I’m not an expert on college tours, but after eleven of them spread out over thirteen states, I definitely have something to say, and a bit of advice.
You will get a feel of a campus within the first five minutes. This shouldn’t completely turn you off to a school, often times you’ll need re-evaluation, but some campuses will click, and others won’t.
Student-directed tours are your best bet. Faculty members are great, but students will know where the hangout spots are, and what the school is like. I’m sure there’s a certain amount of, “I was taught to say this”-itis, but most students will give you their honest opinion.
An info session AND campus tour might not be necessary everywhere. Depending on the school, the info session will be redundant. Every tour I went on had time for Q & A, throughout the tour. You’re able to SEE parts of campus, and get information about the different departments, which is often enough, especially if you’re just looking. If this is your dream school, use the resources, go to the information session, talk to everyone you can. The info session is a higher-level tour without the visuals, which are important. It’s possible to love an educational philosophy, but hate the campus.
Locate the undergraduate admissions office, and have a phone number. This will save you time, hassle, and energy when you first arrive on campus. It’s as simple as a quick google search. If we had gotten the number of the Yale admissions office, we wouldn’t have walked from our old campus parking spot to the admissions building clear across campus, then proceeded to walk the school grounds.
Be prepared with quarters. We spent over half an hour in Cambridge, MA trying to find quarters to feed the meters. Especially in smaller towns, the parking will be limited, and parking decks might not be around.
Find a guide with your ideal major, similar interests, and one who SPEAKS LOUDLY. It seems obvious, but in the moment won’t occur to you.
Be prepared to sweat, walk and hear repeated information. Most tours take place during the summer. If you manage to tour during a breezy day, be grateful. If you do both the tour and the info session, you will hear repeated information. Wear comfortable shoes, because the goal of the tour is to get an accurate picture of what campus living would be like, not just the pretty parts.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, BUT some questions are best with a personal answer. At the same time, don’t ask stupid questions. You can find a lot on the website. We had several people ask things like, “Do you teach Latin?” or, “Do you have this major?” Google, people. GOOGLE.
Talk to your guide while you walk, and after the tour is finished! They are people after all. I found out some really interesting info by talking to the guides, like obscure history facts, or where to get the best cup of coffee nearby. ;)
Bring a notebook. Take notes. Even if you don’t plan on reading them again, or even using them, they’ll help you stay awake during info sessions, and can be useful when comparing colleges.
Grab literature. Reference for later. Just do it.
COMMUNICATE. Communicate with the FA advisor, admissions department, faculty, students, whoever you come in contact with. Don’t stalk them or anything, but if you want to get into a school, knowing the system will help you out.
Ask about financial aid, loans, work study programs, grants, scholarships. Just because a school says that they have great financial aid, perhaps even meeting you 100%, doesn’t mean that half of that won’t be loans that you get to pay off five years post-graduation. Work study programs are great- most have you working 10-12 hours a week, which is not a lot of time, and a lot less money that you have to pay.
Use your resources! Twitter, social networking, etc. I asked several people for advice on places to eat, or see, which were far more useful than what I could find in a guidebook. (If you’re ever in Portsmith, Rhode Island, go to the creperie just off the Brown campus. Trust me.)
See the library. You will use it, so you better love it.
Ask about greek life. Dartmouth has heavy involvement in Greek life, and that’s not something I’m interested in. If you’re dying to rush, then Dartmouth may be your cup of tea!
Survey your surroundings. Gonna pick on Dartmouth again- Sorry! Dartmouth has a beautiful campus, in what I like to fondly describe as “Nowhere, New Hampshire.” I already live in Nowhere, North Carolina, so hopping from one to another doesn’t appeal to me. Loving the campus is important, but loving the area is of equal importance.
Ask what YOU’RE looking for in a campus, and out of your education. Not just in a major, but extracurriculars, study abroad programs, even the curriculum style. What do students do on the weekends? Do people stay on campus, or go into the nearest city?
You CAN visit during the school year. In fact, I think I would recommend this. You get a REAL experience of the campus, instead of the watered down version of summer. I’ve also heard of schools giving credit or excused absences for visiting colleges.
Act like a normal person, PLEASE. You are not in competition with every person who is touring. Be nice. Again, this is NOT a contest. That stage comes during applications, silly! Your space will not be compromised by everyone in the info session. So, don’t act that way.
Be comfortable. Most people don’t dress up for tours or info sessions. Interviews call for a more formal outfit, but every interview I had dictated business/business casual attire. The best outfits can be more or less casual depending on what everyone around you is wearing, and won’t wrinkle easily. Tours and info sessions are even more relaxed. Don’t be a prep, wear your non-torn jeans, and nicer shorts, ideally ones without something written on the bum. :)