I saw a lot of colleges growing up, thanks to graduations, summer programs and local cultural events. But my first official “campus visit,” as in “Do you think you want to go to school here?,” was right after tenth grade. My parents took my sisters and I on a trip to see where my middle sister might want to apply (my oldest sister had already settled on Howard…and went to KU). My middle sister was thinking about Northwestern, so off we drove to Chicago. We spent probably a week on that tour, including a visit to the University of Chicago (my dad’s alma mater). My middle sister instantly settled on Northwestern. And went to U of A.
Listen up, everyone – it is not an option to begin applying to colleges without ever having a meaningful visit to a campus, even the one right down the street. Here are seven simple steps to personalizing even a local campus visit so you can begin exploring the universities on your radar – and plant your sneakered feet on what might be your future alma mater.
- List four of your personal interests: a possible major (like English or biology), an activity you enjoy (like swimming or songwriting), a community you’re part of (like an ethnic or religious connection), and one form of entertainment you love (like music or poetry slams). Now you have the foundation for planning a visit that might really excite you.
- Explore the school’s Web site. Search their events, announcements and blogs for things that relate to your four interests. Jot some notes and bookmark pages as you go.
- Contact the admissions and financial aids offices. All campus visits should begin with a call or email to the admissions office to find out everything they offer to visiting students and set up an admissions meeting. See if the admissions rep can set up a dorm visit and a student chat, too. Schedule a talk with a financial aid rep, also, if you can.
- Plan at least one activity for each of your four interests.
- For your possible major, check out a class or meet with a faculty member or TA (teaching assistant). Don’t be intimidated – start by asking what is the most fun and what is the hardest thing about that course of study. Be sure to talk to students before and after class, too.
- For an activity you enjoy, see if a club or sport you’re interested in has a team practice, a rehearsal or a planning session you can attend. Lots of campus groups have their own pages on the college Web site with schedules and contact info.
- For a community experience, find a relevant organization (like a women’s folk group, a Black Student Union or Hillel) and see what kind of service projects, festivals or other events you can attend or even volunteer at during your visit.
- For an entertainment fix, you might see who’s playing at the campus coffee house, go to a game (lots of sporting events are free), or ask if you can stop by the campus radio station while you’re there.
- Prep for the day. You already know to wear comfortable shoes – now I want you to really produce this event! Make a copy of the directions, schedule, itinerary and contact list for every student going with you and their parents or guardians. Charge your cell phone, and if it does not have a camera, get a cheap disposable one. Pack drinks and snacks, or bring cash for food and drinks. And if you’re staying overnight, bring a small gift for your student hosts (baked goods are always awesome).
- GO VISIT THAT CAMPUS! Enjoy your events, meet people, take pictures, absorb the experience. Do you see yourself living here for four years? Would you rather eat sticks? Both are good to know! An important note: have fun, but don’t be foolish. Do not get into any cars with, accept food or drinks from, or go into any buildings or rooms with strangers, even if they are young and happy-looking. And check in with the family a few times throughout the day if they didn’t come with you.
- Commemorate the day. Take your pictures, metro passes, event programs, and more, and scrapbook them when you get back. Or just clip them together and put them into a folder. Be sure to write down a quick sentence or two about the visit while it’s still fresh. Try “That was the most fun I have ever have, and I want to live in Roble Hall.” Or “I’ll eat the sticks, thanks.”
After your first campus visit, odds are very high you will say, “That’s where I’m going to college.” Slow down. You have at least three more campuses to check out before I’m done with you! I want you to visit at least one big state school, one small private college, one school everyone’s heard of, and one other school no one has a clue about.
After a few more college visits, you’ll start to realize you’re not falling in love with each particular campus. You are getting psyched about college life in general. Trust me, because by the time our family started my campus visits, I immediately settled on UC Davis. And went to Stanford.