Off the Beaten Path: College Visits Beyond the Official Tour

Even though spring break can give you some well-deserved time-off from the rigors of junior and senior year, these periods are also the time you might be thinking about visiting college campuses. For juniors, it is the perfect time to start looking at schools; for seniors, it gives them one more opportunity to visit the schools to which they have been admitted as they try to decide where to matriculate. The college tour is the traditional way to let students see a lot of campus sights in a short amount of time, but there is much more to visiting colleges than just the official tour. Besides watching a cheery student ambassador walk backwards while spouting off facts about the college, you also gain a great deal of insight into a college (and whether it is right for you) by doing a little of your own research and legwork. While this takes a little more effort than simply signing up online for a group tour, the benefits of tailoring a visit to your interests and needs are considerable. Here are some tips to help you go beyond the tour and get the most out of your campus visit.  

Go to Class Attending a college class is one of the best ways to find out if the college is a good fit for you. Contact the admissions office to see if any classes allow prospective students to sit in and observe. Not only will you get a taste of what a typical college class is like at that particular college, but you will also get a better sense of the school’s faculty and students. “Visiting classes can give you good insight on the students by showing you their level of engagement with the subject matter,” says Karen Miller, a college sophomore. “Class visits are especially helpful for getting a handle on the teachers–do they facilitate discussion well? Are they interesting lecturers? In this same vein, observe what happens at the end of class. Are the students able to interact with the professor to ask questions or get help? If you have the choice of visiting several classes, opt to visit one that is in your area of interest. Besides being a topic that you are already interested in, this allows you to see what majoring in this particular subject might be like. 

Spend the Night Many colleges, including Williams and Vassar, allow prospective students to spend the night in the dorms. Besides getting to see dorm life up close, spending some time with your host (usually a freshman or sophomore at the college) will give you a better feel for the college and its student body. Whether you are looking for classmates who love the nightlife or ones who want to spend time in the library, chances are you will get a chance to see what happens on the campus after dark.  

Pursue Your Interests If you are passionate about a particular subject or extracurricular activity (and you plan to continue it in college), your campus visit is the perfect time to find out more about the college’s offerings. Don’t hesitate to request meetings with professors in departments that interest you. Talking to a professor or department head can give you a better perspective on the program’s offerings and accessibility, especially if you are interested in taking courses in a particular subject but you might not want to major in it. Besides academic offerings, you can also ask admissions if you can tour specific facilities, such as the school’s art studio, theatre or athletic facilities, or if you can speak with the program’s participants, instructors and coaches.  

Call in a Few Favors If you are visiting a college where you have a friend or relative (or even a friend of a friend), try to get in touch with this person to see if he or she can show you around. This is an authentic and low-key way to get to sit in on a class, learn about the campus hot spots, and get a candid opinion about the college in question. Unlike the typical tour guide, this person does not have a vested interested in selling the school and its talking points, so getting his or her view can be very valuable.

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