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If your mailbox was anything like mine in high school, you probably began receiving pamphlets, fliers, and booklets from dozens of schools sometime freshman year. By junior year I was receiving them on the daily.
Most went directly into the recycling bin, but some I kept to peruse. In addition to reading the standard set of statistics that were often both encouraging (Average financial aid package around $45,000?! Nice) and disheartening (acceptance rate of 8%? Ouch), the booklets always had the most quintessential pictures of college campuses. The picturesque footpaths, bustling quads, and majestic brick buildings all beckoned to me, urging me to visit their campuses in person for the ultimate experience.
And so towards the end of sophomore year, I began to think about which schools I should tour. I figured I could probably fit in visits to a few local schools the summer after sophomore year and get those out of the way, then save the road trips for spring break of junior year and finish up during the summer after junior year. At this point I had barely begun making a list of schools to apply to, so I didn’t have a blueprint to follow when it came to planning for which schools to visit.
My thought process went something like this: “Well, since my friend liked Tufts University so much, it must be a great choice! I should definitely add it to my list of schools to visit. And while I’m there, I might as well check out Harvard and MIT too. It’s only logical, given that I’m already in the Boston area and will probably be spending a couple hundred dollars on food and lodging; might as well make the most out of this trip, right? Oh and my other friend invited me to visit a school upstate together; it wouldn’t hurt to go take a look, especially since it would be one of my top safety schools.”
And so on and so forth. When it came to visiting college campuses, my choices were somewhat haphazard. The advice I had gotten in regards to the importance of visiting campuses had always been somewhat vague, so I wasn’t sure where to start; most people told me something along the lines of, “it’s helpful seeing the campus in person, especially when classes are in session and you can get a feel for what an average day as a student there is like.” While this is valid advice, there were several problems with that, as I came to learn after my visits were through.
For starters, many families, including mine, couldn’t afford to take days off during the week when school was in session just for the sake of visiting a college campus. My parents had strict work schedules and I was reluctant to miss several days of class given my heavy course load. In addition, visiting schools can be quite an expense, especially if flying is involved.
As it turned out, many of the college tour trips my dad and I went on had a constant sense of urgency to them: leaving at the crack of dawn to make sure we arrived in time for the tour, and as soon as the tour was over it was on to lunch, and then we would hustle back to the car to try to make the afternoon tour at another school.
We wanted to be as efficient as possible so that we could condense our visits to a one-night stay in a hotel rather than two, but also because my dad needed to make it back home for work. It was far from ideal (I ended up missing half of one tour and my dad almost fell asleep on the drive home due to exhaustion), but given what we had it was the best we could do.
Guided in part by convenience and proximity, partially by general name recognition, and in large part by time constraints, the list I threw together didn’t actually reflect the schools that would be the best fit for me.
Of course, I didn’t know this at the time, given that I was still trying to figure out what exactly made any school a good “fit.” How much of “fit” referred to academics, size, location, and the social scene? I figured I would have a much better grasp on the answer once I had finished touring colleges.
By the beginning of senior year, when I had pretty much finished visiting all the colleges that my dad and I could fit into our schedules, I evaluated how valuable those trips were. To start, I didn’t get to visit all the schools that I was planning on applying to.
In fact, there were a few schools I toured that I had initially intended to apply to, but ultimately decided not to. In those cases, the campus visits were indeed helpful; I began to understand what people meant by “fit.” For example, I discovered I wanted a campus with plenty of grass and trees, that I would not be able to thrive in city campuses surrounded by concrete.
However, for the most part, these college visits didn’t do a whole lot for me in terms of determining which schools I liked most. I saw enough of each campus to know that I generally liked them, but the information sessions at various schools all said more or less the same thing: stellar academics, ample opportunities both in and out of the classroom, high success rates post-graduation. My dad and I rarely got a chance to explore the surrounding town or sit in on classes, and often the only sense of student life I had was through brief interactions with my tour guide.
Sure, these all contributed to the portfolio I was cultivating in my mind for each school, but was it worth all the time spent driving and money spent on hotels? Not always. For some schools, I could have gleaned just as much information from their brochures or by talking to one or two alumni.
In addition to visiting campuses to get a feel for the environment, I had also heard rumors about schools keeping a list of names of the students who visited their campus. This supposedly meant that these students were showing more interest in the school, which would be considered in the admissions process as working in these students’ favor. Was this true? I still have no idea to this day, but I’d like to think that this was nothing more than a rumor.
Besides the fact that students who are very interested in schools may be unable to visit for a number of reasons, such as financial or time limitations, my personal experience is evidence to the contrary. I visited a nearby college three times; once with my mom (my “official” tour) and twice with other friends who asked me to accompany them. You’d think that I was a shoo-in at that point, and yet I was rejected.
The college I eventually chose to attend was one I had never set foot in until after I had committed, in late April of senior year. While visiting the campus beforehand wouldn’t have hurt, I don’t think it was by any means absolutely necessary. If anything, it would have been a rushed visit consisting of hours on the road to and back just for a tour and perhaps half an hour of walking around campus with my dad.
My college visits were underprepared and somewhat misguided. Knowing what I know now, I should have only visited campuses that required a firsthand experience to help me make a decision. Those could either be schools I was on the fence about, (the vibe of the campus would help me decide which way I was leaning), or it would be schools I absolutely loved on paper. For the latter, I would have made time to visit those, and I mean really visit those. In addition to the standard tour, I would stop by the library, check out some local restaurants, and see if I could imagine myself living on that campus for four years.
Looking back, I can only remember a few college-specific details I learned on these tours, and they only stuck with me because they were quirky student traditions that I thought my friends might enjoy hearing. In fact, some of my most important takeaways were completely unrelated to college: I learned what falafel was, walked by a famous location where a prominent movie scene was filmed, and discovered how conniving taxi drivers could be when it came to ripping you off for a ride.
Ultimately, I can’t say that college tours had a significant impact on where I chose to apply or attend college, so don’t sweat it if you can’t afford (or don’t want) to make a cross-country trek to hit all the colleges on your list. Frankly, that time and money might be better spent on a well-deserved vacation after all this application craziness is over.
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