“What really matters in college is who meets whom, and when.”
Social and emotional behaviors—i.e. “fitting in”—continue to emerge as critical elements that impact completion rates at the post-secondary level. A properly executed college visit can identify the social skills required to succeed in each college’s environment. Rather than a passive visit; parents and students should structure college visits so that they are active experiences that aim to answer several critical questions.
The “Field Guide” to College Visits
Imagine that you are an archaeologist conducting a survey excavation of a foreign culture/society (i.e. the college). In addition to gleaning information from your local tour guide, you need to observe every physical component in an attempt to construct the most plausible description of this world. Remember, a “culture” is simply a way that people live.
As you conduct your “field excavation”, you want to be able to answer four key questions before you buy the college t-shirt and head for home.
1. What is the primary culture of this particular college life? (collect data on demographics, housing, food, campus size, campus location, etc.)
2. What are the key social customs of this particular college life? (collect data on norms, values, human relations, social activities, etc.)
3. How does the academic system of this particular college life function? (collect data on classroom sizes, majors, professor involvement, career planning, etc.)
4. What skills and behaviors will you need to master if you become a member of this particular college life? (identify the role of time management, responsibility, communication, social skills, etc.)
Use the sample questions below to help guide your thinking. Capture your initial observations and where possible, indicate why you believe this to be true. For example, you might observe that many of the lecture halls seat over 200 students. This would indicate that many of the required courses are often very large, a significant change from your high school experience.
Samples Questions for the Campus Tour Guide:
- What percent of the undergraduate population lives on campus?Is housing guaranteed for all four years of the undergraduate experience?
- Are unique housing opportunities available on campus such as “single sex residence halls”, “quiet residence halls”, or “thematic residence halls”?
- What is the faculty and student demographic on campus?Does a balanced diversity exist or is there one “sub-culture” that dominates (i.e. gender, race, religion, nationality, political orientation, etc.)?
- What is the relationship between the surrounding community and the college?Is the faculty and student body largely isolated from its surroundings or do they play an active role in the life of the community?
Student Life (i.e. “Social Customs”)
- What are the most popular extracurricular activities on campus?
- Does the weekend social life revolve around campus or do the majority of students leave for the weekend?
- In your opinion, what is the current largest controversy or issue on campus?How are both the Administration and the student body addressing this matter?
- Do fraternities or sororities play a leading role in shaping the social life on campus?
- How many students will generally populate a standard freshman course like Chemistry or English?
- What have been your experiences with the professors outside of the classroom?Are the professors remote, or do they take an active role in the mentoring of undergraduates?
- How active are the Professors in teaching freshmen and sophomore undergraduate courses?Is there a prevalence of Teaching Assistants in some or all of these courses?
- Is the majority of the learning experiences “project-orientated” or “lecture orientated”?
Career & Life Planning
- What is the percentage of freshmen who return for their sophomore year?What percentage of freshman graduate in four years?
- What academic, career, or life experiences are made available to students outside of the traditional classroom experience? (i.e. Study Abroad)
- How does the “Advisement System” function on campus?How realistic is it to achieve your individual goals in a four year time period?
- Is there a career guidance or placement center on campus?Do they work with both undergraduate and graduate students?
Once you complete your “excavation”, you want to answer one simple question - “Do I see myself or my child fitting in here and being successful?” As you contemplate this question, it might be useful to think about some of the following questions based upon the results of your “excavation”.
- Will most of the students be like you or will they be completely different?
- Would you be comfortable living with these kinds of people on a daily basis?
- Is the campus too big or too small?
- Can you see yourself actively involved at this college?
- Does the social make up of campus make you excited or nervous?
- Does it look like there is much to do outside of regular academic life?
- Are the classrooms too big or too small?
- If you need help with academics; are there clear options available to you?
- Will you be able to jump start your career through this college experience?
- Are you able to properly manage your time so that you can survive in a world like this?
- Are you confident that you will be able to communicate with professors and fellow students in an environment like this?
- Are you confident that you will be able to collaborate with diverse people in a world like this?
You may also find that you need further information related to financial aid, the mission of the college, or various enrollment requirements. Generally, all of this information can be found at the college’s website. Good luck!
 Chambliss & Takacs. (2014). How College Works. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.