College Visits: How To Do Them Right

If you are in 11th grade, you’ve probably just started getting serious about the college admissions process.  (And if you haven’t, that opening line is a clue to you that you should!)  One of the most important things to do over the course of the next 6 months is figure out which colleges are going to be “on your list.”  By that I mean, where are you going to apply to college?  I encourage students to develop a list of 25-30 possibles and then do research on them to whittle it down to 10-15.

The single best way to research a college is to visit it on a weekday, while school is in regular session.  And I’m delighted that so many of you are planning college visits over the coming months.  But there are two major hazards of college visits that I want you to avoid – one is “the parent trap” and the other is “just do the tour trap.”

The Parent Trap

Most students travel with their parents on college visits.  It can be a great time together and I’m all for your family being involved and supportive.  But, college visits are tricky because you and your parents are in the "launching years" transition.  You must step up and assume leadership in this process and your parents must step back and become the encouragers/supporters rather than directors.  

This transition is hard for everyone, but the college visit is a good place to practice your new roles.  As the leader, you set the ground rules.  I suggest you set these two ground rules: 

Rule #1:  Your parents do not ask questions in information sessions with admissions officers, nor do they assault admissions officers before or after to get their questions answered.  You are the applicant.  You ask ANY AND ALL questions of admissions officers.

Rule #2:  You and your parents should go on different campus tours; if only one tour is available, then you go on it and your parents should wander on their own.  On the tour, your parents may ask questions, since you aren’t there.

Now I expect that both you and your parents will balk a bit at these ground rules.  But, I'm telling you that they work and are for everyone's good.  They put you in the leadership role and your parents in a supporting/encouraging role.  Yes, the rules sound a bit draconian, but, in my experience, simple rules are easier to follow than "nuanced" behavioral guidelines.  

The Just Do the Tour Trap

Much to my dismay, I’ve discovered that for many of you, a college visit consists of attending an information session and doing the tour, or worse still just doing “a drive-by” while on a family vacation.  That means a sizable percentage of you manage to visit a college without learning anything that you didn’t already know or that you couldn’t find out through other cheaper and easier ways (directories, web sites, google earth, gossip).  

The Scavenger Hunt

So, I’ve devised a “college visit scavenger hunt” to give you guidance on how to get the most from your college visit. 

Warning:  completing the scavenger hunt will require you to use some initiative and go “off tour.”  But come on, you are considering committing the next four years of your life to this place, not to mention having its name appear on every resume in your future, so muster a little enthusiasm and courage and just do it.

The Rules for the Scavenger Hunt: 

  • Not only is advance research allowed, it is expected.  Using each college’s web site, plot where the items will take you on the campus map, so you know basically where you are going.  (You may also discover that certain “offices” I mention don’t exist and the particular activity is handled differently at that college, so no reason to wander around looking for it!)
  • Divide into teams of 2-3 if you are traveling with more than 1 friend or schoolmate OR if you are traveling with your parents. If you are traveling with your parents, you must divide up – they are their own team and can go on the scavenger hunt too, but they can’t go with you.
  • Start with any item; I’ve noted how much time you have to complete each item. Determine how many you can complete in the time you have for your visit.  If you have broken into teams, you can either all do the same items or divide and conquer the entire list.   But you must adhere to the time limits – it gives you practice meeting college deadlines.
  • Pick at least 3 items that you will do at EVERY school you visit so that you have a basis for comparison.
  • Document your completion of each item with notes or photos.  For most of you, you’ll do that with your cell phone; for those still pleading with parents that a cell phone is a necessity, you’ll have to resort to old-fashioned paper and pen.
  • Break no laws.  It is not necessary to break any laws, and it is a BAD way to start the college admissions process.

The Hunt:  Off the Tour Things to Do on A College Visit

  • Visit a class (50 minutes) OR stand outside a class and unobtrusively eavesdrop on the class for a few minutes (5 minutes).  Note that you should get there a few minutes early and ask the professor’s permission to sit in on the class.
  •  Visit the college bookstore and “go shopping for textbooks” – find a course that you might take and look at what the required reading is. (15 minutes)
  • Locate the building that is “home” for your potential major (it will be where the department has offices). Wander the halls and see if you can find a professor in his/her office who is having “office hours” (times when they are available to talk with students) or is just available for a few minutes of conversation. (15 minutes)
  • Hang out in front of a freshman residence hall and ask a student going in to let you see his/her room, the common areas, a bathroom, and the laundry.   (It is usually best to ask a student of your sex, so you see a room that you might be assigned.) (20 minutes)
  • Eat a meal in the dining hall.  (30 minutes)
  • Engage a student in conversation and ask about school traditions and big “all-school” events.  (15 minutes)
  • Walk through the library and see if you can figure out where you would study for finals. (15 minutes)
  • Find out where intramural sports are played and go watch some and talk with students about opportunities for participation in intramurals. (20 minutes)
  • Go to the student center and check out the clubs and activities on-campus.  Identify a few that would interest you.  See if you can find a student who does one of them (maybe in an office for the club) and talk with him/her about it. (15 minutes)  
  •  Visit the career center and see what you learn about what opportunities you’ll have when you graduate and see what services the career center provides. (15 minutes)
  • Find out where students get mail and packages and engage a few students in conversation about what they like best about the college. (15 minutes)
  • Notice how students transport themselves on-campus – on foot, by bike, by scooter, by skateboard.  Stop someone and ask if you “need x” to get around here. OR Find out how students get to favorite off-campus locales and take yourself off campus and back.  (15 - 45 minutes)
  • Pick up the school newspaper and read it.  (Look for the “student produced” newspaper, not the “college produced” newspaper.) (15 minutes)
  • Take time to read the posters or watch the “announcements” scroll on the University close circuit TV system.  Find at least one thing you’d make the time to do over the next 2 weeks if you were still there. (15 minutes)
  • Visit the gym or rec center, note the hours, see what the fitness facilities are like and decide when you would work out or what intramural/club sport you’d play. (15 minutes) 
  • FOR BUDDING RESEARCHERS/ACADEMICS:  Find a faculty member or student in your area of interest and ask about research opportunities.  (15 minutes)
  • FOR THOSE WHO WANT INTERNSHIPS OR STUDY ABROAD:  Visit the office that coordinates internships for students or study abroad and find at least 3 internships or 2 study abroad opportunities that interest you. (30 minutes)
  • FOR POTENTIAL VARSITY ATHLETES:  Find the coach for your sport and talk with him/her.  Bring a tape or something else that documents your abilities.  (30 minutes)
  • FOR SPARE TIME ACTORS, ARTISTS, MUSICIANS:  Find a on-campus theater that has student productions, a studio space available to students, or a practice room available to students and see what is available to you as a non-major. (15 minutes)
  • FOR THE TRUE BLUE VOLUNTEER:  Visit the office that coordinates student community service or the office of a particular student organization and talk with someone who has been involved in the last year.  (15 minutes)

If you avoid the two hazards I've described and do a REAL college visit, I guarantee that you’ll learn things about the colleges that you couldn’t possibly find out any other way AND you’ll have a lot more fun along the way.  So go forth and visit…and post your stories for our vicarious enjoyment!

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting.  She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College).  As a result, she’s no stranger to college visits:  as an admissions officer she hosted thousands of hopeful students and over the years, she’s visited more than 150 colleges herself and she’s done every single thing on the hunt multiple times!  So no excuses for you. Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege).