My first college tour was at Cornell University in New York, on a blisteringly hot July day the summer before my junior year. A bunch of my family members had gone there, and I was in the area visiting family that summer so my dad proposed I check it out.
The guides gave me a thick folder of promotional flyers and info. Being my oft overly-critical self, I sighed at the atrocious waste of paper and ink wasted on pictures of thrilled-looking students who probably didn’t even go to the school.
I was in a group of maybe 25 other prospective students and fell to the back of the group. I tried to pay attention to the eager student leading my tour, but all I could think about was getting inside the next air-conditioned building we would walk through to peer at classrooms, dorms, labs, and all else. I also had four family members with me, all asking questions and (as I saw it as a bad-tempered and overheated sixteen year-old) being terribly annoying.
Cornell University was quickly ruled out.
Not because I didn’t like the school, but because I had developed pretty crappy associations with it…heat, annoying parents, long and grueling distances between buildings.
I let my sensory experiences of that hot summer day overrule the good things about the school — the strong academics, the size, cool town of Ithaca that it’s located in, etc. What’s more, I had a terrible attitude and a pretty closed mind.
I did reconsider Cornell later and decided, rationally, that it wasn’t right for me.
After that, I went on many more tours and learned plenty about how to look critically at a school while keeping an open mind.
Here’s what I learned:
- Don’t focus on the statistics during your tour. The guide will have plenty of these. Figures, facts, history, data… number-related information and trivia that you can probably find on the college’s website. For me anyway, the whole point of a tour was to feel the place. You can always go back to the website later to check out averages, enrollment numbers, and all that stuff.
- Figure out if having your parents/others there will help or hurt you in deciding whether to pursue the school. I found that my parents had too much to say during my visits to campuses. Their input was important to me, but I could more authentically tell how I felt when I was alone on my tour. At the very least, I’d ask them to give me some space in the tour group so they could get the information but not sway my thoughts with their comments.
- Spend a couple hours exploring on your own. The tour is meant to show you highlights of campus, the showpieces. The school is, after all, marketing to you. These highlights are important, but aren’t really enough to get a sense of how well you’d fit in, socially especially. I suggest checking out the student union, info boards around campus, academic buildings of fields you’re interested in, and wherever else you find yourself. Pretend you go there. What does it feel like? Do you see places you’d like to hang out? People who you might be able to relate to? Are there interesting activities and events going on?
- If you can, sit in on a class. Actually being there for a class is a great way to tell what to expect academically. Pick one that sounds interesting, and is an average size for the college. I was in PSEO at the University of Minnesota and St. Kate’s, so I was lucky to get the full experience of a college class at both a large and small college. Obviously that’s not for everyone, so give it a shot for couple hours during your college visits.
- Take notes. You’ll probably have a lot of thoughts and feelings about the college, so write them down to come back to later! A notebook will also help you blend in while you check out campus alone ;).
- If you hate a college, pay attention to why. The bad tours can be just as valuable as the good ones. Maybe you learn that small campuses make you feel claustrophobic. Maybe the big ones seem too impersonal. Maybe you’re turned off by the dominance (or lack of) sports on campus. When you learn that something just doesn’t do it for you about a place, remember it and use it in the future when looking at other schools.
- If the college is in a city or town, spend some time there. When I toured McGill University (where I am enrolled starting next fall), a good chunk of what drew me to it was its location in Montreal. I love that city. It’s lively, historic, musical, and close to a bunch of cool hiking areas. For some people, location doesn’t matter as much but it was a big factor for me, as I love to explore new places. Wherever the locale of your potential college, think about whether it will matter to you; it might not and that’s totally fine!
- Keep an open, open mind. Your tour guide could have a super annoying voice, it could be pouring rain, maybe your mom won’t stop commenting on the cement block architecture or reminiscing about her own orientation week (TMI, mom!!)… Don’t let these things get in the way! Similarly, don’t let the inconsequential good things cloud your vision either. Just because the campus is chock full of crazily attractive people doesn’t mean it’s the right school for you! Keep your mind open, but stay conscious of the judgments you make, and how you make them.
This is your chance to be at a school and imagine yourself there for 8 months of the year. And remember– every school has cheesy pamphlets. Get over it ;).
Happy college hunting!