By Elizabeth Stone, PhD, IECA (CA)

Customizing a campus visit takes special planning, but the benefits are enormous. The time taken to sit in on classes and meet with faculty and advisors provides enormous advantages for students who have to write the “Why this college” essay or participate in an admissions interview. The prospective student who has carefully planned his visit can write about his or her unique experiences on campus and make a better case for “fit” than a student who has merely walked around the quad. Customized visits are especially important for international students who usually cannot return to revisit campuses and often are less familiar with the resources that universities in the United States offer.

A Tale of Two Students

This year I counseled two students who were interested in film studies. Ryan was admitted to many excellent film programs, including the University of Southern California, Columbia University, and UC Santa Barbara. Sharon was admitted to several colleges as well. Both students took a very active approach to choosing a college, but Ryan customized all his college visits while Sharon, like many students, attended prospective-student open house events and visited many colleges without making prior arrangements to see facilities or to meet with faculty members.

Ryan’s unique experiences on campus included attending a three-hour film screening and lecture and a meeting with the professor and students during the screening intermission. A prearranged appointment with another faculty member lasted more than an hour, and the professor answered many of Ryan’s questions about the academic options available to him. At another campus, it was prearranged for Ryan to sit in on a course titled Hollywood Counterculture Cinema, and because the professor knew Ryan would be attending, she asked him to watch Shampoo and Annie Hall in preparation for the class discussion.

When it came time for Ryan to make an enrollment decision, his meetings with faculty and like-minded students played an enormous role in evaluating each offer. He had gained perception of the courses’ academic rigor and of the faculty’s expectations. In the end, he felt confident deciding which program would best meet his career and academic goals.

Sharon’s experiences were astoundingly different. She also visited schools with film programs in the South, Midwest, and East Coast, but did not arrange meetings in advance, figuring she’d drop in on faculty and just take the general campus tours. As a result, she missed seeing essential film facilities. I knew that one college she visited had an excellent film program with a state-of-the-art facility that isn’t in the main section of campus, but after her disappointing visit, I was unable to persuade her to consider the admission offer. Although Sharon did connect with a couple of faculty members, she was not prepared to ask them personalized questions because she didn’t research the background of anyone she met, i.e. read their biographies, learn about their specialties, or understand their academic rank or teaching track at the university. And because she never sat in on a class, she did not have an opportunity to meet a variety of students or gauge the classroom dynamic.

When Sharon informed me of her enrollment decision, I was shocked, because compared to other colleges that offered her admission, it did not have the strongest film program when considering the number of full-time faculty, quality facilities, and special opportunities available for undergraduates. When I asked Sharon what led her to the decision, she cited how much she loved the campus tour guide who “seemed really cool and nice,” and that the campus was “pretty with really big dorm rooms.”

Guidance for International Students

Colleges provide impersonal group tours and information sessions to provide an overview of their campuses. For prospective students, however, those encounters alone rarely provide the insight necessary to choose the “best fit” college. For example, a college classroom experience often reveals much about student and faculty expectations, and it can differ greatly from school experiences in other countries. What does it feel like for an international student to observe a small seminar where each student is expected to participate? Will an international student feel confident in a large lecture hall full of hundreds of students? An immersive campus visit is extremely beneficial to prepare a prospective student for the variety of US college experiences. Plus, customizing the first visit will put the student in the best position to write a compelling application and to make an informed enrollment decision. What should a student do to prepare for a visit?

Review course catalogs and schedules and find classes of interest. Walking into a class without prior knowledge of the course content, topic of the day, or information about the professor can be a lost opportunity to engage with the material.

Write to professors in advance to ask permission to observe class. Showing up without permission or “sneaking” into a class is disrespectful to the professor. Obtaining permission may also lead to an invitation from the professor for a short follow-up conversation after class or through email. In addition, the professor can provide the student with an assignment so that the student can sense of the rigor of the course material and better understand the lecture or discussion.

Schedule meetings in advance with advisors or resource staff to learn about departmental offerings, multicultural resources, or support services. When appointments are prearranged, students have the uninterrupted attention of the individual with whom they are meeting. The faculty member will have prepared to meet the student, just as the student has prepared for the meeting. Traveling a great distance hoping someone will have the time to speak with you unannounced is risky and you may end up meeting with a front office staff member who doesn’t usually meet with prospective students.

Search websites for information on specialized facilities and request access. Special facilities tours are usually led by a campus professor or faculty member who can explain the resources available. To get the most out of those visits, students want a knowledgeable person to lead the tour. Many facilities are not accessible to students without key cards so students likely won’t have access on their own.

Buy advance tickets to campus performances and events. Students may want to arrange their college visit around special events where they can meet with other students with similar interests. Often tickets need to be purchased or reserved well in advance.

Extend a visit beyond a “Preview” or “Discovery Day.” Popular special campus events introduce large groups of prospective students to campus and provide access to a wide variety of faculty members and programs, but it will be in the company of hundreds, or even thousands, of other prospective students trying to gain the same information. Often, arranged meetings with faculty or admissions officers are not even available during these special admissions events. If students are intrigued by these open house days, they should arrive a day early or stay an extra day to see the campus on a typical day.

Find lodging that gives the student a flavor of the college environment. Staying near campus makes it possible to participate in evening activities, hang out in the college’s coffee house or on-campus hang-outs, or even study in the library instead of watching TV in a hotel many miles away. In addition, try to steer clear of invitations from the college for students to sleep on a stranger’s floor in a dorm. Although it might sound like a great plan, too often the prospective student is left to fend for him- or herself while the host student is off studying. Better to enjoy the campus nightlife and then get a great night’s sleep in a comfortable bed.

A good rule of thumb for planning customized college visits is 6–8 weeks in advance for domestic students and 10–12 weeks in advance for international students. The lead time makes it possible to obtain good value in air and lodging and ample time to connect with campus resources, explore and book upcoming campus events, and plan a coordinated itinerary to maximize time on each campus.

Elizabeth Stone is the executive director of Campanile College Counseling, Campanile College Tours (an affiliate of Alpine Travel of Saratoga), and Marble Arch Test Prep and Tutoring. She can be reached at [email protected].