10 Offbeat Tips To Get the Most From Your College Visits

You're set to go on your college visit... here are 10 tips to help you get the most out of it.

  1. Spend lots of time exploring the corners of the school’s web site before you go. As you’ve probably figured out by now, most of the “front end” stuff you find on college websites is deigned to “sell” you on going there. The top levels of the site (especially the “admissions” and “about us” sections) are usually filled with pictures of happy people, students engaged in cool projects, and professorial-looking professors who look like they love teaching. What else would you expect? However, if you really want to get the scoop on what the school is probably really like, you’re going to have to dig a little deeper. Check out the pages for the departments and follow links you find to learn more about faculty and what they do. Go into the more “administrative” sections (the ones that have to do with paying bills, getting copies of transcripts, etc.)…if they’re confusing and difficult to use it might be a good indication of what your life as a student might be. Look for blogs, student club pages, and even sites set up for particular classes…anything that doesn’t have the bright and shiny polish of the “official” stuff you’re supposed to look at. Chances are you’ll get a much more complete picture of what it’s really like to go to the school.
  2. Ask around on social media. With over a billion people on Facebook and millions on other sites like tublr, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn, you shouldn’t have too hard of a time finding people who either currently go to the school you’re interested in or have gone there in the past. Just search on the name of the school and see what comes up. You’ll learn a lot just by lurking, but if you’re the bolder type you may even want to send them a message (especially if they majored or are majoring in what you’re interested in) asking them about their experiences. Chances are you’ll get an earful. To get the most complete picture make sure you ask a number of people…you don’t want to be swayed by someone who’s the odd fanatical supporter or the bitter graduate with a personal vendetta against his or her alma mater.
  3. Get a trip planner app. If you’re planning on visiting a number of schools in a particular geographic area (a strategy often insisted on by parents in order to save time and money traveling) and have a smartphone, downloading a trip planner app before you go can not only help you plan your visits more efficiently but can also give you a much bigger picture of what the area around the school has to offer. Many of these apps are free and feature nifty extras such as integrated photo apps (for sharing pictures), transportation and accommodation recommendations/booking, and even the ability to plan multi-part trips involving several destinations…perfect for those “college visit driving tour” weekends. Which one’s best? Why not find out for yourself: just Google “trip planning apps” and check ‘em out.
  1. Don’t go too nuts: While it’s certainly tempting to try to cram as many school visits into as short a time as possible, don’t. Trying to hit up five or six colleges in a weekend (even if they’re close to each other) will only let you get the most superficial impressions (carefully curated, of course, by the admissions office) and you’ll miss out on the real valuable stuff: talking to students and faculty, exploring the neighborhood, or even spending the night in the dorm. Even worse (as you’ll surely remember from some of those more “special” family road trips), cramming too much into too short a time only results in a lot of cranky people and bad moods…not exactly the perfect mindset for coming to informed decisions.
  2. Don’t plan for perfect weather. Just about every region of the country has some consistent stretch of magical weather every year. And even if the best weather only lasts a week or two (such as in some of the more northern or southern reaches of the US) or goes on pretty much all year (such as in some of our more famous vacation destinations), visiting a school when the sun’s shining, the birds are singing, and the students are lounging around in bathing suits will not serve you well when it comes to really understanding what it’s going to be like to live there nine months out of the year. Instead of trying to visit during the pretty parts of the fall and spring, go against the grain and visit during the time (or times) of the year when things aren’t exactly optimal (check out weatherspark.com to see weather trend info for an area over the course of a year). Not only will you get a more realistic view of the school but you’ll also discover whether or not you really want to spend the next four or five (or longer!) years suffering in weather you hate.
  3. Go rogue. OK. We don’t mean “go totally nuts and run around campus in your underwear.” No, what we do mean is that while campus tours are nice ways of getting to know the highlights of a particular school, if you really want the full picture you’re going to have to ditch the tour (not recommended) or strike out on your own after the tour’s over. Visit the more remote areas of the campus. Talk to some students. Strike up a conversation with a campus security/police officer. Most likely if you’re polite and tell them that you’re considering the school you’ll get a good dose of reality to balance out the admissions office sales pitch. Heck…you might even find out that things are even better than you’ve been told!
  1. Eat the food. Make no mistake: what you eat becomes incredibly important when you’re in college. In fact, in many ways college life revolves around food in one way or another. And no matter how great the school is, if the food sucks, life there is going to not be as good as it could be. To get the real deal on the grub, avoid the “commuter cafeterias” and open “food courts” and head for the dining halls: most will charge you a minimal fee to eat there (some might even let you in for free if you tell them that you’re touring the campus). While you’re there make sure to make the effort to talk to some students…bring up the subject of campus food and you’re sure to hear more than you ever would have dreamed.
  2. Drive through campus after 10 on a Saturday night. Some folks love “party schools” and seek them out…others would rather spend their four years of college in their parents’ basement taking online classes rather than go to a school where every weekend’s a mini Mardi Gras. And while you’ll find plenty of “best party school” lists online, one of the best ways to tell what weekend nightlife is like is to take a drive through campus after 10pm on a Saturday night, especially if you focus your drive on the residential areas on campus. You’ll see (and certainly hear) ample evidence of the school’s “party status” soon enough.
  3. Check out Craig’s List for the area: Since it’s founding in 1995, craigslist has become a nearly ubiquitous, locally-focused, online marketplace for just about everything that can be bought, sold, given away, or hooked-up with. It’s also especially popular with college students, who often troll its pages looking for cheap furniture for their group house, used textbooks at a discount, new party spots, or some form of transportation to get themselves around town. While driving around the neighborhoods near a school will certainly give you a feel for what “everyday” life is like at the colleges you’re interested in, nothing says “local flavor” more than browsing craigslist for the area.
  4. Keep a blog/Instagram/journal/tumblr/ or tweet about it: If you’re visiting a lot of schools, it’s easy for them to all sort of meld into one giant mass labeled “college” in your brain. In order to make sure you remember the unique aspects of each school you visit, try using your smartphone to save your memories to Facebook, tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, or (if you have one) your own personal blog. Not only will you be able to go back later on and review what you recorded, but you’ll also be able to instantly communicate your impressions to your friends and family back home. 

Which of these ten tips do you think are the most helpful?

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