college's NSSE scores to see how current students are gauging their academic engagement. Eat a meal in the college's main cafeteria and sit down with a random group of students - ask them about their experience and what they like about the place, AND what they would change if given the opportunity.

Don’t forget to check out what life is like off campus.

Vanessa Roth | Founder & Director
Tour the neighborhood to see where students hang out during the day (and night). Does the town welcome students by offering lots of restaurants, stores, housing, etc. to support them? How pricey are these places? How late are they open? Can you tell it’s a college town? What activities does the surrounding area offer? Do students hit the slopes or the beach on weekends? Do they go camping? Is there a city nearby? Students often want to be in a big city for the culture and activities; find out how much students take advantage of these offerings and consider how much you would. How often do you make it to the opera these days?

Don’t just visit, ENGAGE the campus in every way possible

Ralph Figueroa | Director of College Guidance
Visits are extremely helpful, but don’t judge a college until you have engaged the campus. Attend classes, go to club meetings, eat in the dining hall, sleep in the dorms, if possible.  Do you know students there from your school or home state? Look them up, ask to them about their experiences. Pick up a student newspaper to find out about important issues on campus. Be sure to exam kiosks and bulletin boards—they are a goldmine of information about the speakers, clubs, and even work opportunities available. Finally: pay attention to the intangibles—how a college makes you feel.

Ensure that students speak with students who are not employed by the university while on campus visits.

Charles Moore | Director, Enrollment, IT & Student Services
Securing informal conversations with staff, faculty and students at prospective campuses can be a daunting process; having to introduce yourself to people you’ve never seen or interacted with off-campus or in other venues. Leave the “teenager” at home when you visit college campuses--be sure to have the student draft a list of questions and review it prior to the visit. If necessary, have students visit campus websites before the visit and determine “which programs offer what I want to study and in the type of environment where I learn most productively” This is the structural question and all others are peripheral and secondary. Current students will give direct answers to these structural questions and relate their own experiences to parents and family—but make sure to strike up informal conversations along the tour route to determine if tour guides and paying customers have similar views about the campus

Get off the beaten path!

Jeffrey Makris | Director of College Counseling
While college visits are a vital part of your college search, remember they are also a marketing opportunity for the institutions.  This means that your open house or campus tour experience may not provide you with an unbiased view.  Make time to talk to students or staff members other than the admissions counselors and tour guides to which you’re introduced; they may give you more honest feedback.  Also, if you’ll be in the ethnic or socioeconomic minority on campus, seek out students who have backgrounds similar to your own by visiting the campus multicultural center or a related space. 

Get to Know the “Real” College

Jeff Haig | Co-Founder
Campus visits are students’ opportunity to get to know what the “real” college is all about. A student’s job when visiting is to dive much deeper into the college’s make-up than what a website or marketing brochure can tell him/her. Some activities that should be on the top of every student’s list are to talk in-depth with students to get their feedback, thoroughly explore the targeted department, and visit with the activities/organizations that are of strong interest. Lastly, students should get acquainted with the local area as they should be happy with both the college and the surrounding area.

Go beyond the information session and tour

Moira O'Riordan | College Counselor
While the formal visit has become increasingly important and can weight the admission result in the student’s favor, there is also much for students to gain by going beyond that orchestrated visit. Pay to eat lunch in the cafeteria, sit with students and ask questions. What do you like about this school? What would you change? What do students complain about? Are any of you doing research with a professor? How did that happen? Pick up the newspaper and read the bulletin boards. Finally, set up a visit with faculty. Oftentimes faculty become the determining factor in a student’s decision

Grab a book and pull up a chair...

Lisa Bain-Carlton | Educational Consultant
Most college tours will take you on a quick run through the library.  However, I'd recommend you stop by the library for a longer visit.  Bring a book or take one from the shelves and then observe the action around you.  Are students working in groups?  Do people stop by and chat with one another?  Is the physical space comfortable?  If you see a student studying a subject you are interested in, you might consider asking them about the course.  You are going to be spending a great deal of time in the library, therefore, taking a break among the books can be a good way to determine if the environment feels like a match for you.

Keep your eyes and ears open and take notes!

Susan Smith | Educational Consultant
Check the proximity of town, note how the students are dressed, what activities are going on (Frisbee? Classes outside?), and certainly eat in the cafeteria. If you know your major, go to that department and talk to the students and professors. Looking at the posts on bulletin boards across campus will give you a sense of what’s happening; the friendliness of students towards your tour guide will also tell you something. When you write your thank you letter, you will begin a dialogue that will allow you to ask questions throughout the process, and they will know who you are!

Let them know you're there!

Carol Morris | Regional Director of Admissions
A number of schools have begun tracking your interest level, which can play a part in the admission decision later on. Don't just visit the campus on your own; check in with the admissions office and let them know you're there! While it's helpful to attend the information session and tour, even if you simply hang out with current students who are friends, you don't want them to mistakenly assume you never visited campus (and therefore might be making a somewhat less-informed decision to apply, with a less-intense interest in the school, and subsequently less-strong odds that you will eventually attend.) Get credit for showing up!

Look for what's important to YOU

Mary Beth Fry | Director of College Counseling
Don't be distracted by a college’s glitzy selling points (the perennial, shiny-new fitness center comes to mind). Instead, set your own priorities before you visit each campus--seeing the performing arts center and science labs at every school, for example--and stick to them. Always plan to see the big five: where you'll sleep, eat, work (class buildings), play (athletic fields, gym and student center), and study (library or quiet study areas), plus anything else that’s important to you. If a tour guide overlooks any of these, politely request that he or she show you what you've missed. Don’t leave campus until you’ve seen what you need to see!

Look out in the open.

Scott White | Director of Guidance
When visiting a college and trying to get a feel for the place, look at places where the students express themselves: read what is on student doors; read the graffiti in the bathroom, read the student newspaper, look at ratemyprofessors.com. Go to the dining room. Who's sitting with whom? Do minority students, jocks, etc. co-mingle with the rest of the students or sit separately? How many of the guys are wearing baseball caps, and how many are wearing them backwards. Do the students look like they just rolled out of bed or do they look like they are ready for the cotillion? How do the students carry themselves: with confidence or with cowardice? Is the campus kept up? Are their weeds growing everywhere, water spots on ceilings, flaking paint? Do the dorms stink of beer or bong water? Read the posters: are there causes you believe in or activities you are interested in? Find random students and ask: would they go to this school if they could start over? What do they like best or hate the most about the school?

Observe, question, go off the beaten path, do what interests you

Patti Demoff | Co-Founder
Use the visit for information, but also for observation. Observe students, where they congregate, their interactions. Do you feel like you will fit in? Go off the beaten path. Walk or drive around the surrounding neighborhood. Are there appealing places to eat, shop and hang out? Ask questions of various people, or if that’s too intimidating, let your parents do it. Arrange in advance to visit areas of importance to you: disability services, arts facilities, sports facilities and coaches, science labs, faculty or program heads, classes. Finally, do what interests you. For example, one passionate, prospective student visited art museums on every campus.

OBSERVE, QUESTION, TASTE your way to a great campus visit!

Susan Reznick | Independent Educational Consultant
Imagine you are an anthropologist/detective who needs to observe inhabitants in their natural setting. Can you determine how they socialize, study and what’s important to them? Can you get a sense if these “natives” are the people that you would want to hang out with? Check them out carefully: do they dress like you or are they too “preppy”, too “funky”? Talk to them. Ask concrete questions: how do they spend their weekends? What was their best and worst classroom experience? And finally, be sure to eat some food in the cafeteria. Could you live on this for four years?

Overnights, classes a must for comprehensive campus visits.

Sandra Farris | College Counselor
As the college search and application process becomes increasingly more discriminating and expensive, it is critical for a student to take in every facet of campus life during a college visit. No longer will the standard two-hour walking tour and information session give prospective students the real feel for the heartbeat of the campus community. A day of shadowing a student in classes and an overnight stay in a dormitory is a must – preferably on a Thursday when weekend social activities begin in earnest. Adding an excursion to a nearby city would also inform. Whirlwind? Yes! Necessary? Absolutely!

Plan for the visit. Know what you want to discover.

Gwyeth Smith | President & CEO
If at all possible, visit the campus when the college is in session. See the students. Talk to students on campus. There will be many organizations advertising events. Are the students engaged? Is there activity? How important is Greek life? Can you visualize living with students you observe? If you want specific information regarding a program, contact that department prior to the visit to determine if someone can be available to meet with you. Be certain to sign in at the Admissions Office. It is important to show “demonstrated interest”.

Plan well and be observant.

Nola Lynch | Owner
Before doing a series of visits, try to outline what you are looking for—besides how well you feel you fit in. Memorize three to five things that you are going to try to examine at every school. Say you know you need quiet study space; late-night food; and plenty of free events to attend. You may find answers during your tour, or you may want to wander the campus, observing gathering spaces and reading bulletin boards. If your questions are specific, ask Admissions for guidance when you book your trip so that you can meet appropriate faculty and students.

Preparation is the key to successful college visits

Michael Goran | Director & Educational Consultant
The college visit is the best way to get a feel for a school and determine if it’s a good fit for you. The key to your visits is simple…plan ahead! Contact admissions offices to see if they offer overnight programs. Make tour reservations far in advance. Contact faculty members to meet and explore undergraduate research opportunities. If appropriate, contact coaches, music or theater department professors to discuss special requirements. Ask to sit in on classes. Research colleges through your high school’s resources, college web sites, and student newspapers. Prepare questions for students, faculty, admissions officers and financial aid staff.

Read the school newspaper!  Talk to the students!

Anne Richardson | Director of College Counseling, International & ESL Programs
Reading the school newspaper is a great way to discover the hot issues on campus.  You can always find copies in the student center – the place to go after the tour to check out the student hub of the campus.   Read the bulletin boards, talk to the students staffing tables.  There you can also find some students and ask them if they mind if you ask some questions – what are the hot topics on campus, what’s best about the campus, what would you change, etc?  Finally, to connect with someone specific – a professor or club president – ask Admissions to help you.

Spend some time during each college visit exploring by yourself.

Carolyn Lawrence | Founder
Spend some time alone on campus.  Sure, you’ll probably be arriving with mom and dad and taking the official tour, but if you decide to attend this college, mom and dad won’t be with you and you won’t have a tour guide.  So, at some point during your visit, break away from your parents and the tour and explore on your own.  Grab a bite to eat in the dining hall.  Hang out in the student union. Say hi to a few students. Look around. Listen in. Let yourself experience this campus without anyone else’s filter. Ask yourself: Can I see myself living here for the next four years?

Student should assess if the campus is a “good fit.”

Leigh Anne Spraetz | President
Students should ask about research and internship opportunities for freshmen, and about future assistance with the job search. They should try to attend a class or speak with an upperclassman who is majoring in their prospective major. Upon request, sometimes students can meet with a dean or faculty member from the department they are considering for their chosen major. They should also ask about the most common social opportunities for freshmen, and tour the local town. Finally, a student can ask about the typical learning style in classes for their intended major – is it lecture, discussion or experiential based?

Take Notes During and After Your Campus Visit

Howard Verman | Senior Associate
It's easy for your impressions and reactions of a particular college to become blurry months later when asked on the Common Application supplement, "Why do you think our college is a good fit for you?" Articulate answers to that question will be easier when you take good notes during and after your visit. Jot down details about unique college programs, quote things that professors or students said during your visit, and bring a digital camera with you to remind you what the campus looks like. Show that you’ve been observant and done your research and you will make a favorable impression.

Take time to explore the college on your own

Betsy Bingham-Johns | Director of College Counseling
Ask your parents to go get a cup of coffee and investigate the campus independently. Your will gain greater genuine insight about a school when you are perceived as a peer. Wander around the student center or a dining hall and ask random students questions. Ask those questions you wouldn’t ask someone in admissions. Students are more than happy to share their insights. Ask: it hard to get into the classes you want? Are the professors accessible? Would you pick this school if you had to do it all over again? Would you tell your best friend to go here? What are the best and worst things about this school? Is there anything to do on weekends?

Test-drive the college before signing on for the ride.

Mary Ann Willis | College Counselor
Consider all the traditional factors—size, distance, major, student-body composition, extracurriculars, residence/dining options—but look beyond those. Ask random students why they chose the school and whether they would choose it again. Make them president-for-a-day, and ask them what they’d change to make life better on campus. Ask about the quality of interaction with truly mentoring faculty members (your grad school/employment recommenders down the line). How does the college help students to think deeply, communicate effectively and question intelligently? What percent of grads are in grad school or working six months after graduation? Discerning prospective students ask questions like these to discover the best fit for them.

The campus visit is to determine if the college fits.

Dorothy Styles | Director for College Readiness Programs & Initiatives
To make the most of a campus visit, students and parents should view the college’s website prior to the visit. The visit is to determine how the college feels. Does the college seem inviting? Are the student body/college personnel warm and friendly toward visitors? Do students seem interested and engaged during class? Are the dormitories and cafeteria clean, orderly and a relaxing place for students? Other questions relate to what types of student support services are available, types of safety measures in place, types of transportation resources available to go off campus, and percentage of freshman students returning sophomore year?

The student newspaper is a must read

Don Fraser, Jr. | Director of Education and Training
Your main objective should be to gather information that you cannot find anywhere else.  The school’s student newspaper is a great resource for that.  Read it and you’ll learn about the important issues on campus, what students care about, upcoming events and possibly even campus safety.  If this will be your home for the next few years, you’ll also want to understand the campus climate.  Examine what is hanging on the walls in the cafeteria, student center, and the academic buildings.  What student organizations have a strong presence on campus?  What opportunities are available to students? What seems to matter?   

Think ‘Outside the Box” for your next college visit.

Ellen Fisher | Founder & Independent College Advisor
Be prepared for your college visit. Every visit will consist of a tour, conducted by a student and an information session, conducted by an Admissions Officer. Rain or shine, plan on three hours and sore feet! Before you go, really visit and research that college’s web site. Make notes for yourself so you will remember to ask or look for things that are important to you. Many times you can attend a class in a subject of interest to you. (you must make the request prior to your visit). During your visit, eat lunch in the student center, visit the career center and review the lists of internships the students take part in. If school spirit is important to you, perhaps you can attend an athletic event. Or attend a performance. And one last thing, take a walk around the town or city….. potentially this will be your neighborhood for the next 4 years, how does it feel?

Tourism’s nice, but you’ll want to see the campus like a local.

Gail Grand | President
The tourist experiences the college info session and campus tour. But to see it like a local, pick up and skim any campus newspaper you find, especially the “underground” ones. These will provide insight into the campus climate and you’ll learn about the big issues on campus. Study the fliers tacked on kiosks and talk to the students manning organization tables near the campus center. Ask questions about student involvement or the lack of it. Stop by the Career Office to study the help-wanted bulletin boards and notices about corporate recruiters coming to campus. Stop in and inquire about the percent of students who have job offers on graduation. Ask about the availability of internships.

Use All Five Senses when test driving a campus visit

Joan Koven | Founder & Director
The 549 mile college road trip with your parents is a rite of passage. This is your college audition time. Use all five senses to determine how you feel about a campus. Experience the taste of the new FroYo option in the cafe at the student union; hear the cheering coming from the soccer field as the school clinches their conference title; feel the benefits of suite style dorm living and what it may mean to share a room freshman year; see a classroom in action and experience the professor engaging in a lively classroom debate; smell the lilacs on the college's 100 acre arboretum. This is how to test drive a campus.

Visit a ‘freebie’ campus close to home for your first visit.

Nancy McDuff | Associate Vice President for Admissions & Enrollment Management
Some students make their first campus visit to their number one school.  But if you visit a local school first and get comfortable with the campus visit, you will get more out of the visit to that school that really interests you. Think of it as a dress rehearsal. On a trial visit, listen to the questions and answers to help you determine what you really need to know about the school.  Did they cover the things that matter to you and, if not, make sure that you ask about them on your important visits.  Get rid of the jitters that may accompany you on visits to ‘important’ school by making sure that it is not your first campus visit and build a baseline for comparison.

Visit in session, attend a class, and dine with students.

Ralph Becker | Owner & Director
Visit the campus while in session.  After a formal visit and information session, explore the campus alone. Many schools, like Tufts, will let you attend classes. If you have a sense of your major, attend a core course. Arranged in advance, some will allow you to stay overnight in their dormitories.  Anything is possible; just ask.  Visit the gym, pick up the newspaper and check the bulletin boards, find out about internet access, go to the library, and talk to as many students as you can, especially over a meal in the cafeteria: they’re relaxed and open to honest exchanges. 

Whatever you do, see the college outside of the formal tour!

Yolanda Watson Spiva | Executive Director
College tours are great, but if you are interested in seeing the “ins and outs” of a campus, be sure to stay overnight, and if you can, visit the schools you’re serious about during the weekend. Staying overnight and visiting during the weekend give you the opportunity to interact with students in a more relaxed setting, and help you get the real “scoop” on the institution. Non-peak times on campus may also help you view the school’s campus security in action and give you a look at the social environment. This information is not easily gleaned during the formal college tour or from the college's website.

When visiting campuses, it’s good to dig below the surface!

Deborah Shames | Independent College Search Consultant & Transfer Admissions Advisor
As a potential member of a specific college community, it’s important to know what you can live with and without.  I always advise students to talk to “real” students, not just the tour guides.  Ask them where else they applied and why they ultimately chose this college.  Ask what  has been their most memorable academic experiences to date.  Ask what they would do with a million dollars to improve something about their school.  Ask what surprised them when they got to campus that they would want a prospective student to know.  The answers may surprise and enlighten you, helping you to make a sound decision as to the best fit for you.

You will know within minutes whether a campus 'feels' right

Jill Madenberg | Independent Educational Consultant
When visiting college campuses, stop random students and talk to them. You will be surprised how candid and forthcoming they usually are about what they like (and don't) about their school. Be sure to visit high trafficked areas like the student center, dining halls and dorms, etc. to see students in their relaxed environment. In addition to taking the tour offered by the admissions department, walk around campus and talk to students and professors. This will give you an unscripted reality of campus life. If time permits, try to sit in on a class in your desired major and speak to the professor afterwards. In these economic times, it is important to ask students if they have the schedule of classes they wanted. Walk around the campus with your eyes open, ready to absorb the community around you.


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