While I am currently in college, and therefore will not be looking at any colleges this summer (unless I visit SMC), I still recognize that many high school students tour colleges over the summer. The summer before my senior year of high school, I took a trip to the East Coast to tour three schools: UNC Chapel Hill, Dartmouth College, and Wesleyan College. Prior to that trip across the country, I toured Stanford University, Santa Clara University, Saint Mary’s College, Linfield College, and University of Oregon. To say I am familiar with college tours is a bit of an understatement. Every school does tours differently. At Dartmouth, my tour guide was a Fraternity President in basketball shorts and a t-shirt. At UNC Chapel Hill, my tour guide was a girl named Taylor wearing denim shorts and a blue UNC t-shirt with a name tag. At Linfield my tour guide was a super bubbly girl with really cute rain boots. At Saint Mary’s, my tour guide was named Sarah, and she was super friendly, wearing khaki shorts, a navy polo, and a name tag.
My point with telling you this is that the way a college tour is done can say a lot about the college. It can make an impression, and it could be the reason you either choose to attend a college or not. I only remember two names: my tour guide from UNC and my tour guide from Saint Mary’s. I now attend Saint Mary’s. They may not have been the best tour guides in the entire universe, but they were memorable, they were friendly, and they were knowledgable about the school. They were inviting, and made me feel welcome at those schools before I was even a student. Before I dive too far into my tips about touring college campuses, I want to add that my number one choice for college was Dartmouth. I dreamed of going there since seventh grade, and I flew across the country to see my dream school in person. Everyone was telling me I wouldn’t go that far from home, and I wanted to prove them wrong. After looking at the college, something felt wrong. I didn’t feel as in love with the reality of the college as I did with the photos I had seen online, and I didn’t feel connected to the student body. Actually, my favorite part of the visit was when I walked down main street with my parents AFTER the tour. I also liked their English building, but I knew that I wouldn’t be going to college just to sit in a building. I had so many expectations for Dartmouth, and the tour fell really short. Having an Ivy League reputation, I will admit I was widely unimpressed by the lack of uniform or name tags for tour guides. I also got the impression that the only way to have a social life was to go Greek, which I was super unsure was even something I wanted. Luckily, I didn’t get in to Dartmouth, and therefore had a reason to not go across the country. So, now on to tips.
1. Schedule your tour for the earliest time offered. Regardless of where you are in the country or abroad, going to the earliest tour means two different things: (1) there will likely be less people, which means you can ask more questions without being a nuisance, and (2) it will be cooler weather so you’re not melting as you walk around campus. Summers are hot. I get grumpy when I’m hot, and I don’t enjoy things as much when I’m melting under the scolding sun. So, I always sign up for an 8am or 10am tour time because it’s way cooler. I noticed that at almost every school, if I had an earlier tour, there were way less people, and it made it easier to get to know my tour guide better. I could ask a billion questions about the English program, the honors program, intramural volleyball, and housing. This made it easier to really get a feel for the school, and it made it easier to see if the student body was one I could fit in with well.
2. Plan to be a little early. My dad always insisted we get to a campus a little early, and plan to walk around following the tour. We would locate the front office (usually the admissions building), and chat with the people in there for a bit, making casual conversation about the school. This was additional time to ask any questions, get rejuvenated for your tour if you had long travel to the campus, and a good way to meet current students who may be involved in various aspects of campus that are unique.
3. Plan to have “just wandering” time. Following a tour, we would walk around, go to the campus coffee shop, buy something from the Bookstore, and just kind of walk around campus and observe. I’m a huge people watcher, so when I walked around campuses, I always observed the students, taking in where people tended to study, if people seemed to know each other, if people were friendly to prospective students, etc. Something I noticed about Saint Mary’s was the sense of community. Everyone seemed to know each other, and everyone said hello to my parents and I as we walked around. I went to a high school of only 300 students, so I knew I wanted a smaller college that was pretty friendly. At Saint Mary’s, everyone was super nice and everyone was saying hi to each other. Also, everyone, and I do mean everyone, said hi to my tour guide because they knew her. That kind of community was hugely appealing to me. If you want to be a name, notice how students interact. If you want to be a number, observe the campus and see if that’s the vibe.
4. Consider your tour guide. At Saint Mary’s, the process to become a tour guide is very selective, and they try to get a lot of big personalities from various areas of campus. For this reason, think about what you like about your tour guide or what your don’t like. Think about whether you would easily become friends with this person, or if they seem unapproachable or artificial. The tour guides are real-life representations of the student body at the college you’re touring, and if you don’t like your tour guide, there is a good chance you may feel similarly about the student body. For this reason, if you don’t like your tour guide, I recommend doing a walk through of campus on your own. This way, you can maybe meet more students and get a better feel for campus.
5. Consider how you feel when you initially get to campus. Everyone says that when you fall in love, you just kind of…know. The same holds true for college touring. I walked onto and off of multiple campus, but the only one I felt sure about when I walked on was Saint Mary’s. I toured U of O and Linfield in freezing weather. I almost melted to death at UNC, and Dartmouth was a sweaty bundle of unattractive nerves and defeated expectations. I walked onto the Saint Mary’s campus, and the weather was perfect. It was mid-January and 70 degrees with a light breeze. The drive up to campus was beautiful. My dad says he knew I would go there because I didn’t stop smiling from the time the long driveway appeared until we were exiting campus. The campus just felt right. It felt like I was home before I even decided to attend. Consider how you feel when you walk onto a campus. Does it feel right? Does it feel like you could live there for nine months out of the year?
6. Ask about weekend life. Something I wished I would have asked about was weekends. Saint Mary’s gets super quiet on the weekends, as many students either go home or into the City. There are minimal planned activities. Knowing this wouldn’t have changed my decision to go there, but I wished I would have asked more questions about great things to do on weekends because I ended up learning the hard way…spending three weekends semi-alone and confused about lack of activities following weekend of welcome. Ask about a typical weekend, and see what activities are available to you.
7. Ask about your major. Is you major popular? Are the classes hard to get? What is the department like? Do you have world-renowned professors at your disposal? Know these things. You’re going to be spending four years at a university, earning a degree in your chosen field, and you want to make sure that you know you’re choosing the best school for your interests.
8. Ask about housing options. Saint Mary’s guarantees housing your freshmen and sophomore years. After that, you’re probably going to end up living off campus unless you get a Resident Advisor position or live in a living-learning community. If this is the case, and you have to live off campus at least one year, see about housing in the area. Is it nice? Is the area safe? Is it expensive? Will you need five roommates or one to afford a house? Housing is important, and this aspect of your college experience shouldn’t be overlooked. I know it seems like a weird thing to ask when you’re still in high school and living at home and haven’t even lived in a dorm yet, but it’s super important!
9. Ask about the likelihood that you’ll be able to graduate in four years. Saint Mary’s is on a four-one-four system. Linfield also had this option. What this means is that you have a semester, usually four classes, then winter break, then return for a month to take a single class, then have another short break before returning for your second semester. By the end of the year you have nine classes instead of the usual eight you would have if attending another semester based institution. This system helps guarantee that I will graduate in four years. I have so many friends in state colleges or just way larger colleges, and they have the hardest time getting the classes they need, which inevitably places them on a five-year track instead of a four-year track. My parents were all for me going to a college that could make sure I got my classes and moved on to graduate school after four years. Private schooling is expensive, so make sure you don’t get in a situation where you choose a school, then realize you’re going to have to pay for an extra year or two because classes have slim availability.
10. Be open, and maybe let the school choose you. When I started my college journey, I had so many things in my head about what I wanted. I wanted brick buildings, hundreds of years of history, an East Coast locale, a medium sized university, and the list goes on. The thing is, I was never going to apply to Saint Mary’s. After touring Santa Clara, I decided I didn’t need to see Saint Mary’s because I felt like the two were similar, and I wasn’t crazy about Santa Clara. However, Saint Mary’s continued to send me emails, and eventually waived my application fee. At that point, I felt I had nothing to lose, so submitted an application. I got my Dartmouth rejection on a Friday, online. It was a cold few sentences about how the applicant pool was competitive and I wouldn’t be offered a spot… Even the rejection felt wrong. I wanted an envelope. I wanted to run to my mailbox, and get the envelope and see if the whole “large means acceptance, small means rejection” thing was really true. The next morning, I went to brunch with my family to mourn my rejection, and on the way home my father called (he beat us home), and he told me I had a letter from Saint Mary’s. I rushed home, and saw a fat, oversized envelope lying on the counter. I immediately screamed, jumped up and down, and ripped it open. They personalized my letter, not just changed the standard message to be addressed to me, but included a few lines about the essay I wrote in my application. I felt like I knew the people accepting me, and I felt like it was right. Thank God Saint Mary’s sent me stuff because otherwise I might be at a different university, having a totally different experience. My point is: you may think you know what you want, but the truth is, you probably don’t. Let the school speak to you.
I toured many universities throughout the country. All of them were great in so many ways, but some just didn’t feel like the right fit for me personally. Part of choosing a college is making sure you’re entering an environment that will allow you to grow, mature, and set out on a path to greatness, as well as allow you to figure out what that greatness will be for you.I hope this helps make for fruitful, enlightening college tours!