College Visit Tips Based on Real-World Experience

Having just returned from some out of state college visits with my son, I thought I’d share some practical visit tips. I know I’ve written on this topic before and you can find those articles HERE and HERE and HERE. Today is the practical real-world experience of a tired parent. 

In no particular order:

If you are visiting a larger school (8000 students or more) arrive at least 30 minutes early to park and navigate your way across campus. Small schools you can probably park and get where you need to go in 15 minutes.

The “nearby” parking garage at a large university may not be nearby. This is in contrast to the smaller private schools that tend to have visitor parking right next to the admissions building. You may also have to pay for your own parking at these state universities whereas those private schools will validate or provide a parking pass for free. 

All the college students hanging around the admissions office probably work there and tend to be great sources of information. Strike up a conversation. Here are some of my go-to questions: 

  • Why did you decide to go to (name of college)? 
  • What has been different than what you expected? 
  • What do you do on weekends? 
  • Do you feel safe walking around campus by yourself at night?
  • (And for out of area schools) What should we expect with the weather? 

Take notes. Schools share lots of good details in their information sessions and tours and it is impossible to remember it all, especially when you are touring more than one school that week. Private schools are likely to provide you with brochures or handouts that contain some of the basics; state universities may or may not. 

Actually read the confirmation emails they send you. Most schools organize everything out of the admissions office, but some don’t. We visited U. Mass Amherst this week. Our original session was scheduled in one building, but when we changed our plans and came another day, we met in a completely different building. Another school gave clear instructions to pick up a parking pass at the gatehouse before arriving at the admissions office lot. 

You can pick up a lot of admissions tips by attending these info sessions. Most are conducted by the same people who read your applications and they want to help students present the best case for acceptance. 

Campus tours are usually led by students— students who are used to walking across campus at a brisk pace. I am replacing my left knee in a couple months and between hills, stairs, and the pace, I couldn’t keep up. If you have any mobility concerns, let the office know ahead of time. I didn’t ask for any accommodations. Before a tour starts, I mention to the guide that I have bad knees and I may drop off and meet them back at admissions if I get tired. My son thinks this is a good plan and has no problem going on without me. This week I made it about half way through most tours before stopping to rest. (I’ve toured so many campuses that missing a few dorm rooms, libraries, or student centers won’t hurt.)

While a lot of the information you hear seems similar from school to school, listen carefully for the differences. What does this school do differently? How are the academic requirements, orientation processes, and admissions policies different? 

Plan an extra hour to check out the area surrounding campus. (Bonus if you can visit these areas at night.) Are there coffee shops, restaurants, or other places to hang out? Do you feel safe? Do you see student housing? 

Don’t think a self-guided tour is the same. While in Amherst, we wanted to visit Hampshire College. It is a very small school and they weren’t offering any campus tours or info sessions that week. We had read up on the school before hand and made use of the virtual visit information online. It just isn’t the same. Even if you get a “tour” from an older sibling or friend who attends that school, you won’t get the same information the admissions office typically provides. (Keep reading for why that matters.) 

There is no better place to find out the “secrets” for admission to a particular school than the school itself. I keep up with general trends and I visit lots of colleges, but I can’t keep up with the specific policies at every school. And colleges keep updating their programs, so what was true a couple years ago may not be true now. 

Here’s a great example of the school specific information you can learn on your visit. U. Mass Amherst, the flagship state university in Massachusetts, does not offer aerospace engineering or marine biology. They recalculate GPAs using their own system (honors is worth more, AP is worth the most.) U. Mass is test optional, but you need to know some school specific information before you decide whether to submit your scores. 

  • Nursing is the most competitive program; they only admit 60 nursing students per year and competitive SAT scores are between 1400-1440 for that program. 
  • The next hardest program for admission is computer science. Competitive test scores for that program are in the 1500s. 
  • Engineering is next. U. Mass admits about 35% of the engineering applicants and student should have scores between 1360 – 1460. 

So if you have a 1380 on the SAT, a clearly above average score, you might submit it to U. Mass and you might not, depending on the particular program. These are the details you will get when you visit schools and ask questions. 

I will share more college visit information throughout the year, but I encourage you to look for ways to incorporate a campus visit or two into your summer travels.  

campus visits, tips for college admission, what do do on a college tour

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