College Visits: Three Mistakes to Avoid and One Insider’s (Counter Intuitive) Tip to Make the Most of Campus Visits

by | Jun 13, 2019

Three Common Campus-Visit Mistakes

  1. “We’re not visiting any colleges until after he or she has been accepted.”
    While this plan is abundantly rational, it misses a key insight about college admissions: for many colleges, especially smaller colleges within a day’s drive, a visit is a vital way to show “demonstrated interest.” For students in Southern California, not visiting the Claremont Colleges—or Occidental, Chapman, USC, LMU, etc.—is tantamount to saying, “I’m not really that interested in your campus.”
  2. “We’re visiting every college on the US News rankings—I’m pulling him or her out of school and taking a leave of absence from work” Visiting too many colleges can be confusing and counter-productive– and often reveals that the clubs, dining halls, and climbing walls that feature prominently on campus tours are essentially interchangeable. Another pitfall is visiting too many colleges in a single day. Two a day is ideal, and three is probably fine. More than four visits a day makes it almost impossible to gain anything meaningful from each campus.
  3. “We’ll visit in the summer”
  4. The summer is definitely a calmer time to plan campus visits, but it’s usually too calm—devoid of the students and academic life that constitute its identity. It’s better to visit during the school year—high-school spring break, for instance—to see actual students and their relationship to the campus.

An Insider’s (counter-intuitive) Secret:

Common sense suggests that campus visits are about getting a sense of whether your student would “fit in” or “like it here”—a bit like taking a car for a test-drive.

But in most cases, a campus visit is simply too superficial to answer serious questions of “fit.” Students and parents mostly get a sense of whether they like the architecture and campus layout. And most of us, at least according to Behavioral Economics, make decisions that “feel” rational but that are actually quirky, idiosyncratic, and decidedly irrational. Students often tell me that they didn’t get a good “feeling” from a visit, so I sometimes ask, “Was it raining? Was it cold?” For Southern Californians, sometimes that’s all it takes to produce a bad feeling about a campus. Was the student tour-guide charming and funny? Or awkward and self-conscious? That can make a difference, even though it shouldn’t.

Most importantly, in the world of highly selective colleges, a campus visit isn’t really mostly about whether you like the campus or not. Many universities—the UCs, Harvard, Stanford, etc.—won’t know and don’t care whether you visited and they don’t have any supplemental questions about “Why this college?” A campus visit is not like test-driving a car. At a car dealership, if you like the car and you have good credit, you can drive it off the lot that day. But if car dealerships were like colleges, they would demand a written explanation of why this car is the perfect fit for you, make you wait several months, and then 90% of the time follow up with a somber letter that begins, “Unfortunately, this year we had many, many people interested in purchasing this vehicle…” Although colleges pitch themselves—aggressively—on campus tours and with expensive view-books and brochures as if they were a consumer product, what they really want isn’t you, but rather your application. More applications mean more rejections, which mean more selectivity, which means a higher spot on the US News rankings. To highly-selective colleges, you are not a consumer; you are an applicant.

Or perhaps not so much an applicant as a supplicant—someone pleading for a favorable outcome. In their current state, Ivy League admissions bear an uncanny resemblance to a 17th-century royal court, including the necessity of demonstrating cleverness and wit to gain favor with a powerful, arbitrary entity. Certainly, the boons offered to legacies, donors, and those who have demonstrated their prowess and courage on the field of battle, or football, resemble aristocratic systems of reward and merit more than democratic ones.

So, given these realities, it’s wise to consider the college visit as not primarily an opportunity to gain insight, but rather a chance to gain intelligence and information.

A campus visit is actually reconnaissance. You are gaining intelligence that will help you write a better “Why this college?” essay. If during your campus visit you sat in on a class, knocked on the door of a professor and asked a question, or even simply talked to an actual undergrad in the library, you now have something concrete to share with that college about why you want to go there. They already know they have a beautiful campus and 10 million volumes in the library.

In some ways, the “Why this college?” essay is essentially a “Why do you like me?” essay. Telling someone you like them because they are rich and famous and live in New York City is not, generally speaking, calculated to make a great impression or convince anyone of your sincerity. Telling someone something about themselves that few others would know—except those that really “get” them—is what this sort of supplemental essay is all about. And the campus visit is one of the best ways of learning what makes this campus unique.

Remember: it’s not always about you. And in the somewhat antiquated, aristocratic world of highly-selective colleges, it’s almost always about them. Even—or especially—on the campus visit.