“The commonly used idiom “seeing is believing” dates back to the mid-17th century. Essentially, it encourages us to see something for ourselves rather than to take someone else’s word as fact. Certainly one would not purchase clothing or an automobile without first trying it on for size or taking it for a test drive.”
Yet in regards to the high stakes college searches, largely influenced by rankings from US News and World Reports, Forbes, and other sources, many applicants apply to colleges with such haste (oftentimes based on rankings alone) that they potentially miss a great many of the nuances a university has to offer – both its positives and negatives.
Much of what a student needs to know about what a college has to offer in terms of majors, campus life and housing, extra-curricular programming, athletics, and other related contexts can be found online via that school’s website. Social media and other sources such as collegeconfidential.com offer interactive chat rooms, forums, and posts from current students, alums, and even parents. Yet there is nothing that serves an applicant better than making a campus visit.
High school guidance counselors and college admissions consultants will encourage students to make formal visits traditionally in the summer entering one’s senior year. Due to constraints such as budget, distance, and time, students and their families often schedule several campus visits in one day. While this process is certainly better than not seeing a college campus at all, it can often lead to a feeling of sensory overload, creating even more doubt and uncertainty for potential applicants. While these short visits are helpful, I encourage clients to avoid making wholesale decisions based solely on their initial observations, particularly if one comes away overly impressed or unimpressed.
Once these early visits are made, I advocate for a more intensive and comprehensive visit or evaluation of the school. This can be accomplished either before or after the college application process is completed. Due to the intensity of an average high school senior’s year along with the small window of opportunity that exists between the time college acceptance letters are mailed out and placement deposits are due, it is in an applicant’s best interests to plan these more lengthy and interactive college trips well ahead of time.
What are some areas to consider when visiting a college campus? Firstly, you will want to contact the college’s admissions office to either set up to be hosted by a current student or, if you know someone who already attends the school, register this information through the college admissions office. Free online sites such as goseecampus.com provide families access to college websites, trip planning calendars, hotel and motel reservations, as well as other related contexts. It is important that the person who hosts you shares some of your similar interests, academic likes and dislikes, athletic pursuits, and extra-curricular and social interests. When contacting the college admissions office, make them aware of what these might be ahead of time in order to place you with a suitable host. Once you have scheduled your visit, you should devise a college visit checklist of items to look for and questions to ask. Below is just a sampling of what you may look for:
Touring the College Campus: Dorms, Libraries, Athletic Complexes
Most college visits take place during the summer when students and their families have more free time to travel. Schools generally fine-tune their campuses for these visits and have more time and energy to focus their efforts on visiting college applicants and their families since the normal hustle and bustle of the school year has passed. Many hire their own students who live nearby as tour guides. While schools make their best attempts at articulating what they have to offer, visits in the offseason are rarely reflective of how the college functions during the school year. Campus tours, while helpful, are often quite scripted and limited; first impressions are also not always accurate.
An overcast day may make a campus look gloomy. Similarly, a beautiful summer’s day may not be truly reflective of that school’s typical weather pattern during a majority of the school year, i.e., a snow covered campus and long stretches without sunlight. Similarly, without visiting the library or other buildings in the evening during a time when a school is in session, how is one to evaluate whether that school’s student body is studious in nature or whether the campus is a good social fit for them? Night owls, for instance, might find campuses that shut down at 10 p.m. as a real downer. If an applicant is a vegetarian, has dietary restrictions, or is a picky eater, the quality and selection of a school’s meal plan will be an important factor as well. Without seeing the school’s cafeteria and on-campus eateries in person one would have to rely on hearsay.
Regarding the subject of on-campus housing, it is important for a college applicant to assess the landscape in terms of what a school provides for housing. Some colleges require non-commuting freshmen and sophomores to reside on campus. Other schools, depending on location, have limited housing options and a junior year off campus can be the norm. Most housing-related conditions are clearly delineated on school websites and admission-related materials. Yet what about the availability and quality of housing, even when schools require freshman residency?
For years, Boston-based schools such as Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern University have at times over-subscribed their incoming freshman classes resulting in the use of hotels, the YMCA, and other local sources for accommodations. For Northeastern, chronic overcrowding and a dearth of quality freshman housing led to their 2010 purchase of a portion of the Greater Boston YMCA’s Huntington Avenue main branch at a cost of $21.5 million dollars. Ultimately, it is important to understand college housing and meal plan policies if you plan on residing on campus. Check out a number of dorms while you are visiting campus to get a feel for where you may be residing next fall.
More formalized campus visits when schools are in session provides you the opportunity to see what you want to see, including taking meals in the dining halls, attending athletic events, attending classes, and perhaps even having the opportunity to speak to a professor regarding your major or a coach about your interest in playing a sport or being recruited. Students who have an interest in clubs and other activities not related to their prospective major such as drama, singing, etc., may also look to attend rehearsals or presentations. In any case, ask questions of current students including the obvious: What do you like most about your college?; what do you dislike?
Looking at Statistics: Real-Time College Information
It may be that you are predominantly looking at schools right around the corner from where you live. You know the college well and there is little that you need to glean from anything an additional visit may provide. For many students, however, applying to colleges across the state or across the country will be more likely. You will have questions about a school’s geographical setting: Is it isolated or near/in a town or city?; Are there other colleges or universities nearby?;
Can I take classes at these other nearby schools? For instance, if you live in Massachusetts and are interested in attending a school in the south, you might want to look at the percentage of in-state vs. out of state students. Will you feel like an outsider at a predominantly southern school? Schools with significant in-state populations or schools located in large cities might have large numbers of commuting students. As a result, the campus might resemble a ghost town on the weekends. Most schools document their student body characteristics and levels of diversity. Not often documented, but perhaps important to certain college applicants, is the school’s level of tolerance (LGBTQ populations, etc.). A growing number of schools have constructed LGBTQ centers on campus. While much of this information may be available online or in print, you will have the opportunity to see it directly during your visit.
Major Areas of Interest and Study
You should not feel uncomfortable if you have an idea about where you may want to attend college but have no specific plans in terms of what your major should be. Many students enroll in college as undeclared. Just be careful that you select a school large enough to cater to your diversified needs. An undecided college applicant might want to visit departments on campus and explore the possibility of double majors, minors, internships and even on or off-campus employment related to one’s major. While a school’s financial standing might not have direct implications on a student’s experience, it might indirectly impact a student’s studies, living conditions, etc.
Most schools ranked in the top 100 or so by U.S. News and World Reports are thriving economically but many other schools (public and private) are struggling to stay open. According to an April 2013 New York Times article entitled Colleges Struggling to Stay Afloat, nearly one-third of all colleges and universities in the United States face financial statements that are significantly weaker than before the recession. Most have not been able to recover, considering the number of campus improvements needed to entice potential applicants and many schools are looking for areas to save. Several college and universities in New Hampshire, including Franklin Pierce University, have fallen victim to this trend as the school finds itself in more than 40 million dollars in debt according to a recent February 4th, 2014 edition of the New Hampshire Union Leader. As a result, several majors including American Studies, Fine Arts, Mathematics, and Art Management are being eliminated.
Another significant trend in higher education is the loss of tenured and full-time professors on many college campuses in order to reduce costs. In lieu of full-time educators, many schools use replacement adjunct professors who are part-time employees who receive no benefits. According to a February 5th, 2014 PBS News Hour article entitled: How one professor’s American dream- teaching – turned into the American nightmare, adjunct professors represent nearly half of all college faculties.
Few adjuncts serve as mentors or advisers departmentally. While many adjuncts are full-time working professionals in fields related to what they teach and bring a fresh, real-world perspective to the classroom, it is important for prospective students to explore the implications of this issue at schools where they intend to apply.
Ultimately, it is important for college applicants to familiarize themselves with the colleges where they intend to apply. The more time an applicant spends on campus the better. After all, it is where you will spend the next four years of your life!