by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Approaching graduation, the typical high school student is bombarded with a postal plethora of slick and glitzy literature from colleges attempting to entice the student to apply. With each school appearing more fabulous than the last, how is a student to decide where to apply, and later, in which school to enroll?
“Exactly because of the increased marketing efforts that colleges and universities are doing for today’s student, publications and even Websites are quite glamorous,” acknowledges Mary Napier, former dean of admissions at Stetson University, DeLand. That’s why Napier and most other experts advise translating the slick brochures into reality. They contend that visiting campuses is crucial to the college decision-making process. The visit, Napier says, “is probably the single most important part of a student’s college search.
Students seeing and experiencing a campus firsthand are providing real answers to their own questions about environment, programs, quality, and even the look and feel of the campus.” Napier joins some Stetson students in offering advice for getting the most out of a campus visit:
- Use all that slick literature you got from the college, as well as other references, to prepare for your visit. “Read,” advises Napier. “Talk with people who have gone to the institution — arrive with an open mind.” If you plan to visit several campuses, take notes and perhaps even photos.
- Have an idea what you’re looking for before you visit. “Every college isn’t for everybody,” observes Amy Darling, a recent Stetson graduate and former member of Student Ambassadors, the group that conducts tours and hosts prospective students on the Stetson campus. “Students should try to figure out what they want in a college and why before they come and observe all they can to find out if the school they are touring fits the criteria.”
- Take the tour, but also take time to go beyond first impressions. “Don’t give in to the sound-bite, MTV mentality,” Napier advises. “Schedule enough time to arrive before the tour starts and walk around. Then take the ‘official tour’ with an idea of what you hope to learn — prepare questions in advance.” Darling suggests prospective students be honest with themselves when formulating questions and forming impressions. “They need to ask the questions that are in their minds,” Darling says. “It is sometimes hard to do so with parents around, so taking the tour without parents might be a good idea.”
International business grad and former Student Ambassador Desiree Devaney recalls the importance of touring campuses in her decision. “The tour was important to me because it reflected the personality of the student body. Meeting snotty people does not endear the school to a prospective student,” Devaney says, noting that she met no snotty people at Stetson.
The qualities that do impress students include honesty and friendliness, says Kerrie Beer, a junior computer information systems major and Student Ambassador. “I liked my visit to Stetson because the students seemed real, and when they talked about the school you could see that they were telling the truth,” Beer says. “The campus seemed like a family that cared about one another, and the students were all friendly and said hello to me when I walked around. They also asked if I was lost, which told me that they knew faces enough to tell a student from a stranger. Stetson also was up front about safety on campus, while other universities would not tell me unless I asked.”
- Find out about the campus culture. A copy of the student newspaper, some experts suggest, can tell you a lot. Students belonging to underrepresented ethnic, religious, and cultural groups should find out whether the campus environment supports their needs.
- Consider a personal interview. While some colleges don’t even permit interviews, others promote them. “At Stetson, we strongly encourage an interview as it provides information to the university as students get the opportunity to talk about themselves, their accomplishments, and their interests both in and out of the classroom,” Napier says. “Students get yet another forum to explore those elements in a college that are important to them by asking questions tailored to their interests.”
- Look for consistency in the message presented. “Ask the same question to several people on the visit — those who are ‘scheduled’ to talk with you and those whom you might stop and chat with,” advises Napier. “Students need to know if they are being told the truth about the campus or just what the admissions office wants them to hear,” Darling says.
- Do and see as much as you can, but plan in advance for special meetings or classes. “If you want to talk with faculty or coaches or want to sit in on a class, schedule your visit at least two weeks in advance,” Napier suggests. Observes Beer, “The most important part of a campus visit is to get a feel for the campus and see some of the residence halls. The student should eat some of the food and also try to sit in on a class in his or her potential major to see what a typical class will be like.” The opportunity to sit in on classes and experience the campus at its liveliest is the reason many experts advise visiting when school is in session instead of, for example, over Christmas break.
- Get a feel for the surrounding area. Stetson’s campus-visit brochure, for example, suggests visits to Central Florida’s theme parks, beaches, and natural attractions. Such side trips not only reveal what recreation is available near campus, but also can help the prospective student and family unwind from the rigors of the campus-visit circuit.
- Consider an overnight visit. “There is no better way to get a feel for a campus than to spend the night,” says Darling, who hosted several overnight visitors, all of whom decided to attend Stetson. “They all had a great time seeing what college was all about,” Darling says. “Yes, we did fun things, but they also saw the studying side of things too, which I think is important.” Agrees Beer, “I definitely advise an overnight visit to give the prospective student an idea of what typical days are like for a student. The student also can visit more classes than he or she could in just one day.” Both Beer and Darling know students for whom the overnight stay was the deciding factor in whether to attend Stetson. Beer recalls that her guest was still undecided about which college she wanted to attend, but the overnight stay helped her to see that Stetson was where she definitely wanted to enroll. “My roommate and I kept in contact with her over the summer and became good friends with her,” Beer recalls. “Now, she is one of my sorority sisters and is still very happy with the decision she made.”
- Don’t be late for appointments. Latecomers, Napier notes, “are likely to feel harried and unable to really absorb the information that is being presented.”
- Dress appropriately, not only for the weather, but also for making a good impression. “Casual is fine, but a neat appearance is much appreciated and shows respect for the process,” Napier says. And wear something you don’t have to worry about. Devaney wore what she describes as a “flowy, short skirt” on a particularly blustery day while touring a campus in Boston. “About all that I can recall from Boston is desperately grasping my skirt and trying to smile at the same time. The tour was lost on me,” she says.
- Be yourself. “Don’t try to be someone you aren’t when you visit,” Darling suggests. “If you do decide to go to that school, people will remember how you acted.”
- Be courteous. “I would not bash the school or say how much better another school is,” Darling says. “Remember that the students giving tours obviously enjoy their school enough to promote it to others.”
What to look for during your campus visit
“The student should look at the actual campus like the dorms, the library and academic buildings, but also should get a feel for the safety of the campus,” Beer advises. In addition, Beer suggests prospective students try to get several questions answered during their campus visits:
- What organizations can students get involved in?
- How large are classes?
- Is the university like a community?
- Do the students seem friendly?
- How many students drop out during their first semester/year?
- Are there tutoring programs?
Henry T. Snelling, who interviewed a number of admissions counselors in the Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware area for an article published on the World Wide Web, developed additional questions, paraphrased here, that can be addressed during the campus visit:
Questions for students:
- How well did the school meet your expectations?
- What was the biggest surprise or most significant disappointment about campus life?
- What do you like or dislike most about the school?
- What would you most like to change?
- How do they spend a typical weekend evening — hitting the books or the party scene?
Questions for admissions counselors (some of which may be answered by the school’s literature or Web site):
- What assistance or facilities are available for students with special needs, such as a learning disability, physical disability or other health problem?
- What is the campus crime rate, and what on- and off-campus security is available?
- Does the school offer student counseling services?
- Are the college’s teachers all professors, or are some of them instructors, graduate students or assistants?
- Do adjunct faculty members have teaching experience and appropriate academic credentials?
- Do all the faculty teaching entry-level courses have a good command of English?
- What is the typical class size for freshman-level courses?
- What percentage of students receive financial assistance, and what proportion is represented by self-help (loans and jobs), and what percent is true aid?
- What is the graduation rate?
- What kind of career-planning and job placement services are offered? What kinds of internships are available?
- What is the campus alcohol policy?
- What is the availability of computers and computer instruction? How up-to-date are the computers and the software in the school’s computer labs? What is the ratio of computers to students? Does the school provide Internet connections in residence halls?
- What is the physical size of the campus? Is it so sprawling that transportation is needed to get from class to class? Do students need cars, either to get around on campus or to travel to off-campus jobs and recreation?
- How big is the student body?
- What kinds of athletic opportunities (team or individual) are available?
- What kinds of recreational activities, community service opportunities, and political/cultural events are available?
- What is the college’s religious orientation?
- What sororities, fraternities, and social life are available?
- How diverse is the student body?
- What opportunities are available for study abroad?
- What housing choices are available?
- What is the school’s level of academic rigor and competitiveness?
- Is a narrowly prescribed set of courses required for graduation, or do students have relative freedom to build their own program?
- What is the faculty-student ratio?
- How accessible are teachers for informal meetings?
- Is the school on a semester, quarter, or some other system?
- What percentage of students go on to graduate and professional schools?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the advising system?
- How available are classes? Do students have a difficult time getting into classes and building a schedule?
- What percentage of students live on campus?
- To what extent are campus/work-study jobs available?
- Does the school have an honor system or code?
- How innovative are the academic programs?
Of course, sometimes students and parents bring observations, questions, and expectations that are not on the standard lists of advice, as Stetson’s Student Ambassadors have observed. “Some kids (and parents) think that maids will come clean their rooms,” Darling notes. “I once got asked by a parent if there were condom machines in the community bathrooms,” Beer recalls. “It is just generally amusing to watch students get their first glimpse into college,” Darling says. “I had a high school guy on a tour once. He was the kind you could just tell was popular. A girl walked by in a short dress, and he just blurted out, ‘I think I’m gonna like this college thing!’ His mother whacked him with her purse. Turned out he went to a Catholic school and hadn’t ever seen someone allowed to go to class in anything above the knee.”
Of all the aspects of college life that prospective students should observe, perhaps the most important of all should be the “feel” of the campus, as Darling advises. “The place they feel like home. The student will be at a school for the next four years, so he or she needs to enjoy the surroundings.”
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.