Spring break will be coming up soon and that’s the perfect time for a college tour since colleges are usually on a different vacation schedule. You will have the opportunity to see the students and get a feel for the atmosphere on campus.
The more colleges you visit, the better you get at evaluating whether the school is a match. That’s why I suggest starting with local colleges, even if they’re not on a student’s list. After visiting a few schools, you’ll know what to look for and will be in a better position to assess what you’re seeing.
On college trips, it’s hard to resist the temptation to see as many schools as possible. But visiting more than two schools a day becomes a frantic rush from one college to the next, with no time to fully experience each school. Plan on spending at least three or four hours on campus so you have time for a tour, information session and a meal in the dining hall. When possible, it’s also helpful for parents to give students a little time to experience the campus on their own.
Sitting in on a class is something few students do, but it’s a great opportunity to get a sense of academic life on campus. If you plan to major in psychology, you might sit in on a psychology class at each college. You’ll see if students are engaged in discussion or sleeping through a boring lecture. You can also ask students about other professors in the department. Great teachers who are excited about working with undergraduates can transform a student’s life.
Many colleges list tours and information sessions on their website, and often you can just show up, but it’s a good idea to call the admissions office and let them know you’re coming, especially during the busy spring season, and definitely if you want to sit in on a class. Be sure to sign in when you arrive so that they know you were there. This is important at colleges that track demonstrated interest.
While student tour guides are very knowledgeable and will usually answer questions honestly, they’re also likely to put the most positive spin on the school. That’s why it’s important to talk to other students on campus. All of these students have gone through the college admission process in the last few years, and most are happy to share their wisdom. I always ask students what has been their best experience at the college. How has the school met their expectations or disappointed them? What kind of person is a good fit for this college? What are their three favorite things about the school and what are three things they wish were different? If you know your major, you might want to ask about the reputation of that department.
You also want to know if students have trouble getting courses they want. While a student might expect to be shut out of popular classes at a large state university, it can also happen at small colleges that are committed to keeping classes small. Get a feel for the intellectual climate by asking what the best classes are and how much time students spend studying. It’s also important to get a sense of what they do for fun. I like to ask students what they did last weekend. Check bulletin boards and pick up a school newspaper to see what lectures, concerts, and club meetings are scheduled.
Look at the people. What kind of community is this? Do you see groups of students talking or are most people walking alone? Do students look anxious and stressed, or like they’re enjoying life?
Be sure to check out the surrounding community. Can you walk to a movie theater and market? If not, how far is the nearest town?
For a prospective student, ultimately it comes down to a gut reaction. Do you feel excited being on this campus? Can you see yourself walking to class, hanging out with these people, being part of this community? If you feel good about yourself while you’re visiting this college, if you see people you’d like to get to know, you’re that much closer to making a good match.