It’s spring break season, and summer is just around the corner. The last thing you want to do is sit inside and create a giant spreadsheet to help you compare every aspect of every school that you’ve ever considered going to. Luckily, it’s actually more useful to go visit colleges than it is to obsessively check their median SAT scores. And it’s more fun.
If you can afford the time and money to go visit the schools you’re interested in (or even just one of them—it’s amazing what a campus visit can do), it’s worth it. You’ll get a feel for things in just a few minutes that you otherwise could never figure out on a college website, Wikipedia, or a ranking site— even the one I work on.
But once you show up on campus, even if you’re taking a student-led tour (highly recommended), it can be scary to walk around and not know what to look for or where you’re going. Aren’t all the college students staring at me? Are they going to make fun of me? If these thoughts go through your head, the answers are “no” and “no.” If the students even notice you, they’ll remember when they were in your shoes, and if you ask nicely, they will happily point you toward that building you can’t seem to find.
But what should you look for? And where should you go? There are plenty of checklists out there that tell you to look for a million and a half different things, but let’s be honest—you’re not going to walk around with a clipboard, and even if you did, what’d be the point? You’re not an inspector; you’re trying to get a feel for the school and whether you want to spend four (or more) years of your life there. Instead of trying to tally pluses and minuses, I suggest looking to see whether you “fit” in four different areas, and below I offer ways of investigating each one. Happy visiting!
This one should be obvious—it’s why you’re going to college. But some people get so caught up ogling the school’s fancy fitness center that they never think to ask themselves whether they’ll thrive there academically. Scanning departmental websites and reading the course catalog can only get you so far. Figuring out the college’s academic vibe is much more important, and it’s impossible to do online.
I remember going with a high schooler from my church to visit a college because he was interested in their landscape design program. We looked up the building where that department was housed and wandered inside, not knowing what we were actually looking for. When we saw a student walking down the hallway, we asked if he knew where the landscape design department was. His face brightened—that was his major! He then took us into a giant studio with dozens of miniature 3D models of parks and golf courses that students were working on. He told us about the department, about his specific design interests, and his career goals. My student was sold. This was his dream.
If a college answers your academic and professional passions, it can be the biggest selling point possible, and nothing else will really matter. Of course, not everyone is going to have an experience like we did, but it’s worth putting yourself in a situation where it could happen. Wander into the buildings where you would end up going to class and office hours. Go to the library and look for good study space. Ask the admissions office about sitting in on a lecture or meeting a professor. When I was choosing a college, I sat in on a class where zero students had done the reading, and when they formed small groups to discuss an assignment, they sat around talking about smoking weed. For the entire time. That experience, combined with meeting an extremely stuck-up professor—probably the snobbiest person I’ve ever met—made that particular school an easy reject. One down.
Student Life Fit
So when you’re not busy creating mini models of the next-gen urban park or reading the forgotten letters of a 19th-century Russian exile (that was me), what else will you do as a college student? This is the question that the category of “student life” is supposed to answer. If your only answer is “Xbox Live,” then I guess you can skip this one. But for the rest of us…
A helpful starting point is the campus newspaper. Pick one up and take a look at what’s inside. But read between the lines as well: Campus newspapers are often remarkable reflections of a student body’s personality. If the entire front page is devoted to a recent football game, that means something. If instead there’s a point-counterpoint feature on intolerance, campus diversity, and free speech, that means something else. You can take this same tactic with the requisite bulletin boards that are all over every college campus. What’s being advertised? Pub crawls? Experimental theater? Debates about philosophy?
You will also want to go to the activities center, the intercultural center, or wherever else serves as the hub for student life. If there’s a particular group or club you’d want to join (think ethnic/cultural, religious, Greek, activity-based, etc.), see whether it’s there. If the school doesn’t have that group, that’s not necessarily grounds for automatic rejection, however. You could always start it! But be honest with yourself: if walking onto a campus with no Black Student Alliance or Hillel or gardening club sounds horrible to you, maybe it’s best to look elsewhere. After all, the existence of certain clubs is evidence of certain interests and passions that are present (or not) among the student body. For example, it was because of our school’s active network of religious student groups that I met the woman who is now my fiancée.
Beautiful buildings make your life better. This should seem obvious, but in our zeal for not “judging a book by its cover,” we forget that it’s okay to care about beauty and appearance. I went to a college with an extremely beautiful campus, and I didn’t need a scientific study to know that I was happier for it. Campus appearance isn’t everything, of course, but don’t dismiss beauty as “just looks.” Even into my senior year, I was still grateful for the beautiful buildings and landscaping all around me. And now, my fiancée and I are renting a building there for our wedding reception. You never know!
The “Setting” category entails more than just a beautiful campus though. You should also take note of the general health of the facilities—are they well maintained? Or are buildings falling apart? Many popular websites recommend looking for “new construction,” since it supposedly shows that the college is in good financial health. I don’t recommend that you actually look for this, though, since it creates a perverse incentive for the administration: in order to seem “healthy,” they continually build cheap, low-quality buildings, so that they can afford to have the campus always under construction. New buildings don’t really prove anything. Better to build one beautiful, long-lasting hall rather than a dozen shoddy structures.
Besides taking note of the campus setting, walk around the neighborhood that surrounds the college. Some college campuses feel like paradise, but go a few minutes off campus, and you’re in an entirely different world. Maybe you want to be in a gritty urban setting, or maybe in the middle of cornfields—either way, you should figure out what will be around you for four years. Weather is also a huge factor. I’ve known people who’ve transferred schools solely because of months-long stretches of cold temperatures and gray skies. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) hits some people hard. Know if that’s you before leaving LA to go to college in Vermont.
Campus tours are good, but the students who run them usually have to stick to a pretty close script. Make sure you ask questions, but if you’re brave enough, approach some random students and politely ask if they wouldn’t mind talking for a couple minutes. If they love their college, they will probably be excited to try and convince you to enroll.
One thing to ask about is the programs or features that the college likes to advertise: close relationships with professors, cool internships, or living-learning communities. Any good marketing employee can make these sound cool in a glossy brochure—ask a student what they think about them. Have the promises lived up to their expectations?
In addition, think ahead to the kinds of opportunities you will want to take advantage of in college. Studying abroad can be a life-changing experience. Does the college make it easy to do this? Some schools offer undergrads the chance to do groundbreaking research. Is this something you’re interested in? Or maybe you would like to go straight from undergrad to grad school. Are there programs to help you do this? If you plan ahead just a little bit, you can make a much more informed decision, and if you talk to students, you’ll be able to figure the true availability of these kinds of programs.
Instead of acting like you’re on an episode of The Bachelor: College Search Edition, looking to bestow a rose on the perfect campus, have reasonable expectations and note specific things you’re looking for. Nothing annoys me more in all the writing about the college admissions process than when the author makes it sound like you have one college “soulmate” waiting for you out there that will be the perfect fit, and that the moment you step on campus you’ll just know it. No college is perfect, and every single one will annoy you in different ways. But some colleges are better fits than others for different individuals. All in all, if you can find some level of “fit” in a few or all of these categories—academic, student life, setting, and program—then the college will probably work for you.
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About Ryan Hammill
Ryan Hammill is an editor at College Choice. He loved his college experience in Los Angeles because of the way it helped him to grow (and because of the weather), and he hopes that other students will have a similarly enriching experience. His writing on college and on other topics has appeared in a variety of online and print outlets.
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