Finding what seems to be the best program doesn't always mean that you're going to be happy with the college offering it. Even if it's true that all programs are designed to give you a great education, not all universities are going to be a great fit for your values and expectations – campus cultures differ widely, and this is where a campus visit, either online or in person, can help you make the right choice.
For one thing, meeting current students, as well as faculty and admissions officers, will give you a feel for the real atmosphere of the college – something which the carefully edited websites and brochures won't necessarily make apparent. A campus visit is your opportunity to ask about all aspects of college life, and you should definitely prepare a list of questions in advance. To help you do this, it's a good idea to arrange your questions in sections with headings like Admissions, Academics and Academic Support, Financial Aid, Student Life, Housing and Community, Work and Research Opportunities, Student Outcomes. Here are some ideas:
What is the average class size and student-to-faculty ratio?
What is the teaching style like?
Is teaching carried out by faculty or by graduate teaching assistants?
What is the food like on campus? Is there a variety of options?
Is the campus fairly diverse?
What's the social scene like? What kinds of activities are available?
What are the housing options? Are there dorms? How high are rents in the area?
Reach out to us for a handy-dandy three page list of questions that you can carry with you when you visit schools.
After you have gathered the information you need, reflect and ask yourself the question “Do I see myself here?”, “Am I going to feel comfortable here?” Wander around the campus, by yourself and tap into your intuition. How does it feel to be here? Do you see students, walking around, who you could befriend? Does it make you happy to be around them? Do you hear laughter or hushed silence? If safety is important to you, look around and see how many security devices are around you and how accessible are they? Where is the gym? Where is the school clinic? Try to befriend a passerby and ask them if they are happy. Can they give you a scoop? What advice would they give you as an oncoming student? …
There's also this crucial point: a campus visit goes way beyond just checking out the school. You can benefit from visiting a university campus by showing what recruiters refer to as “demonstrated interest”. The more actively you contact the school, and the more interest you show, the better your chances of admission.
A study cited by InsideHigherEd found that students who demonstrated interest in a school by making an official visit to campus have an advantage in the admissions process over students who don't make the effort; and In a 2017 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 13.7 percent of colleges surveyed rated demonstrated interest as having considerable importance in freshman admissions decisions. Another 25.5 percent said it was of moderate importance. In other words, in addition to reviewing transcripts, essays and test scores, at least some admissions officers look at whether prospective students have shown enthusiasm and curiosity about a school during the application process. While some schools are fairly transparent about the use of “demonstrated interest" in the evaluation of applicants, it is not clear who doesn't use it or doesn't mention it!
In-person campus visits can be expensive, especially if you want to visit a number of colleges. Admissions officers understand this and today organize webinars and virtual visits as alternatives. Clearly this is a particularly useful option for students applying from abroad - universities will track prospective students who sign up for online events, so that when you've made your decision and submit your application materials, your name won't be unknown.
All in all, a campus visit, or participation in online events, are undoubtedly great tools for prospective students to make their final decision, but they're also critical elements of the research process. Your education is a long-term commitment that will impact the rest of your life and doing your research thoroughly will help you make the right choice. If you can demonstrate that your research has gone beyond looking at a website, that will usually give you an advantage with admissions officers.
From the Counselor's desk at CollegeSmartboard