As The Grinder would say, “But what if you do?” Take Zack as an example. Zack took a trip to Colorado to visit colleges, primarily Colorado College in Colorado Springs. It was summer and he hadn’t really thought about where he wanted to apply, but CC sounded interesting (they have a block schedule, so you only take one class at a time), so he put it on his visit list. He chose not to request an interview because he didn’t know if he wanted to apply.
Early November rolled around and Zack decided, “Sure, I’d like to go to CC.” Because he knew that CC is highly selective and would require a full admissions campaign, he visited the school website to request an alumni interview.
But there were no slots left for interviews in his area! In early November!
The College Interview is an important tool in your admissions toolbox. Remember, the Admissions Committee is trying to get to know you better, to understand what kind of roommate you’ll be, what kind of student in the classroom, what kind of leader on campus. What better way than to sit down with you and have a friendly conversation?
Your interview is often the first time you have a real, adult conversation. I’m not talking about chatting with your boss or your friend’s parents. Talking to teachers doesn’t really cut it. This is like a business interview, one where you’ll want to prepare in advance with some good stories to share that make you look good.
Some common interview questions, and answers:
As you can see, many of these questions are best prepared for ahead of time. You can find other great practice interview questions and suggested answers at About.com. Practice a bit with a parent, teacher or counselor before you go on campus visits. This is actually the best reason to interview at a school you’re not sure you want to apply to. It’s perfect practice, so when you interview when it really counts, you’ll be polished and confident.
Not interviewing is not the end of the world—simply asking for an interview shows interest—but getting in there and making a good impression goes a long way toward getting you some positive buzz around the Admissions committee table. At highly-selective schools, a good interview can be the difference between an acceptance and a spot on the waitlist. Be prepared.
1. Make sure the school is worth visiting for you
In the early stages, when you’re not sure whether you want a public or private, urban, suburban or rural school, this is less important. You really need understand your preferences about location and size before you start narrowing down your college list. So your first few tours, in junior year or even earlier, give you important information about the schools you will eventually choose. For example, I had a student who decided during the walk from the car to the Admissions Office that the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was not for him because it was too big and there wasn’t a recognizable campus. So he knew to think more critically about large, urban schools.
However, once you’ve got a feel for these basic things, be more selective. Check out the campus website: do they have the major you want? Do they offer the sports or activities you want? Do they match you in terms of size, location, gpa/test scores, and financial aid? Ideally every college on your final list should be a match in all of these areas. That student who didn’t like Minnesota had the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on his final list: a large, urban public school, but with a well-defined campus and the specific program he really wanted.
2. Sign up for a tour
Always check the website to find out when the tours and info sessions are and whether they have space for you before you show up on campus. Schools can usually squeeze someone in, but its better and more professional to let them know ahead of time to expect you. One of the ways you demonstrate your interest is by visiting campus, thus it’s important to always let Admissions know when you are visiting. Many of the Raise.Me schools will even give you microscholarships for visiting! Some schools, like UC-Boulder, want you to create an account on their student portal before you can sign up for a tour, but most just want some basic information. They base the number of free lunch tickets, admissions info folders and swag on the number of people they’re expecting, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on swag, would you?
3. Be prepared
You will be walking the campus for at least an hour—wear comfortable shoes, dress in layers, bring a hat, a water bottle and an umbrella, if necessary. Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, has 300 days of sun a year, but I happened to tour on one of the few rainy days. I was not prepared, but they were, with both bottles of water for people who aren’t used to how quickly you dehydrate at altitude and with an umbrella stand full of golf umbrellas we could borrow for the tour. ;-)
Also have a way to take notes and pictures of the campus. This will help you remember the tour later, when you’re narrowing down your college list. If you take notes on your phone, like I do, it’s good policy to tell the guide or information session presenter that you are taking notes. If they see you appearing to mess with your phone instead of listen, that might give them a bad impression of you.
4. Ask the right questions
There’s always going to be some mom at the front chatting with the guide (it’s probably me!) but take this time to ask your tour guide those weird questions you’ve been wondering about. Here’s a list of questions that will help you learn about the school’s culture—what it’s really like to go there:
5. Assess the climate
I’m not talking about the weather but rather the social climate. Look at the students walking around campus: are they smiling? Do they make eye contact? Do they look relaxed or very focused? If you ask for directions, will they answer or ignore you? Does your guide have a sense of humor, if that's important to you? Some schools have a very intense campus climate. This isn’t necessarily bad, especially for a student who is looking for a lot of academic rigor, but make sure that climate matches you and your expectations.
6. Check out the bulletin boards
7. Go off the beaten path
The guided tour will take you to all the hotspots, but don’t leave campus as soon as the tour is over. Wander around the student center a little bit—what kinds of students are there? What are they doing? Eat lunch in the cafeteria, or at the campus hangout your guide mentioned. Is the food good? Read the campus newspaper—what is the campus focused on? How expensive are the books in the bookstore? Does the area around the campus look safe?
8. Make connections
Unless you are sure you won’t want to apply, or if the school is close enough that you can get there whenever you want, take advantage of your time on campus to make some connections. This means sitting in on a class, staying overnight with a student, interviewing with admissions, and/or visiting the department of your potential major to ask some questions about what it’s like to major in X at this school. If you can connect with a professor in the department and chat a bit about his or her work, so much the better. These opportunities will need to be set up in advance, so be sure to plan ahead.
Interviewing with Admissions is a good idea even if you’re not sure you want to apply; it’s excellent practice for interviewing at your top choice schools. And be sure to send a short thank you note to everyone who spends time with you one-on-one. It can only reflect well on you and your future application to show yourself to be polite and professional.
In conclusion, a half-day visit will not tell you everything you need to know about campus. Doing your research, connecting with current students online or making multiple visits (if possible) will help you prepare for your visit, and help you refine your experience as you narrow your college list. You’ll be spending the next 4-6 years on the campus you choose to attend—doing this legwork ahead of time means you are much less likely to have a bad campus match and need a transfer.
It’s time to start that college list! Especially if you are interested in the more highly selective schools, you need to use winter and spring of your junior year to get started, because your early action and early decision applications will be due in October or November.
Luckily, the Common Application has changed their policies so you can begin filling in your app now, and the data will carry over for the new school year. Visit Common App.com to get started. They even have an app!
Wondering how to find colleges? The first thing to do is to make some decisions about what you want: big or small, urban, suburban or rural, close to home or far away, liberal arts or something more research or pre-professional? Grabs some friends and take a weekend tour of a college near you just to get a feel for what to expect. What do they focus on? What kind of student do they want? All of this will give you some ways to narrow down your list.
Then go to a college search engine. My favorite is Big Future. Put out by the College Board, Big Future lists all the schools in the country and allows you to sort them all sorts of ways: size, location, major, ACT/SAT score, whether or not they have a marching band, etc. If you have a Raise.Me account, you can use that to search for some schools. Links to other great search engines can be found on the resources page of this website or in the “Launchpad” column of your Custom College Plan, under the Resources tab above, or by Googling "college search." Using these college search engines, you can build a preliminary list and start making some decisions about where you’d like to go. One good way to find colleges that fit you is to find strong programs in the majors you are interested in. Another is to check out the Colleges That Change Lives, the Peterson Guide or Cool Colleges… The one place you should not look is one of the rankings magazines.
But what if you’re undecided? Some scientifically developed assessments--personality type, multiple intelligences and learning style inventory--are available to you through Custom College Plan. These quick quizzes can give you some clues about what majors and careers might interest you and suite your personality. They will not tell you definitively who you should be when you grow up, but rather they’re meant to give you some ideas to learn more about. If you don’t already have a Custom College Plan account, you will receive a one-month free trial as part of the assessment package. Or you can Google "personality quiz", "multiple intelligences," or "learning style quiz" for additional information.
So how many schools should you have on your college list? Somewhere between 4 and 10. According to the College Board, applying to four schools gives you an 86% chance of being accepted to at least one (unless you’re only applying to hyper-competitive Ivies, in which case you have a less than 10% chance of being admitted no matter how many you apply to). Eight schools, in a mix of good fit and reach schools, is about average.
If you want personalized help building your college list, drop me an email through the Contact Me page. Building the college list is one of the most exciting parts of the admissions process and I’d love to help!
Why is it important to demonstrate interest?
Just like in the middle school cafeteria, finding out that someone "likes you likes you" is a huge ego boost. You suddenly see the other person with new, somewhat rose-colored glasses. This "halo effect" can make a big difference in your student's chances of admission. A student "on the bubble" (not a clear admit or deny) who demonstrates interest may be admitted over the student who seems to be less interested in the school.
More and more colleges are taking advantage of multimedia to help widen their reach to students across the country and across the world. Obviously, the best way to get a feel for a particular campus is to visit in person. You can interact with current students on your own terms, sit in on classes and even visit overnight. But with many students applying to 8-10 colleges across the country, it’s not feasible for most students to visit every campus before they apply.
That’s okay. I recommend that students and families use some of the virtual tour sites to “look” around campus and get a feel for the school before applying and then plan visits to the schools that you are accepted to and definitely might choose to attend.
How do you virtually visit campus? With a virtual campus tour. These tours can run the gamut from shaky hand-held video to slickly produced ad spots for campuses. In between you can find slideshows, 360° panoramic photographs, and even collections of interviews with students-all of which give different insight into the culture of a campus. Let’s look more closely at a few.
The first place you should look is on the school’s official website. Here you should find some means of looking at campus via a video tour or slideshow. If you’re having trouble, I recommend visiting CampusTours.com for basic information as well as a link to the school’s preferred tour.
Some of the tours you find will have been produced by Youvisit.com. Youvisit produces audiovisual--and just visual--panoramic tours of campuses, travel destinations, businesses, and events and venues. The Youvisit tours are optimized for most platforms: laptop, tablet, phone and even virtual reality! Ecampustours.com also offers panoramic photo tours as well as some college admissions information.
Youniversity TV provides commercially produced video spots about campus, similar to the college commercials you see during football games. These videos are difficult to watch on phones, which make them less useful for students than they might be for parents. The student-on-the-street interviews as CollegeClick TV are more Millenial-friendly, and better provide an actual feel for the campus and its students vs the professional marketing pieces at Youniversity or Youvisit. Once you figure out the tags that interest you, you can search for videos from multiple campuses about their athletics or theatre programs, for example, which can help you expand your college search.
Whichever site or sites you choose to use, remember that the only way to get an authentic feel for a campus is to visit in person. But virtual campus tours can be a good way to narrow your travel choices.
Lessa Scherrer is an college admissions consultant who has worked with college-bound students for many years. She is a member of NACAC and WACAC and also teaches ACT Prep, speed-reading, college study skills and college-level writing.
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