By Andrea Rizzi, Episcopal Associate Director of College Counseling

My kitchen table is strewn with beautiful and picturesque brochures that are laden with iconic steeples amid the quintessential New England fall backdrop of brilliant foliage. Eager and engaged students are sitting in a circle in the middle of the school\'s quad on a particularly sunny day -- happy, carefree -- making conversation while looking intently at an English professor.

These gorgeous covers promise much, but the actual content tells you very little. That\'s because all college and university brochures implore you to go deeper into the depths of their pages to learn. You read about experiential learning and study abroad programs, unique core curriculums or first-year seminars, successful athletic teams who are hard at work on the court or in the pool, and a myriad of student-run organizations promising to get you involved while positively impacting the greater community.

You might thumb through these glossy brochures or read them word for word, cover to cover, but here\'s the thing: There is no substitute for the campus visit. Below are several ways you can really make the most of your trip to campus.

A Journey of Self Discovery
Getting the most out of your campus visit begins by determining where you should go. Determining where you should go should be based on knowing who you are, what you value, and what kind of educational experience you are looking for. If having individual attention from teachers is important to you, then ask yourself what size school lends itself to that? The answer may be in sharp contrast to the schools you are considering.

Be open to endless possibilities and to visiting a variety of schools -- tour public and private schools, small and large ones. Go with no assumptions, and visit without necessarily planning to apply. This lack of pressure allows you the freedom to explore and focus on the total college experience. Keep in mind that this is an individual experience so a school that might be a good fit for your best friend may not be the right fit for you. It is also okay not to like a school you thought you would. It\'s even better when you like a school you thought you wouldn\'t! This is a journey of self-discovery, it is okay if your college list, like you, changes over time.

Do Your Homework
Research the college you are visiting so that you have some context and perspective before you go. Learn about the programs and activities that are of interest to you, learn about the admissions process and requirements. Use your time on campus wisely rather than wasting it asking questions that can easily be answered by doing research online.

Ask Hard Questions
Once you\'ve decided where to go, schedule your visit (if possible) while school is in session to get the most realistic view of campus. Go prepared with five or ten of your most important questions and don\'t be afraid to ask hard questions. You are there to get the information you will need to make one of the most important and informed decisions of your life.

While On Campus
When you arrive, you might begin with the proverbial information session lead by a seasoned admission officer who will spout everything from average class sizes to curricular offerings, admissions statistics to stories of successful students and alumni, to tips for what they feel make a good application. The information session is then followed by the campus tour, led by a very capable student with a very impressive resume, hand-selected by the office of admission to represent the school to prospective students and parents. (They are also gifted at walking backwards.) As they show you around campus, you will see biology labs, dorm rooms, rock climbing walls in state-of-the art fitness facilities, and typical classrooms. This is all useful and helpful information, but, like the pretty brochures, it can make it hard to tell what\'s unique about that particular campus. And while on campus you need to try to get the most authentic experience you can manage that really shows you what life at that school is like. Here are some ways to make that happen:

  • Read flyers, bulletin boards, the campus newspaper
  • Sit in on a class if offered
  • Meet with a faculty member in your academic area of interest if possible
  • Determine what life will be like for you on that campus
  • Ask questions that will give you a greater sense of the school\'s uniqueness in terms of the teaching and learning environment-students should be as excited about this as they are about pledging a fraternity or sorority, attending a Saturday afternoon football game, playing a club sport, or studying abroad. You are going there to learn.
  • Don\'t be in a hurry. Explore the campus beyond the tour as well as the surrounding area.
  • People watch in the university center or student union
  • Grab a meal in the dining hall
  • Talk to students other than your tour guide
  • Don\'t rush to judge a school based on a poor tour guide or inclement weather
  • Keep a record of every college visit, take notes, and write down what you thought after visiting. After the acceptance (or denial) letters come in, these initial reactions will help you make a final decision.

Save the Best for Last
Save the colleges you are most interested in seeing for last after you\'ve become more seasoned at campus visits, have honed in on the aspects of a college campus that are most important to you, know the right questions to ask, and where to go while on campus to get the best gage of student life. Trust your instincts-you\'ll know if it is the right fit for you.

Remember, it's not hard to fall prey to quick internet searches, pretty brochures, and enthusiastic campus tour guides. It's also easier to be content with schools with easy name recognition or ones that are popular among peers, or to only apply to schools that family suggests, based on promises that it \"will be the best four years of your life!\" But this is your journey. Don't be afraid to really explore and make some self-discoveries. Take the time and do the work to make the most of the decision process and your campus visit.

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