While most applicants are eager to visit their favorite schools, most don’t realize the vital role it plays in the admissions process. Even those who recognize the importance of on-campus interactions and plan to visit several schools will have trouble deriving value from them without the context we cover here. Read on to get answers to:
Campus visits are important for three reasons:
- They help you evaluate your own interest and decide whether a school is worth targeting
- They demonstrate a higher level of interest to that school
- They allow you to gather insight you can use in your application
Many applicants begin with a list of target schools that far exceeds the number they will actually be able to apply to (often more than 20), leading many applicants to experience analysis paralysis. If you find yourself with an overwhelming long initial list of schools, a campus visit or two could give you some key insights to help narrow it down. Many hard to define or completely intangible attributes like campus culture, class environment, student engagement, and sense of safety are key deciders in the school selection process, and are hard to understand from words or videos on a website. For this reason, even a brief campus visit can make or break an applicant’s interest in a given school.
Highlight Your Interest to the School
Universities are most principally concerned with two admissions numbers: their goal is to maximize yield (the number of students who enroll divided by the number of students who were accepted) and minimize acceptance rate (the number of students who are accepted divided by the number of students who applied). These two numbers are so important to schools because they play a large role in university rankings.
In order to accomplish both goals at once, schools need to stir as much interest as possible during the application phase, while carefully weeding out qualified yet disinterested applicants during the acceptance phase. To track interest, schools often keep a detailed record of their interactions with prospects and may also ask you to self-report your school visits or interactions with current students and alums on your application.
Considering all of the above, visiting your target schools can benefit you in two ways:
- Someone you speak with may literally take note of the fact that you asked an insightful question or expressed excitement.
- The fact that you visited itself may be considered evidence of your interest by admissions officers. The number and intensity of your school visits will often be reflected in the admission committee's evaluation of your interest.
You should already know a substantial amount about your schools from your previous research, but being on campus gives you an excellent opportunity to learn more about the school’s values and gather specific examples you can include in your essays, letters of recommendation, resume, and other portions of your application. Ask tailored questions and pay careful attention to other cues on campus. Look for core themes emphasized by admissions staff and search your own background for applicable character traits and stories. Consider which existing majors, clubs, and campus activities mesh well with your background. Everything you learn on campus will add to the pool of knowledge you use to differentiate your application from those of other applicants.
Which Schools to Visit
Ideally, you should visit as many schools as you can. However, schools and admissions representatives are aware of the financial and time-related constraints faced by many applicants. When constructing your visitation list, your priorities should be as follows:
- Local schools on your target list
- Local schools that didn’t make it onto your target list
- Highly selective schools that may be more distant
- Safety schools, regardless of location
When to Visit
How to Plan a Visit
- Is this school a good fit academically?
- What can I leverage to get in?
- How do I feel about the students I meet? Can I find my tribe here?
- Does this school have the social scene I’m looking for?
- What will my post-graduation career opportunities be like?
- What clubs and organizations will I be a part of?
- Doing a quick Google search
- Browsing LinkedIn or other education and career-oriented websites
- Connecting with school-sponsored organizations and clubs
- Calling your undergraduate school with the specific request to be connected with an alum who attended or is currently attending your target school
- Reaching out to the admissions office at your target school itself
What to Do During a Visit
- Attend a specific class (or two). Intuitively, you should attend at least one class in your intended major or concentration. However, since most graduate programs require some kind of foundational instruction, you should also attend at least one core class. While those courses are not the most exciting, they will give you an indispensable view of the inner academic workings of the school. As a last priority, take an elective course you find interesting.
- Have lunch with your contact. After classes, take some time to discuss you and your contact’s perspectives on the various classes. As conversation meanders, you may find yourself gaining insights well beyond the realm of academics (think student culture, political involvement, social scene etc.).
- Have informal discussions with various students. Away from any tours that are taking place (and any watchful admissions representatives), approach students and ask them to chat for 5 or 10 minutes. When they say yes, ask a few key questions that you’ve planned out in advance. Do this on repeat and take a mental note of what you hear (or a literal note once you’ve walked far enough away). Probing questions like these may reveal as yet uncovered gems and red flags. Some great examples of questions are:
- What is your favorite part about being a student here?
- What is the one thing you would change if you could?
- What surprised you about being here once you spent some time on campus?
- Attend a social mixer or happy hour. Discover how the student body behaves outside of class and compare that to your preferences your own social life. Some key questions to think about (but probably not ask) during this time are:
If you follow the advice above, you are liable to learn something new about yourself as well as your target school. It is rare that a well-planned campus visit does not have some positive impact on your application. This benefit may be internal (new knowledge, a confirmation of your choice to target the school) or external (showcasing your interest to the school). Either way, the visit improves your candidacy. And in the highly competitive world of graduate school admissions, any advantage is an important one.
- Is it cliquey?
- How prevalent is alcohol? Does drinking dominate the social scene?
- Where do people socialize? Do they meet on campus, at local restaurants, or in apartments and houses away from campus?
- How important is having money in this social environment?
- How do veterans of the scene socialize compared to new students?