Getting more out of campus tours, college fairs and info sessions

By Jessica Gross
06/11/2015
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Researching colleges thoroughly before you apply means going to campus fairs, campus tours, and information sessions. Right?

Not exactly. Administrators often design these events to project specific images of their schools. That means just absorbing information probably will give you a manufactured impression of the schools you’re considering, not an accurate idea of what these schools are like for students.

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“A lot of students just show up with no agenda at all, and you really can’t do that,” said Bari Meltzer Norman, a former Admissions Officer at Barnard College/Columbia University and currently the Director of Expert Admissions, a college consulting company. “If you don’t ask any questions you’re going to get the same spiel, like everybody else.”

Eliciting useful information from tour guides and admissions officers—information that enables you truly to distinguish between different schools—involves asking pointed questions. Jenny VanSparrentak, a freshman and tour guide at Central Michigan University, said guides are eager for interesting queries.

“Ask questions about what you’re interested in or concerned with. Guides give dozens of tours and they are rather broad because all groups have different interests and it’s the guides’ job to make everyone love Central, so don’t be afraid to ask…it’s your tour!” she wrote in an email.

Norman recommended asking tour guides questions that target students’ experiences: Why did you choose here? Where else did you apply? What are students complaining about? What’s one thing you’d like to change about this school? Do students have a strong voice on campus?

Alexis Spina, who graduated from the University of Delaware in 2007 and is now studying education at its graduate school, was a tour guide from her freshman through her senior year. She, too, recommends pushing tour guides to explain their college experiences in detail.

“Real questions to ask: What do you do on the weekend, besides going out? Put the tour guide on the spot to see what life is REALLY like on downtime. How many hours a week do you spend studying/doing work? What do you do to get away from homework when things are getting crazy? Do you feel you made the right decision? Are there options to work on or around campus? How easy have you found it to speak to your professors?” she wrote in an email.

Push admissions officers to answer targeted questions at college fairs and information sessions. College fairs feature tens of schools, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Remain focused on discovering what distinguishes each school from the rest of the colleges in the room.

Good questions for admissions officers include: What kind of student would be most successful or happy at your school? What kind of student would not be happy? What is the average college student like? Work to get the answer you’re looking for. Many officers will tell you that students on campus are diverse, but there’s a reason high school students choose one school over another.

“Hopefully it’s a very diverse group but at the same time, realistically, there’s some common thread,” Norman said.

Going on college tours, to campus fairs, and to information sessions armed with incisive questions is an important step toward gleaning the most—and most useful—information you can. But the right approach involves, at its root, the right mindset.

To be proactive, Norman recommends adopting the perspective of students deciding between schools that have already accepted them. Instead of worrying yourself with whether the schools you’re researching will accept you, look at colleges with a critical eye: What appeals to you? What are the drawbacks?

“Students are so preoccupied with, ‘Are they going to accept me? Am I going to get in?’ in the pre-applicant phase that they can’t see the forest for the trees,” Norman said. “You have to see the campus as an admitted student.”

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