Visit college campuses often. And visit early. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it 1000 times. Freshmen and sophomores? Do you think it’s too early to visit college campuses? Surprise! It’s not! But don’t take our word for it.
Minnesota sophomore Claire Ficek can tell you all about the benefit of visiting college campuses early. Even before Claire decided to spend her sophomore spring break touring college campuses with her family, we knew she was smart. Claire lives in a suburb of the Twin Cities where she loves riding horses, attending and watching sports events and serving others through mission trips and local service efforts.
Student stories are so important! Claire said it best, “When you hear it from another student, you can really trust what they’re saying.” Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Claire. Here’s our Q&A with Claire about her college campus visit experience over sophomore spring break this year.
How did college campus visits change your definition of your ideal college experience?
Stuff gets real when you see your name on the Visitor Tag!
Claire: Before I visited, I thought maybe I wanted a huge, public university. I thought I wanted a really big school with challenging classes, down in the South. I thought I needed a lot of sports and a lot of things happening around campus.
Now my definition of an ideal college experience is more focused, and it’s different than what I thought.
I visited all these big universities, and I don’t think I could call those places home. I learned how important it is to me to choose a Christian school, because that’s really important to me. So now my ideal college experience is that I want a small-medium-sized, private Christian college with hard classes, down in the South. Having a lot of sports still matters, but it’s on my want (not need) list. I love high school activities and sports, but I don’t know if I could do something like a Tennessee. Definitely I saw an example of what I want at Liberty. They’re building a brand new business school, and I think I want to major in something business or marketing-related. And because I’m considering a minor in Spanish and want to study abroad, that’s a big consideration, too.
How did you decide which schools to include in your college campus visits?
Claire: For some, it was word of mouth or watching college sports and getting curious about those schools. A couple were recommended to us once friends heard we were visiting over spring break. Some we added because they were close to schools we’d already chosen. And I have a couple of friends going to a couple of the colleges we visited.
Were you anxious about visiting colleges?
Claire: At first I was kind of nervous, especially as a sophomore. When I was on the college tours, they’d ask, “How many seniors are here? How many juniors are here?” They usually didn’t even ask about freshmen or sophomores. I also got nervous when I started to feel like the college that we were touring wasn’t the right fit. Like, “What am I doing here?” When I got nervous, I just turned to my dad and said, “I’m not sure this is the right fit.” My Dad said, “We’re just here to get information and learn. Just take notes. It’s fine.” It’s not like we were there to make a final decision or commit to anything. When I remembered that, I was fine.
One of the best parts was talking to students. That was great. Adults all pretty much say the same thing, “We’re an awesome school.” But I really believed what the students told me when I talked to them.
What types of questions did you ask the students?
Claire: I asked what they were majoring in. Things they liked about the college. Where they were from. How they chose the college. Where else they applied. I learned that these are just college kids that are figuring it out along the way. And just a few years ago, they were right where I am now. That was a relief. They were really nice, and seemed eager to answer my questions. It’s not until you get to talk to the students that you really have a good idea of what it’s like to go to school there. What you learn from the students helps you differentiate one school from another.
Another day, another campus. Duke was beautiful!
When we were visiting Kentucky, we were at a restaurant close to campus. We asked a college sophomore sitting next to us where she was from and what it was like here. Turns out she was from Wisconsin. She admitted that on a big campus, she had trouble finding her way at first, but it wasn’t as bad as she thought it was going to be. It was good to get her input.
At Liberty, students talked about how much they’ve grown in their faith. That’s what I needed to hear, because that’s really important to me. The Liberty students said that their professors are there for them. Liberty is now my first choice, after visiting all the colleges we did.
What about the schools you didn’t like? Were those visits still valuable?
Claire: Yes! Even though I didn’t love every school we saw, it was good to visit both schools I liked and schools I didn’t like. I got to see a mix of large university and small, faith-based colleges.
What type of planning did you do before you started your college campus tours?
Claire: I’m a planner, so yeah, we had it all planned out. My dad made a spreadsheet of all the colleges on the southeast coast. A couple of them I was dying to look at just for fun. We did online research about things like majors, cost, size and other facts about the schools. I then picked my top eight that I wanted to see on this trip. Then we mapped it out using Google maps and Google docs to plan the trip. Then we called the schools in advance or went online to register for campus tours there. It was actually fun and pretty easy.
What advantage is there to seeing a lot of colleges in a short amount of time?
Claire: The good thing was, my focus was on college at that time. We had nothing else going on. No distractions. We could just focus on each school. And then right after that touring the college, we’d write notes and compare it to the last one while we were on the drive. With it all happening in the same week, we could compare them and remember. It’s easy to forget if you don’t take notes.
I used a notebook and made pro/con list of every college while touring. My parents and I would debrief during the drive to the next place. I was able to pick up on things my parents noticed that I didn’t notice. Comparing notes was really important.
So now that you’ve done some college campus visits, are your next college planning steps clear?
Claire: Definitely. I’m going to contact my friends who’ve already gone to college and interview them. I’m also doing a lot of online research for private Christian colleges in the South.
What’s your advice to freshmen and sophomores about college campus visits?
My brother Charlie and me. He and my sister Kate are great sports!
Claire: Start small. Just jump online and look at some colleges you might want to visit. Brainstorming is actually really fun. You could even just go visit a random college that’s close by. (That’s what we did back in December.) See what you like, what you don’t like. I have heard friends who are seniors this year say they didn’t know where they’re going yet two months before graduation. I don’t want to be in that position. I’m a planner, so not knowing in the middle of my senior year would add way too much stress for me.
Also, if you start early, you’re a freshman or sophomore and you can still change the classes you’re taking based on what you learn on your visits. For instance, I learned some things about college foreign language requirements that I didn’t know before we visited.
And remember that the schools definitely want you there. They want you to come visit. The college wants anyone and everyone there to visit because they want you, they want new people in the door. Don’t be nervous. Take your time. If you start early, then you have time. If you start late, then you’re in a time crunch. If you do the behind the scenes work first, then you’ve got three years to do it all on your timeline.
Great advice, Claire. Thanks for sharing your college campus visit experience!
We’re HUGE believers in the power of campus visits for your college planning process. OnCampus College Planning founder and campus visit proponent Tom Kleese says, “Any college visit is better than no college visit.” He urges students and families to visit campuses near your home, while on spring break, on a daytrip to your favorite city, wherever and whenever you’re able. Start visiting campuses long before you’re thinking about where you might want to attend college. Why? Because whether or not that school makes it onto your list of schools you consider attending, every campus visit teaches you something about College in general. Campus visits help you compare and contrast campuses and types of schools. You will make more informed decisions about schools that interest you if you have visited a few college campuses before you begin your college planning process.
We’ve heard students say, “Once I am accepted, then I’ll go visit.” If at all possible, visit college campuses as part of building your list of potential colleges, versus waiting until you’ve applied (and long before you’ve decided where you’re going to school).
We help students and families make the most of campus visits. The campus visit is the single-most important aspect of researching colleges. College websites are great. Phone calls to the admissions office are fine. Reaching out via email to professors is good. But nothing compares to the insights you gain from getting on campus.
We wrote a comprehensive 23-page Ebook called the Campus Visit How-To Handbook. It’s awesome. It’s effective. It contains a two-page Campus Visit Capture Tool at the end. But it’s lengthy. And it’s a bit overwhelming. We wanted to come up with something briefer and simpler.
A friend recently introduced me to the “bullet journal”. At first, I thought she made it up. She’s wicked creative that way. But it’s actually a thing! Do a Pinterest search for “bullet journal” and you’ll be hit with a barrage of bullet journal templates, hipster fonts and Martha Stewart-esque watercolor marker drawings specially designed for your bullet journal. Sooooooo extra. But the idea is actually really simple. Take brief “bulleted” notes to capture what you want to remember.
Our goal is to inspire you to action. Visit college campuses. If you aren’t sure where to start and need help finding your list of colleges to visit, check out our College Search services.
Get the most out of each visit. Our Campus Visit Bullet Journal condenses the info in our jam-packed campus visit e-book into one page you can print out and use when visiting campuses.
Ask questions not only of admissions representatives and tour guides, but also students you see around campus, professors and even your server at the restaurant. Jot brief notes on your campus visit bullet journal.
Here are three magic questions to ask students you encounter:
Why did you choose College X? (NOTE: Always try to use the name of
the college when asking questions instead of a more generic “this college” or “this school”.)
Do you mind if I ask what other colleges you considered, and what tipped the scales in favor of this college?
If you had a magic wand, what one thing about this college would you change?
Ask about campus hotspots and hangouts.
You can simply ask, “What are some of the best places to hang out on campus as a student?” Jot these down. Then check them out. Whether it’s the student union or a local coffee shop or burger joint, you’ll get a feel for this school’s unique hotspots. And you’ll probably catch a glimpse of what a “typical student” looks and acts like. Do they seem like people you’d like to surround yourself with? This is insight you won’t get from a phone call or email, or even the college website.
Connect with professors and staff in your area of interest.
There’s a huge difference between taking the general campus tour and investing the energy to spend time with the key contacts in your specific field of study. Not sure what you want to study yet? No problem. Pick something you’re interested in (business, math, art, healthcare, writing). At least three weeks before your campus visit, call that department and speak with the administrative assistant or program coordinator. Explain that you’ll be visiting and you’d like to meet with someone in that department while you’re there. The administrative assistant or program coordinator should know who to put you in touch with. During your meeting, ask them what a typical freshman course load looks like for someone in that field of study. Ask what kinds of careers people typically pursue with a degree in that field. Ask them what criteria or attributes they find make a successful student in that field. Whether or not you choose to pursue that field of study matters less than the insights you’re adding to your arsenal.
Eat twice: once on campus and once off campus.
No Olive Garden, McDonalds or Buffalo Wild Wings allowed. You get plenty of that at home. Most campuses will provide you with a voucher to eat free in the campus cafeteria, which is another great opportunity to check out the student vibe on campus, as well as the food. For off-campus eating, pick a local eaterie from among the hangouts and hotspots for a chance to do the same. It won’t surprise some of you to learn that checking out new restaurants is one of Tom’s favorite parts of the campus visit.
Show me the money. Ask questions about cost and merit aid.
This topic gives you another list of questions to ask of your tour guide and admissions personnel, as well as students you meet. Ask the admissions rep who gives the opening presentation about their key criteria for earning merit aid, whether it’s GPA, ACT score or other criteria. Ask about the average cost of on-campus housing and apartment rental. Ask about the quality of public transportation in the area or whether most students have a car on campus. These factors impact your estimated Cost of Attendance, which is critical as you learn about the cost of attending college in general, and compare and contrast this school with others.
Capture your thoughts.
Shedule downtime during your campus visit. It’s a good idea to take a break and process your thoughts. If you’re staying overnight as part of your visit, this can be at your hotel at the end of the day. Or you can simply find some quiet time at the local campus library or student union, grab a cup of coffee and jot a few notes on your bullet journal page. What do you like about this school? What concerns you, or what do you find disappointing? You can be brutally honest, since your campus visit bullet journal is for your eyes only. No one is going to judge your answers. There’s no right or wrong. Be honest about what you want, need, don’t want and don’t need in a college experience. It’s unique to you, and it’s for your own benefit.
Commit to next steps and a timeline.
Typically when you finish a campus visit, you’ll have amazing new insights, plus more questions. If this school is one you’d like to know more about, capture your next steps and commit to a timeline for achieving them. Perhaps the program coordinator or professor you spoke with mentioned the name of someone else in the department that can answer your questions. Jot that down and reach out soon via email or phone. Perhaps you became curious while on the tour about a student club or organization your tour guide mentioned. Maybe you didn’t have time to get to all the great hotspots and hangouts you learned about, and you want to check out their websites. Maybe you want to check out the school’s full course catalog or the graduation requirements for your field of interest and need to make a note to do that once you get home.
Take action. Schedule your next campus visit.
Are you a high school freshman who’s focused on a strong start to high school with no clue as to whether you want to attend college or where? Are you a sophomore who’s trying to balance a busy academic semester and the demands of several extracurricular activities? Are you a junior who’s just beginning to think about college planning? Are you a senior overwhelmed with the college application process? No matter who you are, your next campus visit is closer than you think.
Your high school considers a college visit to be an excused absence, which indicates the educational value they place on visiting college campuses. We agree. Talk to your family. Then schedule a day and visit a college right in your city. Or take a day trip to a college in a nearby city. Going out of town for the holidays? Take time now to see what schools are nearby and schedule a campus visit while you’re there. Schedule your next campus visit and put this Campus Visit Bullet Journal to work for you soon.