Visiting a college campus can be a daunting experience for students — so many places to see and such a limited time there. This is our guide to all the things you should (ideally) do during these visits.
The further down this list you read, the later in your process these items should come. It may be hard to do all of these things for every school you visit, but in the perfect world we recommend doing as many as possible. Some of this information is redundant with what we discussed in So you heard from colleges… what now, but this advice applies more broadly to anyone who is visiting college campuses. As with much of our advice, these are not hard and fast rules, but rather suggested guidelines.
1) Take the tour (with a grain of salt)
The first and most obvious thing you can do at a college is to take a tour. This will guarantee you have a chance to see exactly what the school wants you to see of the campus and nothing more: usually the picturesque quad, the newest dorms, the sleek and modern student center, and whatever rare manuscripts happen to be featured in the lobby of the library. The tour is also a great chance to hear campus legends (even if they’ve been disproved) and learn what the college experience is like from the point of view of a student who is paid to sell the school to visitors. If you go on a lot of tours, you may start to have trouble remembering what was at which school. The tour is not a chance to see the real school, just a curated version of it. Still, it’s important to go on for two reasons: 1) you get your name in the logs as having toured the school (see our Demonstrated Interest post for more on this) and 2) you can see what the school values and is most proud of displaying to visitors. One liberal arts school I visited showed my family the recreation center, the sports field, the student union, and every part of campus that had nothing to do with learning. Toward the end of the tour, my brother raised his hand and asked if they had classes there, at which point the tour guide finally talked about academic life on-campus. To me, this meant that the school did not value their academics, and for that reason I didn’t even consider applying. So the key lesson here is to take the tour, but be wary of salesy tour guides and know that you’re only seeing a fraction of the picture.
2) Attend an information session
Attending an info session is also a must. Like the tour, this session will brief you on the fundamentals of a college: their favorite statistics to brag about, special study abroad programs, application processes, and more, all in a way that also makes the school look very good. And as with the tour, the info session can tell you a lot about a college. Often it will be on the dryer side, particularly for more staid universities — I remember nearly falling asleep on uncomfortable pews while attending a Princeton University info session (in Princeton’s defense, I was 10 years old when I visited — I don’t recommend that). Sometimes colleges will change up the format, for instance, bringing in students to answer questions or having a professor present. Ideally when you’re at an info session you’ll ask a question, either during the question-and-answer session or 1-on-1 with the admissions officer after. This question should not be something that can be found on the school website — I’ve seen students ask things like “what majors do you have?” or “when is the application deadline?” Questions like these are a waste of the officers’ time and yours. Focus on open-ended questions that solicit stories from officers, like “what’s your favorite thing about the school” or follow-up questions like “you mentioned this thing [insert thing the admissions officer mentioned] briefly, could you talk a little more about it?” Asking a question signals your interest to the school, and often admissions officers take note of students who ask exceptional questions.
Also, a caveat: with both the tour and the info session, be wary and know that a single admissions officer is not necessarily an accurate representation of the entire school — so whether you like them or not is not as important as whether you like the school overall.
There’s a chance that if you’re visiting at a busy time, registration for tours or info sessions may already be booked. If this is the case, it’s fine to take a self-guided tour. However, you should still visit the admissions office and register as having visited. This will let the school know that you were there, and often admissions offices will have materials prepared for self-guided tours.
Many colleges only offer interviews to students who have already applied and these are often conducted off-campus by alumni. However, some (such as Yale, Rice, and Brandeis) do offer on-campus interviews, either with admissions officers or current students (usually the latter). Research to see if the school you’re visiting offers these, and if so, be sure to register early — these spots tend to fill up fast. If you have an interview, refer to our post on college interviews for some advice. The interview is useful not just for showing your interest in the school, but also for having your questions answered. Even if you’re visiting a school you’re not sure you’ll apply to, an interview is a great chance to learn more (and to practice your interview skills for the ones that matter). The interview is particularly important for colleges that consider demonstrated interest, so don’t miss the opportunity if it’s offered!
4) Meet a student
Usually if you’ve been admitted to a school that you’re visiting, the college will set you up with a student ambassador to take you around campus and answer questions. However, if you’re visiting before that point, you’ll need to take initiative to make this happen. First, use your network to see if any family friends or alumni from your high school are current students at the college. If not, research clubs on campus that relate to your interests and current high school experiences (for instance, most colleges will have an orchestra or a Model U.N.) and reach out to multiple club leaders — students will often be excited for the opportunity to show prospective students around! Use this meeting to learn what life as a student at the college is really like, since these students will likely be more honest with you than any of the official representatives of the school.
5) Eat in the dining hall
Many colleges have the reputation for having terrible food, while others are known for spoiling their students with chef-selected menus and locally sourced ingredients. Food may or may not be important to you in your college selection process, but eating in a dining hall can give you a good sense of what social life is like on campus. Plus, you can judge whether that food will be tolerable to you over the course of your college career. There are different theories around college dining halls (Malcolm Gladwell has a famous one in his Revisionist History podcast), but in my experience, I’ve found that campuses that invest in high quality food create cultures where students are more likely to congregate around the dining halls (I ate in dining halls all four years at Cornell, which consistently ranks in the top 10 for campus food by Princeton Review — most of my friends at other colleges didn’t eat in dining halls after their freshman years). Many schools don’t prioritize food, which creates a different sort of dynamic where students eat out more. If I had to hypothesize, this eating out culture likely fosters close-knit relationships as well as cliquishness, as opposed to wider, more diverse student networks. Studies have actually found that students who eat in dining halls on average receive better grades and feel more social support, which lends credence to the benefits of communal eating on college campuses. So try a meal in the dining hall and see if it feels like a place you could visit for four years!
6) The bubble tea test
If you are coming from East Asia, some American towns will likely feel more welcome to you than others. To gauge how welcoming they will be, we’ve come up with a simple test: Go to the collegetown area (wherever students hang out off-campus) and see if there’s anywhere that sells bubble tea. Most major collegetowns in America will have a large enough East Asian population to sustain a bubble tea shop, but some might surprise you, which is why it’s worth checking. Even Ithaca, New York (population 30,000), home of Cornell and located in the middle of nowhere, has at least two shops that sell bubble tea. These collegetown bubble teas likely won’t be as good as what you’re used to, but just having one shows and that there’s an international presence around campus. (If you’re visiting NYU, try Boba Guys, my favorite US-based bubble tea chain.) Regardless of whether they have good bubble tea or not though, if you’re concerned about the Asian population on campus you’ll want to place extra emphasis on list item four (meet a student) and use that opportunity to speak with club leaders of the Asian International or Asian American club to learn more about their experiences on campus.
7) Talk to a professor
Before you visit campus, do some research to see what professors are at each college who you’d be interested in studying with. Ideally these professors will have research interests that very clearly align your Spike (if you have one). Reach out to them and see if they’d be willing to meet with you. Many professors love to talk about their work and are often very candid about the pros and cons of their schools, which makes them a valuable source of information.
If you aren’t able to set meetings up in advance, don’t be afraid of knocking on doors (particularly during the summer, when professors don’t have to worry about meeting with students) or even talking to strangers! Visiting SUNY Geneseo, I was having trouble finding the admissions office (before the age of smartphones) and asked a group of professorial-looking people for directions. It turned out that one of those people was the college’s president! We had a great conversation, and it made me feel welcome on campus in a way I hadn’t before. You never know who you can meet or how those interactions will affect your perception of the school. There’s also a chance that a professor you really impress might write to the admissions office about you. It’s unlikely, but you never know — and in the world of college admissions, any little boost to your application can be enough to tip chances in your favor.
8) Sit in on a class
The reason most students go to college is for the classes, and yet most campus visits don’t give you a sense of what classes are actually like at a school. Sitting in on one is a great way to find this out. Some colleges will have classes that are officially open to visitors, so try asking the admissions officer if they have any you can sit in on. Alternatively, if you’re already meeting and/or emailing with a professor, it doesn’t hurt to ask if you could attend one of their classes. You could also work backwards and look for interesting classes in the course catalog that are currently in session, then email the professors of those courses to ask if you can join for a session of it. I actually did this when visiting Cornell: I found an English course that sounded exciting to me (discussing The Invisible Man, which I had just read in AP English) and the professor was more than happy to let me sit in.
9) Spend a night in the dorms
Many colleges don’t offer official overnight stays anymore, but some still do. Do some research and see if there’s an official program like Cornell’s Red Carpet Ambassadors or Berkeley’s Overnight Stay Program. If there isn’t an official method for this, you might use your network to see if there’s anyone you can stay with informally. Someone from your high school or a family friend could be happy to host you! Spending a night in the dorms will not only grant you an inside look at the facilities themselves, but it will also give you a glimpse of what a typical night on campus looks like. Are students studying? Partying? Watching Disney movies at the student center? Does it feel like there are students doing what you would want to be doing? We recommend staying over on a weeknight rather than a weekend for a more accurate sample.
10) Ask yourself “could I be at home here for four years?”
This is a hard question to answer when you’re only visiting a college for a day, but try. Be self-aware and constantly checking in with yourself about how you feel while on campus. We recommend journaling about your experience at each school to process and digest the visit better. Look for the little things the college does to make you feel at home. When I visited Union College, a small liberal arts school in New York, I sat in the student union building drinking a delicious strawberry smoothie and watching students come and go. Something about that setting made me feel totally at home in a way I hadn’t at several other colleges I visited. At University of Rochester, a student I met described their “Take Five Scholars” program with such excitement it reminded me of my close friends back home. Moments like these are what can define your experience of a school: after all, what is four years but a series of moments? Home is a very difficult feeling to describe, but to me it’s a combination of feeling safe yet excited to take risks, comfortable yet driven to try to new things, and not being able to wait to be there. You will hopefully recognize this feeling when you get it, or you might experience it in a totally different way. Chances are you’ll feel it at very few schools (I’ve mentioned this before, but I only felt it at four out of over 20 schools that I visited), so be sure to visit enough to give yourself a chance to be really excited about some of them. When you find a school that you feel at home at, it’s a truly special feeling that is even more important than things like ranking or student to professor ratio.