Would you ever think of buying a car without driving it first? Of course not—you don't know how a car runs until you get behind the wheel and take it for a spin.
The same goes for choosing a college. A campus tour can help you figure out how well a college runs. While a school may look good on paper, you might be in for a shock when you actually step on campus for the first time. Perhaps the freshman dormitories look like they should be condemned, or maybe the campus is even better than you expected. If the admissions office is doing its job, you will not see potential deal-breakers on the pages of the glossy catalog featuring happy-go-lucky coeds under the flowing branches of a wispy willow tree.
While these examples may seem like an exaggeration, they are a possibility. That's why you should try to make a campus visit to every school on your list.
A college visit will tell you about the school's academics
The best time for college visits is during the school year, when classes are in session. That way, you can see the actual sizes of a variety of classes, the format in which classes are run, and who is teaching (professors or teaching assistants) the classes. Can't get there during the school year? No worries. At most schools, classes go on throughout the summer.
During a college visit, take a look at the size of the classrooms. Are they large lecture halls that hold more than 100 students? Are they smaller rooms? If you're a self-starter, then large lectures might be OK for you; if you need one-on-one attention, the school you choose should provide small-class learning opportunities. Ask your tour guide about the average student-teacher ratio in freshman classes versus upper level classes.
Campus visits let you pinpoint the school's location
Campuses are located in one of three types of locations: urban, suburban, or rural. If you're looking to attend college in a bustling city, that's great, but just because a school that interests you is situated in a city doesn't mean that it's the right place for you. Perhaps the campus is located in a remote part of a city, from which it is difficult to get to the city's center. Or maybe the campus in one of the busiest, noisiest sections of town, and you like peace and quiet when you study. This might not be the best location for you.
The same goes for suburban and rural schools. The location may sound ideal from a catalog, but it might not be ideal when it comes time to actually live there. Perhaps that university located in the rolling green hills of Kentucky didn't mention that there were dozens of horse farms surrounding it. Sure, horses and green hills sound lovely, but will you feel the same about the smell of horse manure waking you up every morning? Be sure of the reality and take a really good look around you when you make your campus visits.
Make sure your campus tour includes a look at housing
Another thing to consider: Where are you going to be living? The school's academics and location are very important, but you'll be spending many of your waking (and sleeping) hours in your dorm room. Find out if:
- There are freshman dorms and if freshmen are required to live on campus
- On-campus housing is guaranteed
- There are other dorms set aside for upperclassmen
- The dorms are coed or single-sex
- There is a quiet time enforced every night for studying
- Laundry facilities are available
- There is a student lounge
- There are computer and phone hookups in all the rooms
- The dormitory has a sprinkler system
While you are on campus, visit the social scene
Let's face it. You're not going to spend all of your time studying and sleeping, so you also need to find out what the social situation is. Is the school a party school? Are sororities and fraternities big on campus? What kind of extracurricular activities and competitive sports are available? Use your campus visits to learn about your prospective schools. Knowing what to expect before you sign on the dotted line will help you determine if the school will be right for you.
Use your college visits to find out about campus security
Though it may not be the first thing that comes to mind as you build your college list, your personal safety is of utmost importance when you leave for college. You'll be walking a lot of places on your own, both during the day and at night, and you need to know what kind of security is available.
If the campus is large, find out if there is transportation. Many large campuses offer bus service to help students get around, and schools with multiple campus often offer intercampus bus service—just make sure to ask when the last bus runs. You should also find out if the school offers an escort service. If you are studying late at night at the library and don't want to walk back to your room by yourself, it is reassuring to know that a security guard will be available to accompany you.
If you have a question during your campus tour...ask!
The more active you are in exploring your potential new college, the more prepared you'll be to make the right decision. As your campus tour group makes its rounds on the campus, make sure you ask your tour guide lots of questions to get the real scoop!