Disclaimer – we’re not experts. Everything in this series will be from our personal experiences and points of view, so take it with a grain of salt.
The best way to know if you really want to go to a college is by visiting its campus. It gives you a feel of the environment and how you would fit in. While we understand that this isn’t the most accessible option, we’d urge the ones who are able to visit prospective colleges to do so.
Before we go on, we want to point out that visiting a college isn’t the only way to find out more about it. We recommend college visits, but we realize that they are huge commitments of time, energy, and money.
Tip: If you can’t visit a particular college, try to find virtual tours or YouTube videos online. You can also reference the college’s website, student blogs, friends at that school, and College Board’s school profile.
That disclaimer being said, let’s get started!
The first step is to pick the colleges you want to visit. For us, we chose our top 2-3 picks, largely because they were all in the northeast. It wouldn’t have been practical to visit Stanford and Harvard in the same trip, but it was practical to visit Yale and Harvard because they’re relatively close to one another. Visiting multiple colleges in the same trip also helped us compare them to one another (which was really the whole point of the trip).
Tip: Don’t visit colleges during the summer. Visit them while school is in session – that way you get a feel for how the campus is when students are actually on it, and can sit in on classes!
Personally, we visited in September of senior year during Memorial Day weekend so that we would only miss 2 days of school on a 5 day trip. If you are a PISD student, they allow you to have 2 college visit days your senior year. However, if you end up visiting colleges first semester senior year, don’t use up your college visit days. Instead, bring in a parent note for an excused absence so that you can save the college visit days for second semester. The reason why is because second semester absences count towards your senior/AP exemption. That means that if you use up your 2 college visit days first semester, you won’t have them second semester. As a result, you’ll have to bring in a parent note, which is an excused absence – counting against the 4 excused/unexcused absences you can have second semester if you want to keep your senior/AP exemption. On the other hand, taking 2-3 excused absences first semester doesn’t count against you.
We can give advice all day, but what we think is most valuable is allowing you to see through the lens of our own experiences.
Before we ever set foot on a plane, we spent many hours planning the logistics of our trip. We had a total of 5 days, and each of us wanted to visit 3 colleges in the northeast. If you do the math, that means about a day and a half for each school and some time for travel in between. We started at Harvard and spent our first afternoon there. After staying the night, we left the next afternoon for Yale because the drive takes about 3 hours (we rented cars to drive, but you also have the option of taking a train or Amtrak – just figure out what’s most economical for you). We spent the evening and the next full day at Yale because it was the school we were most interested in. From here our paths diverged, largely because it’s pretty hard to fly out of New Haven. For that reason, we had a reason to go visit another college either in New York or New Jersey because of the larger airports. Kat went to swing by Columbia and Daniel went to visit Princeton. After that, we were home-bound!
Now let’s talk about how we spent our time at the colleges. When you’re on campus, you have a couple of options. We definitely recommend signing up for official tours and information sessions, especially if there are ones specific to your department. However, there is nothing more valuable than spending time with actual students. When you start planning your trip, reach out to people you know (and are comfortable with) that attend that school and ask them if they can show you around. You may not have this for every school you visit, but do it for the ones you can. It really makes a difference. Not only because they show you aspects of the school that aren’t talked about in the information session or showed on the tour, but also because can offer you a more balanced view about school culture (ask them about pros/cons). You can also take time to explore campus by yourself. Check the website for classes you can sit in on or cool places to check out, like the school’s museums. Remember, you’re on campus for a reason. Don’t get caught up in the numbers and statistics. Explore!
Tip: It’s important to understand school culture. It’ll get to a point where you’re looking at schools that all have great academics – however, the difference between them is whether you like the school culture and if it helps you grow as a person.
Don’t worry if you don’t know someone who can show you around. If you get an interview, the alumni who conduct them are usually very friendly and can answer any questions you have- the way they conduct interviews can also give you insight into the school’s values and environment.
There will be a lot to take in when you’re on campus, so it’s a good idea to take notes. You’ll want to remember the excitement you felt when you first stepped onto campus when you’re writing that “Why *insert college name here” essay later on. We had 2 different approaches:
- Kat: Because the main point of the trip for me was deciding whether I should apply early to Harvard or Yale, I kept a pro/con list for both schools so that I could make my final choice.
- Daniel: I wanted to have some fun with this. I started with prompts asking for me to understand the core of each school I visited: Why is this school so revered? What do I like about the school? What do I not like about it? And then I moved on to some that would get my creative juices flowing: If this school was a celebrity, what celebrity would they be? What color does the school remind you of? (other than it’s school color…) Rename the school. The latter were definitely more fun to write, and helped me recall my experience at the school better when I was writing essays.
All in all, if you can do a college visit, do it! While there are schools that we’ve all heard of since we were little, we don’t think it was until we actually visited that we understood why we wanted to go to that particular school.
As always, let us know if you have any questions.
Daniel + Kat