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College Bound

Don’t Skip the College Tour

The recent New York Times headline Skipping the College Tour, may have some families wondering whether visiting a college campus before deciding to attend is worth it. I can assure you, it is.

The article is correct in saying that “visiting a college is not the same as being a student there.” Also correctly, the article points out that visitors must use imagination to fill in how they will fit into colleges—and psychological research suggests that “we all do a relatively poor job of predicting what our future selves will actually value and enjoy.” Based on the research of best-selling author and psychologist Daniel Gilbert, this is because we have a tendency to place too much weight on the quality of a single experience. Touring a college on a rainy day, for example, can dampen our mood as much as our feet. We may take away a vision of people hunching their shoulders and hurrying along, whereas we may register a very different idea on a sunny day. The solution to this problem, however, is not skipping college visits. Instead, it is to be thoughtful about our own biases and take intentional steps to build a balanced perspective.

A formal tour at any college naturally represents an effort by that institution to put its best foot forward and highlight the best qualities of its campus. The encounter is intended to sell you and it is easy to be swept away by tour guides’ cheerful descriptions and personal enthusiasm. It is wonderful that tour guides feel positively about their own choices. But the question at hand is whether the college will be a good fit for you. As part of my work, I help candidates develop specific plans to get more from a college visit than the experience of the tour.

Strategies include:

  • Explore off the beaten path. Walk past dorms and academic buildings that aren’t on the tour. Check out community bulletin boards or seek out campus and student blogs. The balance of postings about activities on- and off-campus may offer clues as to whether campus remains lively or empties out on weekends. Also look at the boundaries between the college and the neighboring town and find out how students engage with the community outside the college.
  • Strike up conversations with students. Tour guides are knowledgeable, but have rehearsed their talking points. Find students on the quad or in the student center for more spontaneous answers to questions. What surprised them the most about this college? What have they discovered that they would have liked to know before coming?
  • Connect with a professor if you are interested in a particular department. Reach out and prepare in advance to ensure that these brief conversations are meaningful.

Staying grounded and measuring a college’s opportunities against your own interests, and writing down your reactions promptly, are important parts of a campus visit. Before and after visits, I help candidates reflect on their goals and clarify what is important to them in a college. As someone who visits many college campuses every year—and who really gets to know each candidate with whom I work—I can provide a broader perspective on how the observations of one day translate into a larger experience. Visiting colleges can be a bewildering and confusing experience. It can also be exciting and productive. Being prepared and intentional about the process is what makes the difference.

Deena Maerowitz advises students throughout the entire college admissions process. She works with students ranging from freshmen to seniors and is an expert in both undergraduate and graduate education. She is widely published and sought-after as a speaker on college planning. She can be reached at deena@thebertramgroup.com