Featured image from psu.edu

Like many of my friends, I took the college road trip the summer before my senior year, and it was a whirlwind tour for sure. Picture that creepy ride down the tunnel on the chocolate river in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but with a little more fun and a lot more information. And sadly, less chocolate.

Sensory Overloasdfghjkl;

The first thing I will say about my experience seeing versus imagining college campuses: sensory overload. Thank God for infographics published by third parties on the internet, because I did not come out of many “information” sessions with much more than anxiety.

I mean, how was I supposed to know whether a trimester schedule really was more beneficial than a semester schedule? How much does a student-to-faculty ratio really matter when you’re actually attending the school? And most importantly, when can I see the dorms??

None of these questions were answered on my college visits.

Of course, coming in with the background knowledge to go with and interpret the information sessions would probably have been a good call. But I’m the oldest child. My mom didn’t know what advice to give me, and she was especially little help because she was just as awed by all of the campuses as I was.

Campus is Key

I think my mom’s reaction makes sense, personally. For me, one of the elements of college visits that really psyched me out at first and contributed to the “sensory overload” I described was just the experience of being on a college campus in general.

On my college trip, I saw many campuses in close succession, and they were all vastly different. This is probably a good thing, because campus ended up being one of my favorite parts about the school I would eventually end up attending.

Considering that attending a school means spending the majority of your waking hours on the campus, that’s probably not a bad thing.

But how much weight should campus qualities get? I think that college visits sort of push the weight toward the “Campus” end because that’s essentially what their premise is. You’re visiting the campus, the buildings, the geography, the people – not the information.

College visits can make you feel like the campus is the school. I know that each time I was trying to imagine myself walking across the quad, having lunch in the cafeteria, or taking a class in a particular building.

This is partly what made me feel so overloaded. I was being given so much sensory information, but although it was concrete information (“the main quad is ten minutes from downtown Chicago”), it was hypothetical at the same time. Who knew how it would feel in real life? It was a lot to think about.

College Trip or Guilt Trip?

Actually, one of the things that stressed me out the most was wondering what I was supposed to be thinking about. Like the whole campus thing. I almost felt guilty putting that much weight on what is essentially a school’s “looks.” Isn’t that superficial? Immature?

As I was talking with my mom about the school that would eventually become my university, though, she told me that my eyes were lighting up. She asked why I liked that school so much more than the others, even after just a short visit, and I couldn’t answer.

I didn’t even know if I did like it more. I just liked the campus… But when I found something about the school that really resonated with me, it made all of the other aspects of the school more desirable. I was talking about the student-to-faculty ratio (which, I don’t remember now) like it was a Nobel laureate.

My mom pointing out my enthusiasm really opened my eyes to the fact that it’s okay to feel what you feel and think what you think. Your thoughts direct your life at college, so it’s okay to let them direct you to college. My biggest challenge was not putting my thoughts into the following box:

What A College Applicant “Should” Be Thinking

ASDFGHJKL; is probably a good bet as to what any given college applicant is expected to be thinking. The impression I got on college tours was that they want you to feel a little overwhelmed.

When I feel overwhelmed, I try to relieve some of the tension by figuring things out. I like to break things down into manageable pieces. And that’s pretty convenient for the college, too, because my coping strategy involves me going back over what I’ve learned about the school and trying to sort it out. That’s one step closer to applying to their institution.

Whether or not that was the intention, it was definitely starting to work on me. But then I did something that doesn’t happen often in the entire admissions process (but which should happen more frequently) – I calmed down.

And then I forgot. I worked on a couple essays and tried to get my letters of recommendation in order, but for the most part I just stopped thinking about my college visits. The immediacy of the experience when you’re visiting the college can tempt you toward feelings and decisions, but I knew I wasn’t ready, so I removed myself.

I learned that although a college visit can be billed as a way to almost magically make the decision easier, I didn’t have to treat it that way. Above all, I needed to relax and realize that the decision was still mine.

So in August before her senior year, this college applicant was thinking the unthinkable: nothing at all.

And slowly impressions began to creep back into my head. I allowed myself to follow the threads, to look up a statistic here or image search a campus there. With the threads came gut feelings, and with those came rational counterarguments, and before I knew it I had formed a bare-bones structure of my final list without even trying.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. My list needed a lot of refining, but it was much clearer than when I’d embarked on my college visits. And it only got clearer from there.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is a junior at Cornell University studying Performing and Media Arts and Psychology.As much as she loves writing for CollegeVine, she'd rather be astral projecting or watching The Office. She has too much fun writing bios like these for her own good.