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The Professor’s Cheat Sheet to the Perfect College Tour

20 things high schoolers and their parents should know about campus visits

When I was in high school, my mother refused to join my father and me on college tours. She dismissed them as a farce and asked, “Why do you want to go see a bunch of buildings?” This is a woman who taught junior high and high school for nearly twenty years, attended college at the University of Michigan and earned her master's degree at Columbia. So, she’s no stranger to the importance of education. But, she was unable to see the value in college visits. So, my dad took time off of work and road-tripped with me to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State, Cornell, Northwestern, and Washington University in St. Louis. I applied to other places I never visited like Emory and Tulane. I guess even my dad had his limits on how far we would take the show on the road.

College of Charleston, used with permission
Source: College of Charleston, used with permission

I look back at myself at eighteen years old and am happy I intuited that I should stretch, take risks, and forge my own path. And, I am also very glad that my dad and I did not listen to my mother. While she has been right about so many things in my life, when it comes to the subject of campus tours, I am certain she was off the mark. (Sorry, mom).

My choice to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison was one of the very best decisions I have made in my entire life. So much about my actual, lived experience at college was made available to me to see and interpret in that very brief visit.

For twenty years, I have worked as a college professor. I have taught at a wide range of public and private institutions, large ones and small ones, schools located in dense urban areas and remote rural areas, at highly selective colleges and universities including an Ivy and at places with much more elastic admissions policies. I see the inherent value in setting foot on a campus before committing to be there for years. I know college is a huge investment, and it only makes sense to visit the campus in person rather than seeing it filtered through the lens of the marketing and admissions departments. Here, I will offer advice for how to make the most of these visits to help better equip your students to make good choices.

1) Remember who will be going to college. Your adult child is going to college, not you. I hear parents say “We’re applying to X College.” No, your child is, and your child needs to do the application himself/herself. Find out where your child really wants to go and why. Once on a visit, let your student have some time and space alone to meander around the campus, to see how s/he feels without you around. When you come back together, ask your student what s/he liked and didn’t and try to listen without interjecting your own impressions. And, if your child seeks out your opinion, try to offer a balanced perspective; this may be the place s/he ultimately wants to attend.

2) Let your child make the list of places to see that includes a range of differently sized institutions with varying selectivity.

3) Work with your child to group the visits geographically and to prioritize them so you can see a cluster of different types of schools on one big trip. Try to see as many as you can without burning yourselves out. If you miss some, that is okay. You can also try to visit them if and when your child is actually admitted.

4) Remember that once an institution is more than about 10,000 students, size barely matters. So, encourage your students not to shy away from schools with more than 20,000; they will likely have much more of a smorgasbord of activities, opportunities, and majors and minors and your child will ultimately find his/her peeps and sense of community.

5) Have your child do the research on the schools, thinking of questions to ask of all places and ones that are specific to each place.

6) Be sure to visit schools only when they are in session. It is an absolute waste of time to visit if the school is on break. Then, my mother would be right. You would just be seeing buildings. The purpose of the visit is to get a sense of the vibe, of what makes that campus special and different and possibly the one that could be yours. My dad used to tell the story that when we visited Wisconsin, I said to him, “Dad, just get me a backpack and let me stay here now; there’s no need to even go on to Michigan State.” He insisted we go anyway but I had made up my mind. The colorfulness and vibrancy of the UW campus coupled with Madison as a progressive urban extension of it, with its unusually fabulous reciprocal relationship in terms of town and gown, won me over. During the visit, we witnessed political speak-outs and rallies, students were milling around all over, professors were drinking beer in Der Rathskeller of the Memorial Union with and among students, people seemed healthy and athletic, making good use of the Lakeshore Path for walking and biking, farmers were set up along Library Mall selling fresh fruit and vegetables, and students were out studying and playing music on the lawns. It was hedonistic nirvana and I wanted to be a part of it.

7) Aim to stay overnight on campus to feel what that is like.

8) It is most beneficial to observe a couple classes, particularly in your child’s areas of interest. Your student can e-mail professors and department chairs in advance of the visit to ask for permission and to arrange this and they can also request to meet in office hours to gain more information. It can be great to observe large lecture classes as well as smaller discussion-based classes. If students do this, it is impressive if s/he emails the professor a thank you note. At highly selective colleges, it is a good idea to request an interview and your student can show how s/he shines in person.

9) Students will benefit from interacting with students on campus, asking them questions about what they love and don’t and how they have found success. This is also a good opportunity to explore with them the sorts of student organizations and clubs that exist and the extent to which Greek life is prominent.

10) Students are also well served to ask for a meal pass and eat in the dining hall, both to expose them to the food offerings and to meet other students. This is also a good opportunity to explore the food options available if your students are vegetarian, vegan, keep Kosher, or have other dietary needs.

11) Perhaps the most important place to visit is the student center or student union---this will likely reveal the most about a campus community. So much learning happens outside of the walls of the classroom. I recall that at UW-Madison, the student union was referred to as the living room of the campus. That makes sense to me based on my experience there. I have also taught at places with a more than vanilla type of student center. Once at these centers, one can see the sort of programming that is offered and the sort of public figures invited to campus. You may see signs and information about field trips, college sponsored excursions, movie nights, special performances, musicians, dancers, important lectures, poetry slams, boating adventures, camping trips, hiking clubs, gaming groups, etc. You can also get a good feel for the sorts of support services offered---i.e. writing center, student success center, counseling center, LGBTQ center, Hillel, chapels, victim support services, office for students with disabilities, health services, study abroad office, etc. You can learn what does and does not exist on campus and why. It is also useful to read the bulletin boards inside buildings and the outdoor kiosks to see what sorts of activities are happening, including concerts, political events, lectures, etc.

12) The student center is a good place to assess something else---you can see firsthand if lots of people are hanging out, alone or together, and you can imagine what it might be like to be in a space like that, enjoying solitude or companionship. Also, you might notice how many students commute or live on campus. You will want to ask about this as it dramatically shapes the feel of a campus, especially on nights and the weekends. Are students out and about or mainly holed up in dorm rooms on video games and Netflix?

13) Go to the campus bookstore and go far beyond the mugs and the t-shirts. Students should check out the books being assigned in the classes in which they might want to enroll.

14) Go to the campus library and check out the collection, the computer services and the extent to which people study there. Helen C. White Library at UW-Madison was also the place to hang out.

15) Pick up the campus newspaper and read it. Observe what is being discussed and debated on and around campus. Same with any community papers and magazines. When one attends college, s/he is also a citizen of that community and it is good to know what is there and how one can be involved.

16) Check out the sports facilities. And, attend an athletic event if you can.

17) Drive around the periphery of the college setting to see what the community is like in terms of safety and what it offers in terms of walkability, social life, housing for later in college, potential jobs, etc.

18) Ask around and eat at a restaurant that students regularly go to. Experience the local vibe.

19) Ask the locals their perceptions of the college/university, what the relationship is like between the school and the area, how the community supports the school, and how the school gives back to the community, etc.

20) Spend at least a good day and night at each school, and don’t try to see too many in a given weekend unless they are very close together. Take notes at each place to review them later. Things run together and especially in a tight timetable.

Through these visits, you can decide if it is possible to imagine yourself at home at that particular school, growing and thriving, both intellectually and emotionally, both alone as well as with new friends.