Campus Visit Tips When Tours Won’t Fit

Question: We are taking a trip through the mid-west to visit several schools of interest to my son. While we’ve successfully scheduled tours at his top choices, we will be driving right by secondary choices which don’t have tours at useful times.Can you suggest what to do on such a visit?

You don’t say whether your trip will take place when these Midwestern schools are in session … or not. So I’m going to assume that they will be. Some of the advice that follows may only be apt during term time, but other suggestions can work in the summer or during breaks, too.

In a perfect world, prospective students should make “parallel visits” to their target colleges. In other words, if they’re taking a tour and attending an information session at one college, they should do the same at all. But, in the real world, that’s rarely possible, so I think you’ve already made a wise choice by planning the tours at your son’s top-choice schools while seeking other options for the next group down the pecking order. But do aim for parallel visits for these second fiddles, if you can.

How about information sessions? Do any of the colleges offer them at convenient times? And this includes the top-choice schools, too. I often find that, when forced to choose between a tour and an info session, the latter can be the most helpful. If you skip the tour, it’s still possible to poke around in the most important places on your own, but if you miss the info session, you may also miss out on some of the critical points that separate this college from its competitors. (In addition, although some admission staffers present great sessions while others are deadly dull, there is generally more quality control–and consistency–among the pros than there is among tour guides, and a lousy guide can sometimes be a deal-breaker.)

If your son can’t schedule a tour or info session, he can compile a checklist of campus places that he is likely to frequent wherever he enrolls. Depending on his academic and extracurricular interests, this roster might include:

gym/fitness center/pool
art studios
science/computer labs
newspaper office or radio station
library
student union/snack bar (more on this in a minute)
bathrooms (especially in dorms)
etc.

He should try to go through this checklist on each campus you see so that he’s making as few apples vs. oranges comparisons as possible. Of course, the timing of his visits will inevitably affect what he finds. For instance, the Student Union may be dead on one campus at 9 a.m. but bopping by noon on another. So you might be stuck with some of those apples/oranges perspectives, even when you’ve tried to guard against them.

If your son is really well organized, he can set up a coffee (etc.) date with a student on each campus he visits. Either through the admission office or the Internet, he can probably get the name and email address of a current undergrad who shares his passion for biology or biking, philosophy or Frisbee. Shy students may not be so keen on this approach, and it will take some advance planning, but it can be a worthwhile way to add a human face to the buildings and grounds. Your son’s “date” may also be able to get him a gander at a dorm room or two (and those aforementioned, all-important bathrooms). Alternatively, you can simply hang out at a dorm’s entry way and try to engage a passing student to take you inside. (Even tours don’t always peek inside the dorms or, if they do, they visit the Ritz of student residences, not the Motel Six, which may be the more typical model. :-( )

Another thing you can do on the secondary campuses (again, assuming that you’re there during term time) is to eat a meal in a college dining hall. The admission office can tell you if you can do this and also how. (Usually, you just need to nail down the meal times and walk in with your wallets open, but practices can vary from school to school.) At larger colleges, the Student Union or snack bar is another good option for meals, but at smaller schools, you may find that most students eat in the student dining commons or dorms, and the snack bar is primarily the purview of staff. Looking at bulletin boards or college newspapers (often lying around in piles in public places) can help to give you a feel of the school, too.

If you haven’t done so already, look for “Campus Vibe” photos, videos, and visit reports on College Confidential. These may alert you to must-see spots on the campuses on your itinerary.

Finally, below is an excerpt from Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions, which I co-authored. It hasn’t been updated since 2002, so some of the information in the book is obsolete, but much is timeless. I think that the questions I’ve pasted here, which you or your son can ask on each campus you see, fall into the latter camp:

Talking with current students is by far the best way to get to know a college, and any warm body is a likely source of information. Once you get to campus, put your inhibitions on hold. Feel free to approach passers-by with your questions. They’ll probably be delighted (if not, you’ll figure it out fast enough and move on), and a range of perspectives will paint a more accurate picture than merely one or two. It can be especially enlightening to compare admission office “party-line” answers to what real students claim is the status quo. (Tip: Try this investigative-reporter routine while your child is being interviewed. Not only will it pass the time, but it also enables you to engage in an activity that is potentially mortifying to your offspring.)

Questions to Ask Current Students
What is the average size of your classes? • Do professors know your name? • Are professors easily available outside of class? • How are advisors assigned/selected? • Do they really advise you? • Is it hard to get into popular courses? • What’s the workload like? • What’s most stressful here? • Are students competitive? Supportive? • Do a lot of students apply to grad school? • Do they get in?

Would you call this a “friendly” campus? • Is crime an issue? • What’s the social life all about? • Is drinking prevalent? • Drugs? • Are there fraternities, sororities or other social clubs? • How important are they? • What happens on weekends? • What are the most popular extracurricular activities? • Where do cultural events fit in? • How hard is it to make…. (the orchestra, the volleyball team, the student government, etc.)? • What’s dorm life like? • How’s the food? What are the strong points of the town/city where the college is located? • Is there much interaction with locals? • Are there any problems? • Where do students hang out on campus? Off campus?

Would you say the student body is diverse? • Is there a stereotype here? • What is the political climate, or isn’t there one at all? • Who are the minority groups here? • How are they treated? • Are there tensions between different factions? • How are they handled? • Do women feel like second-class citizens? • Does anyone?

Are internships really available? • Is the career planning office effective? • Are rules (both academic and social) rigid or flexible? • Do you feel like a person or a number? • What do students complain about most? • What do they praise? • Did the brochures (or admission staff) mislead you? • Would you apply here all over again?

Professors’ opinions are important, too, and making appointments ahead of time is recommended if your child really wants to meet a faculty member. However, a useful way to assess a target college is to wander the corridors where profs have their offices. Are doors often open? Are students in evidence? Are office hours posted?

How about after class? Do students linger to chat? Do professors appear to invite questions? Below are some that you or your child might try:

Questions for Faculty
• How many students are assigned to each advisor? • What is your average class size? • Is the format lecture, discussion, or other? • Do students question or participate often? • How frequently do you meet with students outside of class? • Do non-majors take your classes? • How many classes do you teach per term? • Who corrects and grades papers and exams? • Do you offer special independent study or research opportunities? • What can a student do if s/he needs extra help? • How do you use technology in your classroom? • May I see a syllabus from one of your classes? • What are some of your former students doing now? • Do you keep in touch?

Remember, whether you’re talking with professors or students, alumni or administrators, counselors or coaches, the manner in which they respond to your questions can be as telling as what they actually say. Are they amiable or are they aloof? Enthusiastic or apathetic? Well-spoken? Well-informed?

After all, a college is its people, as much as it is its catalog, classes, and campus, and without a visit to your target schools, it’s difficult to determine just how your child will fit in.

Hope this helps, and happy hunting!