If you're a soon-to-be college student, exploring a college campus in person can help you determine if a school is the right fit.
College admissions consultants, high school counselors, undergraduate admissions officers and parents of college-bound students recommend taking a school's official guided tour to see the institution's selling points.
Once the official presentation is over, it's important to take a self-guided tour, where you check out places that your guide didn't show you and encounter people you otherwise would not have met.
Here are 21 places on a college campus that applicants should consider exploring:
1. Facilities associated with your desired major
2. Places where students pursue hobbies
3. A student union or student center
4. A college dining hall
5. Religious and cultural institutions
6. The career center
7. Fraternity and sorority houses
8. The neighborhood, town or city surrounding the campus
9. Unique parts of the campus
10. Bulletin boards across the college campus
11. Lecture halls and classrooms
13. Student health facilities, including counseling centers
14. Collaborative workspaces and hubs for hands-on learning
15. Campus or municipal police department
16. Stadiums and gyms
17. Student housing options
18. College offices that provide logistical assistance
19. Outdoor spaces
20. Transportation amenities
21. School-affiliated publishers and bookstores
Facilities Associated With Your Desired Major
Martyne Lo Russo, a parent whose son earned a bachelor's degree in sports management from St. John's University in New York City, says that when her son was a college applicant, he looked for a school with a strong sports management program. So, when he toured St. John's as a prospective student, he visited its sports management department and met with the dean. Lo Russo advises college hopefuls to visit undergraduate academic departments for the college majors they are interested in.
Meaghan Arena, a higher education administrator who has held leadership roles at multiple schools, also says it's critical for college applicants with clear academic interests to explore the building that houses their intended major.
"Having a feel for the place you'll spend most of your time can help you know if you see yourself there over the next four years," Arena wrote in an email. "It can also help you to understand the average size of classes in your major and the availability of technology in the classrooms and labs."
Many experts advise science-oriented college hopefuls to visit a school's science research laboratories to learn about ongoing research at the school.
Places Where Students Pursue Hobbies
Amber Jin, founder of Get Into Ivy, a company that sells digital courses on how to apply to college, says applicants should visit the places on campus where they would spend the bulk of their leisure time if they were admitted. For instance, someone passionate about theater should visit a college's performing arts facilities, she says.
Meg Caddeau, a college admissions counselor at the IvyWise admissions consulting firm and a former associate dean at Princeton University and Amherst College, says it's important for college hopefuls to see the places on a college campus where students relax and have fun, including lounge areas and music practice rooms.
Experts note that some schools have impressive museums and art galleries, which if present, are worth visiting. Spaces connected to labor-intensive student organizations, such as campus newspapers, are also potentially interesting, experts say.
A Student Union or Student Center
"So much learning happens outside of the walls of the classroom," Deborah Cohan, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina--Beaufort, wrote in an email. "The student center might be referred to as the living room of the campus. Once at these centers, students can see the sort of programming that is offered and the sort of public figures invited to campus."
A College Dining Hall
Michelle Mullooly, director of admissions at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, says college applicants should be sure to eat a meal at a campus dining hall.
"College dining halls are where students relax, recharge and socialize," Mullooly wrote via email.
Religious and Cultural Institutions
Jin says college applicants who have a strong religious, racial or ethnic identity can benefit from visiting places on campus that cater to people with a shared background. For instance, a college applicant who is an ethnic minority might want to visit a minority student association, and a religiously affiliated college applicant might want to visit a student group connected to his or her faith.
Josef Blumenfeld, a Boston-based parent, says that during his daughters' college tours, his family made a point of stopping at the campus Hillel either in-person or virtually to inquire about how hospitable a college was for Jewish people like themselves.
"Interestingly, Hillel as an organization stepped up to provide much more information about campus security and anti-Semitism," Blumenfeld wrote in an email.
Black students may want to make a pit stop at a school's Black Student Union, experts say. Kat Gill, whose biracial daughter graduated from Harvard University in 2020, noted that her daughter made sure to stop by locations where Black students congregated on school campuses during her college search, and she also struck up conversations with Black students at the colleges she was considering.
Gill suggests that LGBTQ students take a similar approach to gauge whether a school's culture is tolerant and friendly.
Minority college applicants can get valuable information from current students in their minority group, Gill says. "It gives you a good idea of how things are on campus."
The Career Center
Joe Orsolini, president of College Aid Planners, a company that helps families save and pay for college, says a college tour is not complete without a visit to the career center.
"It may not be the 'sexy' part of the college tour, but it is important to see what companies are interviewing on campus," Orsolini wrote in an email. "This will give you an indication of your prospects for who is hiring that school's graduates."
Fraternity and Sorority Houses
Experts say that if a college has an active Greek scene and numerous sororities and fraternities, it would be a mistake to not visit a fraternity or sorority house.
"Walk or drive by the frats and sororities to see what they look like," Caddeau suggests. "Do a bit of online investigating as well. Stats on the percentage of undergrads who are involved in Greek life should be available. If Greek life dominates the social scene, it could be helpful to ask about alternatives to Greek life social events."
The Neighborhood, Town or City Surrounding the Campus
Brooke Fincke, director of college counseling at Chapel Hill--Chauncy Hall, a private school in Massachusetts, says college students generally take occasional trips off campus. A comprehensive college tour should include sightseeing in the communities around campus, she says.
Pierre Huguet, CEO of the H&C Education consulting firm, suggests that prospective undergraduates think about whether they'd prefer to attend an urban school.
"If the activities that give meaning to your life are hiking, canoeing, and fishing, you probably won't want to go to college in an urban setting," he explained in an email. "On the other hand, if you're all about visiting museums and writing a food blog, a school in New York or Chicago may be perfect for you."
Experts on college affordability also say that seeing the community around a college and the prices charged at local restaurants and stores can give college hopefuls a sense of how high living expenses would be at that particular college.
Unique Parts of the Campus
A college or university may have multiple statues or plaques that commemorate important events in the school's history, or it may have particularly noteworthy architecture. Experts say prospective students should try to see the most iconic and unusual features of a college campus, since those details can provide clues about the student experience.
Bulletin Boards Across the Campus
Fincke advises college applicants to read the bulletin board flyers posted on a college campus, since these flyers can indicate how vibrant student life is on the campus. She suggests that college applicants take photos of these bulletin boards to help them remember all the activities and clubs that were mentioned on them.
Christine Chu, a college admissions counselor at IvyWise and a former assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Yale University and Georgetown University, says prospective students can benefit from attending college events.
Lecture Halls and Classrooms
Experts say college applicants should ask to observe an undergraduate course in a subject of interest during their college tours. It's important for college applicants to gauge whether a college's teaching style matches their learning style.
"For students visiting campuses during the academic year, I would strongly encourage them to sit in on a lecture as well as a seminar if possible," Chu wrote in an email. "Listening in on classroom discussions can illuminate the intellectual vitality of a school and the student body."
"More than a home to book stacks and special collections, which alone reveal so much about the life of the mind of a university, libraries can be mini hubs," Chu explains. "Students gather around conference tables to collaborate on projects or study together, and the coffee spot is often filled with students catching up with friends. And sometimes, being ensconced in a well-loved leather armchair in a quiet nook simply embodies one of the quintessential moments of being a college student."
Student Health Facilities, Including Counseling Centers
Experts note that it is common for college students to experience mental health challenges. Access to therapy is essential, especially for students who have been diagnosed with a chronic mental illness like bipolar disorder.
The quality of the student health center is worth investigating, according to college experts. "It's important to see the health center and understand the university's approach to health care and what services are provided," Kerr Ramsay III, who has a doctorate in higher education leadership and serves as senior vice president for undergraduate admission at High Point University in North Carolina, wrote in an email.
Collaborative Workspaces and Hubs for Hands-On Learning
Ramsay recommends going to spots where students brainstorm with one another. "Ask to see spaces that support your desire to work in teams and complete projects together outside of class," he suggests.
Another type of location worth checking out is a space where students get to apply the lessons they learned in class, he says, noting that his school offers a production studio and a trading room with a live stock ticker.
Campus or Municipal Police Department
Prospective college students who are worried about security can stop by the campus police headquarters or the local police agency to ask about crime in the area and inquire about safety measures, according to experts.
Stadiums and Gyms
Chu notes that because college and university sports events bring so many people associated with a school to a single spot, visiting a stadium at one of those times is ideal, since "you can literally feel the school spirit pulsating through the stands."
Laurie Kopp Weingarten, president of One-Stop College Counseling in New Jersey, recommends visiting workout spaces, since staying in shape is a high priority for many potential college students.
Student Housing Options
"I would advise prospective students to visit the dormitories because these are important to campus life," Janet Ruth Heller, a former university faculty member who taught at multiple academic institutions, wrote in an email. "Are the rooms well equipped? How is the wi-fi? Does the room have air conditioning? Are there elevators for multi-story dormitories? Do students need to bring their own rugs, sheets, blankets, extra lights, etc.?"
Experts suggest touring off-campus apartments where the cost is less than the expense of a dorm room, or for situations where access to school-contro lled housing isn't guaranteed for all four years of college.
College Offices That Provide Logistical Assistance
Shymika Stephenson-Davison, owner and lead consultant at the PreCollege Solutions consulting firm, says students who need financial aid should visit the financial aid office. Many colleges have support services that cater to both low-income and first-generation college students and that also assist students with disabilities, so students who could benefit from such assistance should be sure to stop by that office, Stephenson-Davison suggests.
James Lewis, president of the National Society of High School Scholars, encourages potential undergrads to visit a college's academic resource center, if it has one. In an email, he advised seeking answers to the following questions: "Do they have tutoring, and if so, what subjects? Is it face-to-face or virtual? By appointment only? Can you get one-on-one support for math, science, writing or any specific class you take?"
Alex Chip, founder of Top Score Education tutoring and test prep company, commented in an email that "having the escape and stress release of a beautiful garden or an invigorating hiking trail can offer a welcome respite from the pressures of the university experience."
A college's outdoor amenities are particularly significant nowadays due to the coronavirus pandemic, says Patricia Roberts, chief operating officer of GiftofCollege.com, a company that helps people contribute to the college funds of their loved ones.
"Given the recent history with Covid and the need to pivot to outdoor spaces for socially-distant informal socializing or organized events, I strongly suggest prospective students ask about and examine dedicated outdoor spaces that can be utilized by students during all seasons," she wrote in an email. "This would give prospective students a sense of available options should indoor gatherings be subject to restriction again in the future."
Allen Koh, founder and CEO of Cardinal Education consulting firm, notes that the availability of parking spots, trains and buses on campus is critical information to consider. "This will definitely help you choose in terms of how easy your commute will be from your home, apartment, or even within the city," he says.
School-Affiliated Publishers and Bookstores
"You may observe the level of importance the college places on knowledge production by looking at its press or publishing house," Koh says. "If there is one, try checking the university bookstore and look at the titles being released, especially in your own field. How advanced and productive they are in your chosen field will give you an idea of the kind of instruction you will receive from the school."
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