You wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving it. So why would you apply to a college without visiting it and giving it a test drive? After all, four years at most schools is going to cost a lot more than your next set of wheels — and will affect your future much more.
That’s why I recommend that students visit every school they’re seriously interested in attending, and even some that are long shots.
Not every visit has to be a long weekend jammed with tours and meetings. Just attending a football game or participating in a band competition can give you enough perspective to know if a particular campus merits further research. The more schools you visit, the more you will start to recognize what is important to you — a beautiful campus, a strong social scene, an urban or rural setting — in addition to the academic side.
For schools at the top of your list, a longer visit will be much more helpful. If possible, schedule it on a day when classes are in session so you get a real picture of what the campus looks like in action. Here are some things to look for:
Meet with an admissions officer and take a tour. You’ll come away with a solid overview of the school’s selling points and may even improve your chances of being accepted. A visit demonstrates that you’re serious and willing to show initiative.
Attend a class or two in your chosen field. Of course this is just a sample, but sitting in on classes can show broad trends: How big are classes? Do students seem eager to participate? Does the professor lecture or invite discussion?
Meet a professor. This can let you start imagining being part of the department. “Ben” set up a meeting with a professor at a school that was not his top choice. But the professor gave him a tour of his lab and demonstrated a current research project. Ben, who knew he learned best doing hands-on work, was hooked. He ended up attending that school.
Observe campus life. Park yourself on a bench or in the student union and just people watch. “Courtney” decided against one college because everyone she saw seemed stressed and busy, too rushed to chat or even smile. Then she visited another college where she ran across a group of students huddled together — one student was hanging upside down from a tree, another standing on his hands. It turned out they were working on a research paper about viewing the world from an upside-down perspective — just the kind of creative, out-of-the-box approach that Courtney loved. She had found her school.
Donna Spann is CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college advisor for 11 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career and college exploration, admissions, and financial aid, and find the college that’s right for them.