College visits have more in common with infomercials than they do with visiting a new city or town while on vacation. Most people just sign up for the canned college tour and attend the standard information session. These set pieces are directed and scripted by the sales and marketing divisions of colleges and universities, and are designed to tell you all the positive benefits of their product, while conveniently passing over any information that might portray them in a negative light. Tours visit the nicest buildings on campus. Information sessions highlight strengths, not weaknesses.
Furthermore, you’ll find that most tours and most information sessions are pretty much the same. You’ll hear how many volumes are in the library. You’ll hear that professors hold office hours (they do at EVERY college). You’ll see the blue light security system, whereby if you push the panic button the campus police will arrive in 37 nanoseconds. You’ll visit the dorms and see a well-decorated, neatly kept room in which no one lives. You’ll hear that there are tons of campus activities, and that anyone who wants to can start a new club. You’ll hear statistic rattled off as if they matter (faculty-to-student ratios, average class sizes). And every tour guide you meet will be wildly happy about their choice of college.
These tours are not necessarily bad, but you have to view them in their proper perspective.
Which is why I tell 9th and 10th graders to get out there and visit colleges early in the process. Go view the commercials, see how similar they are, and build up some immunity to the sales and marketing spiels. Sign up for tours and sit in on information sessions. And then when all that is done, spend a couple of hours just wandering the campus. Get acquainted with the product yourself. Look behind the pretty buildings to see the ugly ones. Go to the buildings that were not on the tour. Talk to people who were not trained by the admissions office.
Which campuses should be the ones you visit early in the game? The ones nearest you. It doesn’t much matter whether you are really interested in the colleges closest to your home. These will be the ones that will help you build your immunity to the campus visit infomercials. They will also help you learn to ask questions, to develop your own list of things you like and don’t like about different campuses. In fact, if you listen hard enough, you’ll start to develop a greater sensitivity for what really is different from one campus to the next. But ironically, this sensitivity develops only after you’ve become desensitized to the marketing messages that the sales and marketing team (i.e., admissions) tosses your way.
So get out there and do those visits. Do it early, and do it often. And then when it really starts to count, you’ll be able to separate the sales pitch from the interesting and helpful information.