college campus visits

Campus Visits: You Really Do Have to Go to Know

I received an unforgettable lesson that day in the principle commonly shared by me and my fellow guidance counselors…

Why does a campus visit matter? Choosing which college to attend is too important a decision to be left up to a glance at a viewbook, or a quick virtual tour online. Although those activities may spark our interest…

…you gotta go to know!

A campus visit is by far the best way to assure that a student is getting what they think they’re getting.

Apathy at the Grand Canyon

Fourth grade Social Studies was like living a dream. Every day our very creative teacher would take us on journeys to exotic places around the world, and we were always back home in time for recess. Textbooks filled with pictures of volcanoes and islands, waterfalls and glaciers, camels and elephants all convinced my 10-year-old self that I had “seen it all.”

A few years later, while traveling through Arizona with my family, we pulled up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I announced that Mrs. Miller had already shown me the Grand Canyon, but I figured I would get out of the car to stretch my legs.

Even now it is hard to put into words the incredible grandeur of the miles of canyon I saw when I followed the visitors’ path to the observation deck. The pictures in the textbook paled in comparison to the real thing. I received an unforgettable lesson that day in the principle commonly shared by me and my fellow guidance counselors: “You gotta go to know.”

A student’s impression of a college is incomplete if it is only based on pictures from a viewbook or website. To either move a college to the top of the list or rule it out because of flat photos can be short-sighted. Do you really look like your driver’s license/yearbook photo/passport picture? Maybe you look better in real life; maybe you were having a really good hair day!

The point is, if a college shopper is considering a commitment of several years – and a bunch of money – they really do “gotta go to know.” A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a campus visit… priceless. (Learn about three types of campus visits here.)

What You Can’t See from Afar

I am no longer surprised when the website pictures give a very different impression than what I have personally experienced at my own campus visits. A college set in rolling hills may appear to be flat in a picture, or a school in a busy neighborhood may seem situated in the middle of a forest. The dorm room may be a little smaller (or a lot smaller!) than it appears on a site meant to showcase living conditions. Hopefully scenes of smiling students on the lawn, serious students with safety goggles awaiting a chemical reaction, and the cheering crowd at a soccer game all portray actual events and actual students… but you never know.

More importantly, a few things just can’t be translated through photos or marketing blurbs on a school’s web site. Or it might be easy to get a wrong impression, even when the school tries hard to give an honest picture. Here are three situations when I learned a lot about a college only by being “live and in person”:

Discovered in a Campus Visit: Unexpected Atmosphere

I sat in on a college history class at a school where I expected every class to be rigid, academically stressful, and highly structured – with a strict dress code. What I observed was relaxed discussion with plenty of humor and give-and-take between students and their professor. The students actually seemed to be enjoying the class and each other.

That school? The United States Military Academy at West Point.

Discovered in a Campus Visit: Unexplored Context

When he was looking at colleges his senior year of high school, I went with my son Ben on a campus visit to Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania. Neither of us had been in that region before, but we were prepared to travel to this rather remote small town because of the college’s strong academic reputation.

Yes, we did find a school with an outstanding academic program. But we also found a beautiful little burg close to other small cities in every direction. It all added up to plenty of people with plenty of things to do and places to go. No longer would I label this simply a “remote small town.”

Discovered in a Campus Visit: Untold Story

Years ago, while skimming a college viewbook, I noticed a picture of an art instructor looking over the shoulder of a student painting at an easel. Listed in the text were some art-related areas the college teaches. I made a mental note at the time: “John Brown University teaches art.”

Then I visited the campus. I discovered two whole buildings dedicated to art instruction… and they were adding a third. On display throughout are the works of students: paintings, sculpture, videos, and photographs from around the world (just to name a few). Seeing it for myself helped me get a sense of the quality (and quantity) of the art education at JBU that I would have otherwise missed.

The college shopper visits a college campus to gain information to aid in their decision about whether, or not, to attend. The point of a campus visit is to get a sense of what they would experience as a student on that campus. Is it something that they know they want? Is it something that they have not thought of, but is intriguing? Maybe it is something that does not matter, or something that they don’t like but will learn to deal with. Or it might be a deal-breaker. That is why campus visits are important, and that is why “you gotta go to know.”

(You’ll find tips for making great campus visits under the “Choosing a College” category.)

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