Take Personal Campus Tours of Your Short-List Schools

By: Stuart Nachbar*

George Washington University

Every new school profile posted at Educated Quest is based, in part, on two campus tours. I go on the same tour as parents and prospective students.  Then I take my own tour at my own pace. Parents and students should do the same, especially when they get down to the short list of colleges where the student has been admitted.

Although there are tweaks here and there, most admissions office campus tours are a standard pitch. You’ll see the signature buildings, the student center, computer labs, a classroom, the dining hall, the library and a dorm room. “Blue-light” emergency call boxes are shown, too. You might hear a story about a landmark or two and, if you’re lucky, lunch is on the school.

Schools are quite careful about who they hire as tour guides aka “ambassadors,” who often get their own fleeces or polos identifying them as such. The good ambassadors are always nice; they have a near-photographic memory of most things beyond the details of degree programs, and they sell their school with sincerity. Chances are they love the school as well as the job.

The standard campus tours are fine for students who have not applied to college, but they should not be a “be-all,” “end-all,” “for-all” when it comes down to the schools they are most likely to go.  Every student and their parents should plan their own campus tours. Spend a day and a half at each school, maybe two, with no student guide.

Here are some tips of things to look for when you tour on your own:

+ Look around the main gathering place on campus, the “quad,” or “green,” or whatever else its called. This is the area most photographed in the college’s brochures. The way a college treats its signature space will tell you a lot about how it maintains other spaces on campus. Fences or chains to block off green space are not a good sign. A campus is meant to be a more open community than a city or town.

+ Walk into the student center and buy lunch at the food court. Is it clean? Are students patient or rude as they wait for their orders? Is there a selection of foods you will like? Initiate conversations with some students to get a sense of the daily grind. The friendlier they are, the easier your decision will be.

+ Go to the library and look around the first floor. The first floor is usually the most social. Ask a librarian where the quiet spaces are. S/he might also point out the other campus libraries where quiet study is the norm. While computers have made it easier to do research,  college students still prefer to avoid studying in their rooms. A library is obligated to maintain quiet, a dorm is not. A library that is crowded at all hours–try to walk in for a few minutes after dinner–is not really a good sign. Discomfort and quiet are not two things that go together.

+ Make an appointment at the career center. Ask how they will work with your student in the freshman year to help prepare a resume–at the very least, s/he will need one to find a part-time job or a summer job–and how to choose a major as well as a path towards employment after graduation. Parents may appear to be “hovering” here, but this is an important part of their investment in a school.

+ Look at a campus map and identify the buildings where you are most likely to have classes. Then check to see which dorms are closest to them. Walk around the residence halls on your personal campus tour.  Note their condition from the outside. Do they have a dining hall on the first floor or is one is close by?  Some schools also provide convenience stores or other services on the first floors..

+ Some schools designate specific residence halls for freshmen, regardless of their major. This is done for “bonding” and residence life programming. Take a walk around these halls and get a sense of the walk between them and other buildings on campus.

+ Attend a sports event, if you can, for a team that the school has mentioned as popular and successful. While some schools are football and basketball powers in their conferences, others do not play these sports at a high level. However, their baseball, hockey, lacrosse, soccer or volleyball teams may attract rabid fans because they have been so successful. Whichever sport you watch, try to get a sense of school spirit.

These are just a handful of tips that will help make your campus tours more enjoyable and useful.

* As founder of Educated Quest, Stuart Nachbar provides personalized college, transfer and graduate/professional school admissions advisory services to help students and parents make the best-informed decisions their future education. Having worked around higher education for over three decades as an admissions advisor, author, urban economic development professional and senior-level software marketing executive, he knows the “inside baseball” about how colleges do business. Stuart holds a BA and MBA from Rutgers University, a Master of Urban Planning for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Certificate in College Admissions Counseling (with Distinction) from UCLA. He and his wife, Carol, live in Central New Jersey.