Between sports, after-school jobs, clubs and homework, high school students are finding it increasingly challenging to make time to tour colleges. However, April vacation presents a wonderful opportunity for these visits: There is enough time to see schools at a distance, classes are still in session, and admissions offices have fully turned their attention to the Class of 2009. Yet, while tour guides and admissions deans can provide a wealth of information, before you leave campus take the time to go beyond the facts and try to uncover the real culture of the school.
Colleges offer information sessions and tours for students, and it is a good idea to attend both. Information sessions are generally lead by an admissions officer who will share the important facts and statistics about their school and then open the floor to questions. Sometimes a panel of students will share their stories and experiences. These sessions are a wonderful way to get a broad overview of the school.
A student-lead tour of the campus allows you to see where students eat, sleep, study and play, and gives a good sense of the type of student who is happy at that school. The tour guide will provide information about a class day, the nitty-gritty details about meal plans and lottery systems for room selection, and will freely share stories of their experiences at the college.
Tour guides will flesh out the college experience at their school, but generally their anecdotes are limited to their personal experiences.
However, for many prospective students, the factors that will contribute to their happiness and ultimate success at college have little to do with class size, wireless Internet availability or the opportunity to "keep the same mailbox for all four years" - all the type of things your tour guide will cheerfully tell you about.
More often, it is the friendships that are cultivated, the experiences never captured in the view book, and the events and traditions that make up school culture that make the "college experience." So, the challenge to juniors is just this: After the campus tour, spend some additional time on campus to uncover the real culture of a school - those things that truly define the undergraduate experience.
One of the best places to start to get a strong feel for a school is to spend time where the students hang out. Note who is where and doing what. Are lots of students in the library studying? Are they helping professors with research? Are they playing foosball in the student center? If you can imagine yourself spending your free time the way many of the students you see are, then it is likely that this school culture is a good match for you.
Another way to get an insider's perspective on a school is to enjoy a meal in the dining hall. Sometimes the admissions office will give prospective students a meal pass, but even if they don't, the information you can gather there is well worth the modest investment. More important than understanding the variety of meal plans the school offers is to get a sense of how many students eat on campus, whether meals are an important social event or just a calorie-consuming opportunity, and if students seem to be friendly and welcoming of everyone or whether specific, well-formed cliques can be identified.
I recently visited a campus where students were encouraged to compost their food waste and recycle their plastics. While it has nothing to do with the dining experience, per se, these are things that are important to me and I could imagine finding soulmates in that dining commons.
For students who know what they want to major in, try to arrange to meet with a professor while you are on campus to learn about unique opportunities for study or research within that department.
The student athlete should certainly be in touch with the coach of their sport but, more broadly, if there is a specific person connected with a club, activity or interest that will define your college experience - be it the maestro of the orchestra, the learning center director or the study abroad coordinator - make an effort to meet that person while on campus.
Making the most of a college visit means investing some extra time and energy, but finding a school that matches your academic, extracurricular, athletic and social interests is more than worth the added effort.
Don't let the tour guide be your only source of information - dig deep!
Tips for a successful college visit
- Make your reservations early - tour slots fill quickly
- Sign up for both the tour and the information session
- Leave plenty of time to walk around campus and the town on your own after the tour
- Pick up a copy of the student newspaper, read bulletin boards
- Talk to students you see on campus
- Walk up front with the tour guide so you can hear him and ask him questions between stops
- Take notes - you'll forget what you heard
- If you're inspired, take pictures
Reprinted with permission from Metrowest Daily News