The Five Things that Make the Difference (When Selecting a College)

I’ve visited a lot of colleges in the past few years, readers (and am headed to see another one this very weekend). I also formerly assisted with hiring tour guides and organizing campus visit programs for the institution with which I previously worked. Thus, when I help students arrange campus visits to the schools they’ve applied to (or hope to apply to), I advise from a place of experience on both sides of the tour.

It’s thanks to that knowledge that I’m confident when I tell you that the following five things should be part of your campus visit experience – especially if you’re a senior trying to make a final decision right now!

  1. Try the food. Before you turn your nose up at “dining hall food,” students (and parents!), two important points to consider. The first is that dining hall food isn’t what you think it is – gone are the days of high school cafeteria-quality meals, “mystery meat,” and mushy vegetables. (Think quinoa, sushi, gluten free options, and made-to-order panini.) And second, if you’re going to attend this school for four (or more) years, students, where exactly do you think you’re going to eat? Yes, most campuses have more than one dining option for their students and many are in areas with wonderful off-campus restaurants and eateries, but for the most part, your dining dollars are going to go farthest on campus in the main dining hall – and you’re going to be so busy (and possibly broke) that most of your meals will come from there. So eat the food during your visit – and thank me later for the meal.
  2. Observe a class. Students, this one may seem obvious, but I want to be clear about how I define “observe a class,” because I suspect it might be different than what you anticipate it to mean. Because you’ll most likely attend class mid-semester, it’s important for you to acknowledge that A) you’re in a college-level course with students who have a semester or a year of college experience under their belt (which you do not possess) and B) you won’t be quizzed at the end so retaining the professor’s lecture notes isn’t necessarily important. What I want you to observe is how engaged the students are around you – and how much the professor engages with them. Are students taking notes on paper or on laptops/tablets? (And if they’re on laptops/tablets, are they actively taking notes or are they answering emails and surfing the Web?) What’s the mood in the classroom like? What are the students around you talking about before and after class begins? And if it’s a lecture-style class, do you personally feel engaged by this style of learning or would you prefer a discussion-type class to enhance your learning experience? The point of going to college is to learn something – so before you enroll, make sure you select the right environment for you to engage!
  3. Attend an event. Equestrians, this one is easy for you (and for athletes in general). Go to a home horse show at one of your prospective schools and observe. And just as with a classroom visit, I’m not necessarily talking about keeping track of who wins and who loses, I’m talking about observing everything else that goes along with the show. Intercollegiate riding meets are typically student-run – even in varsity programs! – which means you should see who warms up the horses in the morning (other students? local riders? trainers?), who’s responsible for holding them between classes, who’s managing the stable to make sure horses get tacked up and to the arena on time, and how everyone is working together – or isn’t working together. Remember, if you plan to be part of this program, you’re going to be in the thick of things next year, so peel back the curtain to see if you find a group you can work with or one you’d prefer to avoid.
  4. Stop by on a weekend. This is counter-intuitive to every other piece of visit advice I (and other college professionals) give to high school students, so I want to be very clear that I do not mean that you should limit your one campus visit to a weekend. In fact, if you only have the time and means to do one campus visit, make sure it’s on a weekday. Period. If, however, you have the luxury to go back more than once, go on a weekend. (Combine the trip with a home horse show if possible.) Drive past student parking lots and note how empty or full they are. Observe whether students are out and about or if campus is a dead zone. Are there sporting events going on and are students attending them? Do you see students studying in the library or in other quiet campus spaces? Moreover, think about how you like to spend a weekend – does this seem like the right environment for you?
  5. Meet with alumni in your area. The “proof in the pudding” of a college education can often be seen in how graduates feel about their experiences years after they’ve left campus, so ask your college admission officer if he or she can put you in contact with an alumna or alumnus in your area to meet for coffee or connect by phone. (Alternatively, if he or she can put you in phone contact with someone who completed the program you’re interested in, that can suffice as well.) Find out how easy the transition from college to career or graduate school was for that person; ask how engaged he or she still is with the institution. Many schools have thousands of alumni but don’t keep in touch with them (except to request alumni donations) while others build extensive close-knit communities who stay in contact with the school and each other for decades after graduation. Alumni networks can be extremely helpful to new college graduates so find out before you commit to a school if theirs can help you achieve your post-college goals.

Please bear in mind that I realize traveling to college campuses (especially those far from your home) is time-consuming and can be very expensive. (My own travel budget is the biggest line item for my consulting practice every year!) The college you select to be your educational (and physical) home after high school, however, is going to be a hugely formative part of your young adult experience and the choice of where you ultimately will attend isn’t to be taken lightly or made with incomplete information. The more you know a school – really know a school, warts and all! – the more confident you can be in your final choice.

(Need help building your college list or arranging a visit schedule? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)


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