College visiting is an exciting time. US colleges are located in some of the most beautiful places and contain some of the finest architecture in the country. Going on a college tour is a great opportunity to take a vacation while positively preparing for your future at the same time.
Although college visiting is fun, it is also a serious business. As you visit different campuses, you should be making some smart observations. You already know a lot of things. For example, you know the college’s reputation, its population size, choices of major, cost of tuition, and everything else that you have already read in the school’s promotional materials. An on-site visit is a chance to figure out the hidden side of the story. So, as you are taking the campus tour and talking to various people, there are a few things to which you should be alert.
First, observe the current students. If at all possible, visit during a time when classes are in session (i.e., not during exam or vacation times). That way, you can see students in their natural environment. Happy students are a sure sign of a good college experience. If you see a lot of smiles and positive attitudes around campus, you know that the school is tending to all of the students’ needs – academically, socially, physically, etc. College should be a nurturing environment, as well as a teaching environment. Happy students learn more and gain more from the college experience.
Second, see if the college lives up to its hype. Every school likes to boast about programs (be they academic departments, sports teams, international exchanges, arts and music, etc.). But no matter how good everything looks on paper, you should figure out if they really meet your expectations. Think about your interests and the programs that you value most. Talk to some students who share your interests and ask them to about their experiences. What do they love about college? Do they feel energized and inspired? Who is their favorite professor or coach, and why? What do they do in a typical day? See if their answers match with your vision of college. If they rave about their experience and you find yourself nodding along to what you hear, chances are good that you will enjoy being there, too.
Third, observe the “fit”. Admissions officers will look for
“fit” when they read your application, but you also need to make your own assessment about it. Basically, “fit” determines whether you will thrive in that college environment. Does the place feel welcoming to you? Do you connect with the students? Do your cultural values have a home there? “Fit” is a vague concept at best, so it is hard to describe completely. However, all of us have a powerful instinct for detecting “fit” wherever we go. As you walk around the campus, ask yourself if you feel at ease. Imagine if you would enjoy spending four years of your life there. Imagine, if you come upon some difficulty during college (which you almost certainly will), will you feel comfortable reaching out and getting the help that you need?
Ultimately, everything that you observe during a college visit should serve the same purpose. You are trying to achieve a healthy mind in a healthy body. Know yourself – what you want and what you need – and see how the college environment matches with you. Observe carefully, ask lots questions, and trust your instincts. Don’t forget, of course, to enjoy the scenery, make some friends, and have a great time. There is nothing like actually being there to get you excited about applying to college.
Patrick is a graduate of Phillips Academy (Andover), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston University, and University College London (UCL). He has helped many students apply to top-level boarding schools and universities in the United States.
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