There is nothing that so cements in the mind how amazing an experience college is as one's first steps onto a college campus. As brochures and scheduled tours would have us believe, the university is at all times a dynamic place, and in a lot of ways that’s very true. But viewing a college entirely through the lens the university represents can distort its true atmosphere, which can leave you missing out on amazing schools and applying to ones that aren’t necessarily the right fit. By making the most of a college visit, you can get a true feel for the school in a way that websites and guidebooks don't always represent.
If you can, try to visit the school during a regular day of classes. Open houses and accepted student events are great because they give you details about your program of study, but visiting on a day when the school isn’t expecting crowds of people lends a clearer view of day-to-day life. If you call ahead, many colleges will still give you a tour during regular academic days.
These are good to get an initial, broad feel for the school. Some schools may even let you briefly observe a classroom. Note the lecture halls: are the majority stadium style, or do they look like regular classrooms? Try to sneak a look at the technology – does the school have digital projectors, or are you paying to watch a professor wrestle with an ancient overhead? If you’re more into academics than sports (or vice versa) and you see rundown classrooms but a gorgeous new football stadium, that's something to consider and analyze. This is also your chance to look at cafeteria options, residence halls, and athletic facilities.
Next, make sure you get an up close and personal view of the university. Get out of the car and sit on the quad for a while. One of the best ways to get a real feel for a school is to approach some students and talk. Even if your tour guide was a student, chances are they spun the school in a pretty good light.
By talking to a few different students, you get a feel for their experiences and ideas about the school, as well as the types of kids who you’ll be spending the next four years with. Most people are more than happy to provide you with any information you ask for. This is a great chance to ask about majors (chances are someone’s roommate’s friend is having a great time in your obscure field!), social life, and how well the university’s actions are perceived by people with direct stake in them.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions you wouldn’t ask the tour guide (“But seriously, do you honestly like the food here, or should I start watching cooking shows now?”). At best, you’ll make a new friend and know someone going there when you start off. At worst, someone tells you they’re in a hurry and walks away, so take the risk!
Even if you’re just casually stopping by, it’s important to put your best foot forward. While you don’t need a shirt and tie, wear something clean and appropriate – you never know when you’ll get a surprise chance to talk to admissions counselors. This is your chance to represent yourself as someone who belongs at the university. You want to seamlessly blend in with day to day life.
Ideally, you should draw your opinion about a school using every available source. That includes guidebooks, websites and articles as well as word-of-mouth and visiting the school. But no matter what others tell you, it’s important that you form your own perception. What others look at as detractive may be exactly what you want in a college, so go get your own look.