Every college tour I went on played out like a tiny drama. I showed up with my expectations, I felt out the vibe while the tour guide regurgitated the university’s list of useless facts and precise numbers, and by the end, I either loved that school or I hated it. There was rarely an in-between.
You get a few hours to feel out a place where you might be spending the next 4 years and you have to decide in that timeframe if you can see yourself there. Oh, honey, it is so much more than a scenic walking tour.
- Research before you go.
It’s true that research won’t tell you everything, or even the most important things about a school. But it does give you a starting point and it helps you ask the right questions.
For example, if your goal is to become a neurosurgeon and the biology department’s website talks about botany and ecology research but not biochemistry or medical research, you write down a note to ask about that on your visit.
My rule of thumb is this: if you a specific need, whether it is related to your academic ambitions, creative desires, sports goals, social life, mental health, spiritual well-being, or just things that you irrationally care about, research it and ask about it.
- Write down your impressions.
After every college visit, you are going to be experiencing a fleet of emotions. And because you’re visiting up to three schools in a day, it’s easy for those emotions to get mixed up if you aren’t keeping track of them.
Once your tour is over, find a nice spot to sit on campus and spend 10 minutes writing down your thoughts, emotions, and any lingering questions before you leave. What you’re getting at here is your gut feeling about a university. It’s okay if your feelings toward a place after you’ve been there don’t match up with your preconceptions. You might hate the school you thought you’d love and love the school you thought you’d hate. Don’t be stubborn. Be honest with yourself. It matters.
- It’s for you, not your parents.
On any given day parents have an opinion on most things. A week into a college road trip on which they’ve been reminded day after day what the price tag of getting a degree is, they have an opinion on everything, and they feel particularly entitled to making those opinions heard.
Maybe it starts when you ask the tour guide, “What is there to do on the weekends?” And you are genuinely curious to hear the answer when, all of a sudden, in front of the entire group, your mom hits you with a “Really, Brooklyn? I’m not paying all this money for you to be thinking about the weekends.” The tension is real.
My advice is this: relax and tune it out. You don’t want the memory of your favorite university to be tarnished by a parking lot breakdown. Applying to college is inevitably emotional for you and your parents, so try to keep the peace on the trip, but don’t let it stop you from getting answers to the things you care about.
- Get off campus too.
Even if you attend Berry College in Rome, Georgia (which, at over 27,000 acres, is the largest campus in the world) you are going to go off campus at some point in the next four years, I promise. When you are scheduling road trips, make sure to leave some time for exploring the neighborhood and the city closest to your campus.
Some schools offer a lot of amenities because they don’t exist off campus. Some schools offer fewer amenities because they can’t compete with everything that’s happening nearby. Check it out for yourself and see.
This totally gives you insight into internship and job opportunities as well. It might not matter to you yet but by junior and senior year those are going to be some big selling points!
- Keep in mind the BIG questions.
Does this college offer the classes you need to pursue the career you want? Could you see yourself making friends here? Can you afford to live in this city? Are there enough opportunities on campus for you to reach your full potential? Will you be happy here?
It’s really important to do a mental run-through of these questions on your college tour. Sometimes the place that looked perfect online just doesn’t measure up in person and that is totally okay. I’ll use my own college road trip as an example.
On paper, I thought that Pepperdine University would be the perfect school for me and I was telling everyone it was my top choice. But during my campus visit, I realized it wasn’t for me. The study abroad options were limited, the churchgoing requirements were too extensive, and unless I wanted to wrestle with traffic on PCH, Malibu was actually pretty isolated.
In contrast, the University of San Diego was not even on my radar. I had dragged my dad along to watch a surf contest one day (I was desperate to get the full California experience on this college trip) and while we were on the beach talking to people, someone recommended we drive south and check out USD.
I had never even heard of that tiny little school on the hill but the next day, when my dad and I visited the campus, I knew it was going to be my home. USD had everything that drew me to Pepperdine in the first place plus those few important things that Pepperdine lacked for me.
Be flexible, be honest with yourself, and be mindful that this brief campus tour is your best opportunity for finding out which colleges are truly a good match for you.
Pro-tip: Take a tour while school is in session.
Obviously, you can’t indulge in unexcused absences from school for every college you want to visit, but for the schools at the top of your list, you should. There are a few advantages to touring while the university is in session.
First, you get to feel what the campus is like when it is alive with the hustle and bustle of daily life. You get a sense of what the student body is like based on the clothes they wear, the expressions on their faces, and even the number of kids who choose to stay on campus and lounge on the quad between classes.
Second, you can sit in on a class. If you call the admissions office ahead of time and tell them what area of study you are interested in, they should have no problem accommodating you. This will help you get a grasp on how much you value class size, what student-professor relationships are like, and if you like the way material is taught and tested.
Third, schedule a coffee date with a current student. This is a great way to get the real juice on what it’s like to go to school there, not just the sugarcoated version that tour guides present to you. If you can, stay on campus overnight with a friend!
The best part of touring while classes are in session is that you get an authentic glimpse of campus life. That becomes a very valuable insight when you’re deciding where you want to spend the next four years of your life.