When trying to find the “right fit” college for a student, there are many different factors to consider. As we’ve seen, some factors are quantifiable (tuition, for example). Others are less concrete—but not thereby less important.

This is one reason why it is highly advisable for students to visit the campuses of potential colleges whenever possible. The campus visit often helps students see past the glossy promotional brochures that accompany an acceptance letter or the flashy websites that may attract students initially. Many students say they can sense that a college is right for them when they step on campus or slip into a classroom.

At the end of the day, that elusive “feel” may be just the right thing to go with. The last section of this chapter offers students some advice for getting the most out of a campus visit.

Consider this story…

When Wendell first stepped onto the Columbia campus, he was there to stay. He brought his parents, his younger sister and thirteen pieces of luggage. Like all the other matriculating freshmen, he was given an orientation package and a room key.

But, when he opened the door to his tiny dorm room, he was sure he had made a mistake. There was hardly room for Wendell, let alone his roommate. Unsurprisingly, when Wendell’s family left to go back home, they took much of his luggage back with him.

Wendell’s experience is not uncommon, especially among immigrant families for whom—as I described above—choosing a college is often a matter of consulting the latest rankings.

Families who are willing to approach the process differently, as I am urging they do, can avoid surprises like Wendell’s. I strongly recommend that families invest the time and energy into making a campus visit, if not before applying, then certainly before accepting an offer. Doing so can help students avoid worse mistakes than Wendell’s.

Visiting the campus can help you narrow your list

The campus visit helps families work through the confusing and abstract-seeming elements of the application process and encourages them to articulate and prioritize what they are concretely looking for in a college.

In fact, for many families, the campus tour is often the first step in creating a viable college list. While there is a lot of useful information available on a school’s website, nothing compares to the experience of stepping onto the actual campus, interacting with the student body and checking out the surrounding neighborhoods.

Martha Allman, Dean of Admissions at Wake Forest University put it this way: “[Campus visits] are very helpful in differentiating one college from another and in assessing the appropriate “match.” Never underestimate “gut feeling” and campus personality. Campus visits can be expensive and time-consuming, however. Websites and virtual tours are helpful, but when it comes down to the end, when the choices have been narrowed and the enrollment decision looms, you might just want to meet some professors and eat in the cafeteria.

For some, campus visits will weed out certain colleges.

A school such as NYU may seem exciting in theory, but the urban environment and the lack of a traditional campus may be overwhelming in person. For others, the experience can be motivational—especially if a student falls in love with a particular school. Juniors might find their flagging energies revitalized by being able to picture their possible futures more concretely. Such enthusiasm is invaluable in surviving the college application process!

Why “this” particular college?

A college visit can also be a great help in answering the question, “Why this particular college?” Admissions officers are always looking for students who can demonstrate a specific, informed interest in their particular school above all others.

Here are two pieces of concrete advice for families willing to undertake the campus visit.

First of all, campus visits should be scheduled during a student’s junior year. Families that wait until after the admissions process is completed are making less-informed decisions. Plus, many colleges send out acceptance letters in April and expect a commitment by early May. This doesn’t leave much time for campus visits…even though it’s senior spring!

Second of all, families should plan to visit a school while classes are in session in order to get an authentic experience. Although it would be convenient to visit Yale during the Christmas vacation, students will find themselves touring an empty campus. And more importantly, the admissions office will be closed! Furthermore, many schools allow prospective applicants to sit in on a class or even spend a night in the dorms; but students obviously won’t be able to take advantage of these options when school is not in session.

What are some of the things students should look for when they visit a college?


  1. Class sizes and student-teacher ratios can be found on any college’s website. But these are average numbers. A potential applicant to a college should try to find an undergraduate majoring in the applicant’s field of interest and ask the student what his or her actual experience has been like. How large have required classes been? How easy has it been to get to know professors or secure research positions?
  2. Again, although students can find lists of school-sponsored clubs and activities online, it’s only when they get on campus that they’ll be able to see what’s really happening and vibrant. Campus bulletin boards are a great place to gather information: students will see flyers posted from every student interest group imaginable.
  3. Students should take a walk through the surrounding neighborhood. Chances are good that students won’t want to spend all their time on campus. In fact, for many schools, particularly those in urban areas, the surrounding neighborhood is a crucial part of the college experience.
  4. Although students can find out what their housing options are online, they should go see for themselves what the situation is. Students who have to or want to live off-campus for a while should definitely scout out the surrounding neighborhood.

Of course, information about housing options and student clubs doesn’t amount to anything like a full picture of all a college has to offer. The campus tour is a subjective experience, and many students find that they can’t exactly articulate why they’ve fallen in love with one school and out of love with another. These vague feelings and intuitions shouldn’t be disregarded, however. At the end of the day, it is the student who is going to have to live, work, and learn at the college for the next four years. Feeling at home is going to be crucial.

Timing is key

A final note about campus visits and interviews: students should find out well before they show up whether colleges offer on-campus interviews.

Most schools that do on-campus interviews schedule them for the fall semester, near the beginning of the high school student’s senior year.

This means that in order to take full advantage of this option, students should have a good sense of where they intend to apply before senior year begins. Although this will obviously take a good deal of careful advance planning, I urge students to take advantage of the on-campus interview whenever the option is made available.

Many families are tempted to skip the interview, given the extra constraints these commitments place on travel plans and the extra stress it puts on a family trip. But remember that most of the students who get into Harvard every year have had interviews, if not on campus, by local alumni! They’ve taken every opportunity available to make a favorable impression on the university and demonstrate the seriousness of their intent.

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