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The Campus Visit–Considering A College's Surroundings


Previous articles in this series on visiting college campuses have focused on some general tips, practicalities, the official campus tour, and the admissions information session.
When touring a campus, it’s important to remember that in choosing a college you are also choosing the community in which the college or university exists.  So make time during your visit to investigate the town and the campus environs.  You should drive into the neighborhoods that surround the campus.  Be on the lookout for commercial centers near campus.  Find out if the college offers some sort of shuttle buses:  where do these go, and how regularly do they run?
As you become acquainted with the area surrounding the campus, here are a few thing to keep in mind:
Most Students Stay on Campus Most of the Time
For some students, the primary criteria for choosing a college is it’s relative proximity to a large city.  Some want to be right in the urban core.  Others want the boonies.  Others seek the best of both worlds.  The thing I always emphasize with my students is that most students spend the overwhelming majority of their college years on the campus they have chosen.  No matter whether it’s in the burg, ‘burbs, or boonies, you will spend most of your waking (and sleeping) hours in and around the campus property.
Consider Where You Will Buy Essentials
Some campuses, whether urban or suburban or rural, can be far removed from commercial centers where you might expect to do business.  Where will you buy toiletries?  Is there a drugstore or two nearby where you can pick up toothpaste, or do you need to drive to a shopping center?  What about groceries?  I used to save money by opting for a small fridge, and stocking with breakfast supplies so that I could cut down on the number of meals on my meal plan.  Think about where you’ll get your hair cut (any salons or barbershops within walking distance?).  You may find ATM machines on campus, but is there a branch bank nearby?  You may want to find out where the local student haunts are, such as the local pizza joint, the Chinese take-out place, or the burger bar.  You’ll normally find screenings of many films on campus, but if you want to rush out to see the latest release from Hollywood, how far will you have to travel and how will you get there?  Many campuses, whether remote or not, will have their own campus convenience stores and other amenities.  So it may not be absolutely essential to have a major shopping mall right nearby.  But the point of visiting the campus—and its surroundings—is to get a better picture of what your life will be like for the next four years.
Consider the Necessity of Owning a Car
The considerations above may make you think about another important life necessity in 21st century America: the car.  Some campuses, no matter whether they are located in an urban, suburban, or rural setting, are oriented in a way that make it completely unnecessary to have your own, personal automobile.  Mass transit options may be fantastic. Or perhaps everything you’d ever want and need is within walking distance.  Other campuses may be very isolated, making it impossible to renew your toothpaste supply without a trip in the car.  Moreover, consider the activities that you plan to participate in while in college.  If, for example, you choose a campus because of it’s proximity to the ski slopes, how will you actually get to those slopes?  Is there a shuttle or regular bus service?  It is safe to hitch a ride?  Or do you need to have your own wheels?  Conversely, if you want to live in the city but envision that you will want to get out and about on the weekends (to the beach, perhaps, or into the woods as an escape), how will you get there?  Is public transportation available to get you where you want to go?  Keep in mind that some colleges and universities restrict which students can have cars on campus, and sometimes parking costs are prohibitive. If you think you really need to have a car, then make sure you know what the school’s policies are in this regard.  Also, I’ve noticed that more campuses in urban and suburban areas becoming hubs for hourly rental car services, such as Mint or ZipCar.  If you want to save a bundle on car insurance, parking fees, and car maintenance, these services will be something to check out.
Don’t Overplay Attractions That You’re Unlikely to Frequent
I hear some students (and their parents) talk about certain attractions or amenities near campuses that really don’t matter much in one’s daily life as a student.  Does it really matter how far the campus is from Disneyland?  If you don’t much care for museums or concerts, does it matter that these cultural facilities are within walking distance of campus?  Of course, just because you don’t have a lot of familiarity with particular cultural or physical features, doesn’t mean you won’t learn how to enjoy them. But put the local surroundings into their proper context: how likely is it that you will take advantage of the area surrounding the campus? And please remind yourself of the first item on this list (i.e., “most students spend most of their time on campus”) before you answer that question.  Once again, the campus should be the focal point of your college visit.  Yet understanding the surroundings will only help you in your final determination of which college fits you best.
In our final installment on planning the perfect campus visit, we’ll wind up with some general Dos and Don’ts.
Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant and Professional College Tour Taker
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