It’s been a rite of passage for high school students for decades. Pile into the family car (or maybe if you’re lucky an airplane) and head out on a whirlwind pinball-esque tour of college campuses to evaluate in a series of 45 minute to an hour visits if a particular campus might be your future home. To adequately compare campus chicken finger offerings as well as dorm space (is an extra 3.5 square feet a deal breaker?) could be considered a bit of an art and science, but all jokes aside, it’s so important to test drive schools if you have the opportunity.
The most important thing to remember about college visits is prioritization. If you have 15 schools on your list, you might be able to get to all 15, but consider grouping schools that are geographically close like the Research Triangle in North Carolina or larger metropolitan areas like Boston, New York or Washington DC that are home to several universities. Also, if you’re in one of these cities where there’s a high concentration of schools, consider adding a school or two that wasn’t on your initial list. You might discover a diamond in the rough or at the very least have another basis for comparison. If you’re an early planner, try combining school visits with other planned travel. In terms of prioritizing schools, if you’re on the fence about a school, perhaps that bumps it up on your list. If 5 generations of your family have attended Cornell, you might not need a visit to Ithaca to learn more.
Many students will leverage junior year spring break or the summer after junior year for college visits. By then, lists are coming together and you should have a strong idea of what areas of study and activities are of interest.
Preparation is Key
Before you set foot on any campus, make sure you’ve done ample research. Look up a university’s event calendar. If there are free events, see if you can attend a pep rally or lecture. If you’re connecting with the admissions office for an official tour, ask if you can attend a class or meet with an academic advisor. Above all, don’t ask questions that Google can answer. Use your time wisely to understand what makes this place special – and perhaps the perfect fit for you.
Make sure you build a list of questions or things to look for before you go visit. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget things that are important to you, such as do they have a music room where you could play guitar in your free time? If you have classes at opposite ends of campus, is it reasonable to make it across campus? How many students live on campus for four years?
Virtual tours aren’t new. Many students aren’t able to make physical visits for a variety of reasons, but the pandemic has forced schools to prioritize their online presence and rethink how to digitally present themselves and build a brand that feels 3-dimensional and accessible. Previously, schools might have offered 360 degree campus views (via a digital campus map), but now students can get a more MTV Cribs inspired glimpse including peeks at dorms and students unions and even classrooms and gyms. These productions aren’t perfect, but they’re far more authentic than dated still shots and can even giver you a sense of what campus foot traffic might be.
Companies like CampusTours and YouVisit offer virtual tours of more than 2,000 schools in the U.S. (and CampusTours also offers a peek at schools in the UK, Canada, and China) in addition to the videos that universities may have created.
As with all research, be sure to watch multiple tours so you can compare and piece together a better picture of university life.
Conducting Online Research
While the university should be your single source of truth for many things e.g. application dates, essay supplements, fees, and policies, when it comes to student life and campus culture, remember to look beyond those little blue checkboxes on social media. Of course a school wants you to see their best side, so to find some less filtered feedback, expand your research to include forums and social media. Sites like College Confidential offer an opportunity to engage with actual students to get a peek into real life. Social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram can provide additional perspective and maybe clue you into things that students love (or might not love). The extra effort takes some time and with all subjective things, take unofficial feedback with a grain of salt. But remember that the broader your sourcing the better (and more complete!) the impression of campus life will be.
Don’t Forget Life Beyond the Gates
While students spend most of their time on campus, don’t forget that universities are part of much broader ecosystems. Consider the town or city where the university is located. If you grew up in Manhattan, would you be comfortable in South Bend, Indiana? Or if you’ve never set foot on public transportation, does the idea of taking a transit bus or trolley to get to / from classes appeal to you? Towns are a big part of the college experience and may even play a role in summer internships and jobs depending on where you land. Make sure you spend some time learning about the community that exists beyond the front gates (or four walls).
Yelp and Google Maps are a great way to start understanding the landscape and what else there is to do off campus. What local restaurants are there? Is there a theater district or large green space? Does the area look like someplace you’re enjoy meandering one afternoon when you have free time? Also look at where students live – how many commute from off campus and is public transportation available?
There’s much to consider when finding your next home for four years so make sure you’re learning as much as possible both online and in person.