How to Make the Most of Your College Campus Visits

Photo Credit: Kungming2, Wikimedia Commons

It is hard to overemphasize how important campus visits are to the college application process. As a student, college visits can give you a sense of what your academic and social life at a particular college would be like and whether you would be happy at the school. College admissions officers also highly value campus visits; since applicants who visit campus are more likely to matriculate if admitted, admissions officers look more favorably on applicants who have visited their school.

As campus visits are so valuable but short, it’s important to maximize your time at each school. We have some tips on how to get the most out of your visit to each university:

Narrow Your List of Colleges Before Visiting

Campus visits can be expensive and time-consuming. As such, you should learn more about colleges before visiting them to focus your campus visits on the schools that interest you most.

There are a number of ways to learn more about a university before visiting it. You could:

  • Attend a webinar or local information session for the schools you’re interested in.
  • Speak with alumni or current students from the school in your local community.
  • Review the universities’ course catalogs, student activities websites, and admitted class profiles on their websites.
  • Try out a virtual campus tour if the university offers it. You can find virtual tours for select universities on the universities’ websites or on YouVisit: https://www.youvisit.com/collegesearch/

You can also use the above methods to learn more about your target schools without visiting them if you don’t have the resources to visit every school that interests you.

While it’s important to focus your resources on the universities that interest you most, you should also visit your safety schools. It’s important to make sure that you have a few back-up options in case you are rejected or waitlisted at your dream schools. If you don’t think that you would be content at your safety schools after visiting them, look for other safety schools.

Take Notes

It’s particularly hard to remember all the details of a single college visit if you visit multiple campuses in a short time. Different schools can blend together in your mind.

The best way to make sure that you remember every part of your college visits is to take notes at each campus. Bring a notebook on every campus tour and write down key pieces of information you learn about the school. List the names of the people you spoke with and a few key details from your conversations. You should also note your general impressions of your experience on campus. Did the students in your potential major seem happy or stressed? Did you feel safe on campus?

Additionally, you can use your notebook to keep track of key questions about academics, student life, admissions, financial aid, and other topics that you want to discuss with members of the university community.

Your notebook may be helpful to you for months after your campus visits. Weaving details from your notes into your applications can show your interest in the specific school you’re applying to and thus increase your chances of getting in. You can mention your experience visiting campus and what you learned in your “Why University X?” essay. You should also list the information sessions you attended and the current students, professors, and admissions officers you spoke with if the school asks for this information in your application. Taking notes on your visit experience will make your application writing process easier.

A library on the Ohio State University campus.
The William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library, Ohio State University. Photo Credit: VasenkaPhotography

Visit When Students Are on Campus

If possible, you should visit universities when students are on campus. Campuses are completely different without students. As such, it’s better not to visit during the summer or over the universities’ fall, winter, or spring breaks. Luckily, college and high school fall/spring breaks often don’t align, so university classes may be in session during your fall/spring breaks.

Visiting while classes are in session gives you the chance to speak with current students, sit in on a class, and stay overnight. It also gives you the chance to experience more intangible parts of the campus’ atmosphere. Do students look happy or stressed? Are most students hanging out in groups or by themselves? Where do students study and socialize on campus?

It is also best to avoid a university’s midterms/finals week when visiting campus. You won’t get a full sense of the college’s social life or how happy students are on campus during finals week. Also, students may be less willing to take time to speak with you about their experiences on campus. Since student insight is such a valuable source of information, it’s best to visit campus when students have the time to speak with you.

Speak with Current Students.

As we mentioned above, one of the most important parts of a college visit (if not the most important part) is speaking with current students. They are the best source of information on what your experience would be like as a student at their university.

It is often easiest to speak with tour guides and other current students who work for the admissions office. However, these students are often more likely to discuss the positives of their school and try to mitigate the negatives. Thus, it’s important to speak with the students you encounter in class visits, at the dining hall, during overnight stays, or even in line at the campus coffee bar to get a fuller picture of the campus experience. Speak with as many people as possible, but try to find students who share your academic, extracurricular, and social interests for the best sense of what your experience at that university would be like.

You should go into conversations with current students with a sense of what you would most like to know, since each student may only have a few minutes to speak with you. You can find a list of the best questions to ask students (and other campus community members) here: The 70 Best Questions to Ask on a Campus Visit

A classroom at Carnegie Mellon University.
A classroom at Carnegie Mellon University. Photo Credit: Dllu, Wikimedia Commons

Sit in on a Class or Two

Sitting in on a class can give you a much clearer picture of the educational experience a college offers. While sitting in on a variety of classes is valuable, you should prioritize courses in your intended major(s) to get the clearest picture of what your experience would be like. If your major will require a number of large introductory classes, it would be better to sit in on one of those classes than a higher-level seminar to make sure that you find this class style engaging.

While every university has different class visit policies, you will likely have to arrange your visit in advance with the admissions office and/or the course professor. Most campuses require you to arrive to class 5-10 minutes early to introduce yourself to the professor and ensure it is a good day to visit the class (e.g., the class won’t be taking a quiz or traveling to an off-campus event). You will be expected to stay for the full class period, so make sure that you know when the class ends.

During the class, you should pay full attention to the lecture and participate in any activities. Turn your phone off and do not surf the internet, even if the students around you aren’t paying attention. You want to show your respect for the professor and the class.

At the end of the class, take a moment to thank the professor. They may ask you about what you thought of the class or what you learned; it’s a good idea to have a few brief thoughts on the topic prepared.

Finally, while visiting a class is valuable, it’s only one part of the larger academic program. It’s important to talk to students and professors in your major(s) to get a more complete picture of the school’s academic offerings.

Meet with Professors

Of all the parts of your campus visit, meeting with professors can give you the best sense of the university/school/department’s educational philosophy and what your major prepares students to do after graduation. At some schools, you can schedule meetings with professors through the admissions office. However, you will usually have to reach out to professors directly. Try to choose a professor within your major who works on research or topics that interest you.

We’ve provided a more thorough overview of what questions to ask professors during campus visits here: The 70 Best Questions to Ask on a Campus Visit

As an important note, you should not try to convince the professor to speak to the admissions committee on your behalf or write you a recommendation. Pressing them on this matter could have the opposite result from the one you intended. If the professor proactively offers to put in a good word for you with the admissions committee, it’s fine to accept. However, they should provide an informal recommendation or letter of support; your official recommendation letters should come from high school teachers, coaches, supervisors, or other people who know you better.

Dorms on the University of Delaware's main campus.
Residence halls at the University of Delaware. Photo Credit: Ottawa80, Wikimedia Commons

Stay Overnight

Some colleges offer prospective students the chance to stay overnight. Usually, the prospective student stays with a current student and shadows that person in their classes and activities.

If your target schools offer an overnight visit, contact the admissions office to arrange it. The admissions office will usually ask you a few questions about your interests and intended major to help match you with a student with similar interests.

Overnight visits tend to provide the most realistic picture of a school, since you have the additional time to attend multiple classes and meals and speak with your host, their friends, and their dormmates. However, overnight visits take the most time of any campus visit, so it’s particularly important to narrow down your list of schools before planning overnight visits.

Overnight visits can also give you the broadest overview of the campus facilities. Try to stay in a typical freshman dorm to get a sense of what your living space will be like. How loud are the dorms? Would you be comfortable living there for a year (or several)? What are the academic facilities like and where will you study? Where do students spend their free time? An overnight visit can help you determine the answers to all these questions, and figure out whether you would like to spend the next four years on this particular campus.

Attend a Preview Weekend

Some colleges offer special preview days or weekends for select students. Often, state schools will offer a visit day/event for in-state students.

Other universities have preview weekends for students from diverse backgrounds, like underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students. If you qualify for these programs, schools will often handle some or all of the visit cost for students. It is worth looking for these programs at the schools to which you plan to apply.

Try the Food

Whether you’re on campus for a few hours or a few days, you should still take the time to try the food. Eat at a dining hall, or check out the campus cafes. This is particularly important if you have any special dietary restrictions or needs. Many dining halls will also have a menu for the next few weeks or months that you can peruse.  You should make sure that you’ll have a number of good options for meals on campus, since the dining scene at some institutions can get old really quickly.

If you have more time in your visit, you can also check out the food options off campus. If the school offers some form of dining dollars, your off-campus options can help liven up a repetitive on-campus menu.

Aerial view of the University of California, Berkeley.
Aerial view of the University of California, Berkeley and its surroundings. Photo Credit: Firstcultural, Wikimedia Commons

Leave Campus

Our final piece of advice may seem counterintuitive: during your campus visit, you should leave campus to check out the surrounding town/city. However, a university’s surroundings have a much bigger impact on students’ happiness than many prospective students realize.

It’s important to ask yourself questions about the campus’ location and what you want in a university. Do you want a peaceful rural or suburban campus or a bustling city campus? How does this particular university’s surroundings measure up to what you want for your college experience?

While visiting the university’s neighborhood, you should answer questions like: Where do students hang out in town? What opportunities exist off campus? Is there a bigger city nearby?

If you have time, it is also helpful to wander through the university’s neighborhood after dark. Do you feel safe on campus at night? If not, it may be worth considering other schools.

Have you visited any colleges yet? If so, what would you do differently if you could visit them again? Let us know in the comments!

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