What Should I Look For on a College Visit?

Don't pack your schedule on campus, but try to sit in on classes and talk to current students.


College visits can often be deal breakers in the decision to apply to or attend a school. With summer coming up, students need to consider the most important—but often overlooked—things to do on these tours. This week's question from Jason C. in Boulder, Colo. tackles the issue of how to be productive during campus visits.

Q: With several campus visits scheduled, I want to make the most of them—what are some uncommon, but important, things to do, look for, and ask while I'm there?

A: Where will you spend the most time? Look there first!

Michele Hernandez, president and founder, HernandezCollegeConsulting.com and ApplicationBootCamp.com The best way to judge a campus is by sitting in on a few classes if you have time. Sure, some colleges will have better gyms or higher-tech classrooms, but the bottom line is that you are going to spend a lot of time in class, so the quality of the teaching and the accessibility of the professors should be top priority. Take the time to visit the library—are there comfortable study spaces? Private study carrels for deep study? Are the librarians helpful? Are students busy studying in the library?

Of course it's also great if you can speak to current students, ask them what they like most about their school, and what they would change ... about their school. Finally, it is very helpful to seek out professors in your area of interest to find out more about a particular department. How easy is it to get into classes? How impressed were you by the professors you met and the classes you attended?

[See U.S. News's list of questions to ask on campus tours.]

A: On a campus visit itinerary, less can be more.

Eric Furda, dean of admissions, University of Pennsylvania Don't pack your schedule. No more than two campus visits per day. You will feel rushed. Allow enough time for practical matters like parking, getting from an airport or train station, and finding the admissions office. While on the campus, allow enough time for unstructured time (outside the information session and tour) to walk the campus, go to common spaces, libraries, dining halls, or the student center.

Listen to what the students are talking about as they walk through campus. Pull a few students to the side and ask them how they like the school. Before the visit find out what classes are available for prospective students to visit. Some departments (particularly smaller majors like languages, math, [and] physics), may be open for a visit with a faculty member with some planning. After the visit, write down your impressions of the place—it may help you with the "why our school" essay, if you decide to apply.

A: My most important advice is: split up and strike out!

Nancy Meislahn, dean of admissions and financial aid, Wesleyan University Set a goal for your visits: Try to learn about aspects that are difficult to describe (in prose or pictures)—the things that are not on the website or in the view book. What is the student culture? What does it feel like to be in the student center or the dorm?

If you visit with parents, siblings, or friends strike out on your own and explore things that interest you. Get a pass to work out at the fitness center. Read bulletin boards. Check out academic department office hours. Compare notes with each other on the ride home to get the fullest possible picture. No time like the present!

[See some colleges that offer unique campus tours.]

A: Don't just visit; engage the campus in every way possible.

Ralph Figueroa, director of college guidance, Albuquerque Academy Visits are extremely helpful, but don't judge a college until you have engaged the campus. Attend classes, go to club meetings, eat in the dining hall, and sleep in the dorms, if possible. Do you know students there from your school or home state? Look them up; ask them about their experiences.

Pick up a student newspaper to find out about important issues on campus. Be sure to [peruse] exam kiosks and bulletin boards—they are a gold mine of information about the speakers, clubs, and even work opportunities available. Finally: pay attention to the intangibles—how a college makes you feel.

A: The student newspaper is a must read.

Don Fraser, Jr., director of education and training, National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Your main objective should be to gather information that you cannot find anywhere else. The school's student newspaper is a great resource for that. Read it and you'll learn about the important issues on campus, what students care about, upcoming events, and possibly even campus safety.

If this will be your home for the next few years, you'll also want to understand the campus climate. Examine what is hanging on the walls in the cafeteria, student center, and the academic buildings. What student organizations have a strong presence on campus? What opportunities are available to students? What seems to matter?

Visit the Unigo Expert Network to see how 35 other experts feel about college visits and to have your own questions answered.