Using campus visits to help pick a college


The Boston Globe had an article this week about how families are striving to visit colleges despite the state of economy, and it reminded me to update this post from last year:

I always encourage LOTS of campus visits. I don’t suggest this because I believe by going on a never ending series of walking tours you will suddenly find THE PERFECT SCHOOL. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the whole idea of one perfect school is mostly a marketing pitch we admissions officers have created to try to raise our profiles and your stress levels.

Shameless Plug: If you had been visiting Mason yesterday you would have gotten somewhat inconvenienced by our many VIP visitors for the kickoff event for the new G.I. Bill that was held on campus. You probably would have forgiven us, however, if you’d caught a glimpse of either President Obama or Vice President Biden, both on campus for the event (one of the few times both visited the same university at the same time since they’ve been off the campaign trail). A number of Mason students were able to attend in VIP seating, and an incoming student, Staff Sergeant Jim Miller, even got to introduce the President and Vice President.

As I was saying, instead of trying to find your “dream school”, think of college visits as a way to figure out what you want most out of college. That takes a lot of pressure off these visits, which can actually be a pretty good time if you handle them in the right way.

I realize you may be thinking, “It’s not like I don’t have every minute already over-scheduled, now you want me to add a bunch of visits to schools and not even try to find the perfect one? Clearly you have no idea what my time is like, and you are at best clueless and at worst an idiot.” In the interest of preserving your time and my reputation, consider ways to make this process less time consuming and more fun. You might bear in mind, for instance, that it can be helpful to visit colleges and universities in your own area before visiting any others to get an idea of what kind of questions to ask, and what kind of propaganda you’re likely to hear. Also know that you don’t have to go this alone, you can bring friends. You also CAN go this alone, and don’t have to have your parents with you at every visit.

Finally, I suggest making the visits into some kind of competition with your friends. A few years ago I started suggesting playing a game called, “make the admissions officer cry” during your visits. During one speech where I used this line an admissions officer from one of our rival schools was so offended she sent me a sternly worded email about how serious the admissions process is and how my ridiculous efforts trivialized the lofty role of admissions officers. I may or may not have suggested she seek medical advice for removing the stick that instiution seems to require that staff members…well, you get the idea.

In any event, and for the sake of preserving the sensibilities of additional admissions officers similarly over-obsessed with their own feelings of superiority, I note that I don’t REALLY want you to make anyone cry, and that you should bear in mind that the person conducting your information session during a campus visit may very well be the same person who will read your application, and they may just remember you. So no name calling, making fun of bad haircuts, etc. What the game really involves is asking incredibly difficult questions.

My favorite question to ask in this game is, “What’s the worst thing about your school?” Amazingly, even though I’ve been giving this advice for years, many admissions officers still totally freeze up at the site of this question. Many will give you their best salesperson smile and respond, “Nothing – I can’t think of one thing wrong with this school.” Riiiight. Be seeing you.

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14 Responses

  1. While I think all of this is really good advice and I sincerely wish I had taken this approach to my college search because it could have been a lot less stressful, I do sympathize with part of the “perfect school” mentality. Don’t worry Dean Flagel, I haven’t gone to the dark side, let me explain…
    Sure some students’ quest to find the “perfect school” is too idealistic and makes the process completely unmanageable, and to those I think Dean Flagel’s advice is really helpful in making the process more rational. But I think what most students mean by finding the “perfect school” is that when they are on campus they just feel comfortable.
    To be perfectly honest, I am guilty of the exact mistakes Dean Flagel talks about. I don’t really remember how I was evaluating each college during my visits because in the end I chose the school that just felt right. And because I felt like it was the perfect school I completely freaked out when I applied because I was terrified I wouldn’t get in. In that sense I think it is important to detach yourself a little from the emotional side of the process and make it more about specific things you are looking for as Dean Flagel suggests.
    I do think there are some schools where individuals feel comfortable and others where they don’t, and that feeling can be legitimate, but it shouldn’t be the strongest factor in your decision-making. In hindsight, I probably would have had a more stress-free college search process if I had given each college an opportunity to be a fit for me rather than latching on to the first college that “felt right.”

  2. Interesting advice about asking an admissions counselor the “what’s the worst thing about your school?” question. Fun exercise to be sure, but I’m wondering what the actual point of that question is. Is it to trip up an admissions counselor? Or is it actually to get an answer?

    Either way, what useful information is being gleaned from that answer? I’m genuinely asking.

    And wouldn’t that question be better asked to a student tour-guide or a random student walking around campus as opposed to asking someone whose credibility is automatically questioned because they are paid by a school to say good things about it?

  3. Yes to both! It is fun to see counsellor get stuck – even more fun when they stretch the truth (“there’s NOTHING bad about our school”). But also, this really reveals some interesting things about the campus. If answered well it often offers a peek into instiutional values and what, if anything, the school is doing to improve in crucial areas.

    As for tour guides, and students met while walking around, yes a helpful question, but I tend to go a bit easier on them as the answers go. Many students are ardent supporters/fans and will endure torture before admitting to ANYTHING negative about their school, and I think that’s entirely fine. Others are very willing to give an honest assessment, while you may get some that actually are upset about something and will paint a pretty negative picture – so I’d bear those possibilities in mind. HOPEFULLY staff members are both sufficiently trained and sufficiently ethical to give a accurrate and honest response.

  4. Okay. That makes some sense, especially in that the answer – or lack of answer – may reveal some institutional values. I get that, and I agree with that for the most part. I also think the main point of the post is awesome, so this is somewhat of a tangential point.

    However, I would still submit that the transparency of an admissions counselor should be separate from why you are choosing a school. And I’m saying that as an admissions counselor. Let me explain.

    First of all, there are some squirmy reps out there representing schools that might be a good fit for the questioner. As much as an answer can be reflective of an institutional value, and as much as an admissions director should be making sure they are hiring the right kind of people and putting them into the right kinds of positions, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes a school is great, but a counselor is not is my point, and the school shouldn’t be taken out of the mix because of that.

    Secondly, there is so much info to help you choose a school these days that if you have done your research and are choosing a school because it is a good fit, a lame answer from a rep shouldn’t make or break a decision to go somewhere. That’s just my two cents anyway.

    I have worked in admissions at UMass Lowell for the last five years and I believe very much in transparency in admissions counseling. Having said that, just for fun and for the record, the worst thing about our school is that we have a horrendous parking situation. We already built a new parking garage and the problem does not seem to have been alleviated. In fact, we are intentionally growing, so it will probably get worse before it gets better. So that would be my answer to that question.

  5. Excellent point! I hope that applicants will do more detailed research and not rely on ANY one source or individual. Unfortunately, with so many schools and so little time, I realize it does happen. In any event, my goal is more to make the process of selection less tortuous, and try to get everyone to remember that the idea of “fit” needn’t become an obsession with finding some mythical “perfect” campus.

    If it’s any comfort, I’ve rarely been able to find a campus that doesn’t have a parking problem. Our campuses in that regard are a good microcosm for our general transportation infrastructure that isn’t prepared for the volume of traffic we all face.

  6. Before making a final decision on which college you’ll attend, you’ll need to visit each campus. You can take a guided tour with a peer advocate or walk the campus on your own with your parents. Pay close attention to how you feel during your visit. Do you feel comfortable and safe like you fit right in? Can you see yourself living in the community, going to classes and participating with the students and college life that surrounds you? Your comfort level with the college will play a key role in the decision you make.

    • yes. Also, one should drive a car before buying it. And go out on a date or two with someone before asking them to marry you. This is the kind of deep, sound, well thought out advice that I’m sure applicants never think of themselves. Thank goodness us professionals are here to keep you all on track!

  7. I will always encourage prospective students to ask our tour guides, “If you were University President for a day, what one thing would you change and why?”

  8. I’m guessing Arthur is an admissions professional, so if he encourages prospective students to ask the tour guides a particular question, my take is the tour guides have been prepared for it…again, won’t be uncommon to get a canned or prepped answer. My experience too is that the students who serve as guides are drawn from the students who have had wonderful experiences. My questions would be more like, “what do you know now that you wish you had known coming in?” or “how did you know that this was the right one?” I suspect that Emily up top has the true answer — it just ‘feels right’. And that drives admissions deans crazy because you just can’t quantify a feeling!

  9. What is the worst thing about Mason?

    • Good question! I think everyone would agre that Mason’s largest current challenge is all of our construction. It presents some tremendous opportunties, making Mason one of the largest residential campuses in the nation, making parking far easier, massively expanding recreation and performing arts facilities, establishing incredible centers for engineering and for the visual arts – even opening a new hotel and conference center. Doing any of those would be a massive undertaking for any institution. The combinatino of all of these projects creates a layer of chaos (and mess) on an otherwise beautiful campus. I know well that there are excellent reasons for doing so much so fast: Mason’s rising popularity and the opportunities we’ve been presented may be somewhat unprecedented. I think in general students, faculty and staff are pretty good natured about it, knowing the opportunities all the construction is creating and seeing all the effort that goes into minimizing the impact on the campus – so I guess you could say that while it’s the worst thing it also highlights some of Mason’s strengths.
      Apart from the temporary condition of the construction, I think Mason’s two largest strengths can be the worst thing about us for some students. First, Mason is in suburban Washington, D.C. That means that, in addition to a TON of stuff going on all over campus, you have a massive number of activities available all over the region. For some students the number of options is too overwhelming. All of the D.C. schools share this challenges – with the museums, performance venues, night life, parks and recreation facilities, and festivals, in addition to all the usual activities of a major university, you need to be exert a healthy amount of self control to focus on your studies. I find it’s what excites me most about the area, but I recognize that, for some students, the more controlled less distracting atmosphere of a rural college campus will be more supportive of their course work.
      Mason is also intensely globally diverse. This has been, for several years, the number one reason students cite for selecting Mason (followed by our D.C. location). Unlike some schools that claim diversity with a few people who look different, Mason students are truly global, coming from over 140 different countries, natively speaking 85 languages. All 50 states are represented, and you will find students of every shape, size, class and color you can imagine. The old phrase “birds of feather flock together” tends to describe most universities, where the students will tend to have a similar look and background, and at many even similar religious and political ideologies. Some students will simply learn best where most of the people in their classes look and think at least somewhat similarly. For those students, Mason is going to be a challenging place. Students who do best at Mason really do embrace diversity in all its flavors, and want to learn in an environment where they will be intellectually challenged and that is likely to mirror their future workplace.
      So, three worst things for the price of one…of course, all of which I could also consider Shameless Plugs.

  10. The “what’s the worst thing about your school” question got ME thinking about what might be the worst thing about it.To be honest I can’t think of anything BAD about my school as in something prospective students might want to avoid.
    However, I’d say the constant construction on one project or the other is an annoyance, as there’s almost always some road or path on the campus that’s suddenly closed, seemingly at a moment’s notice and for far longer that they tell you it will be.

  11. Just reading through your archives as a new follower of your blog and felt like pointing out that you just used a trick that my parents talk about in interviews all the time. I don’t know if you did it on purpose but you turned a strength into a weakness (we are expanding and getting great new facilities so construction is a hassle). It’s like in a job interview how you would say “my greatest weakness is that I tend to work too hard on projects, so I tend to burn out every once and a while.”

    • Who…me? Your parents are exactly right. You should also, in all probablity, eat your vegetables. Although, when and if you interview, try to avoid saying you burn out every once in a while. A better line might be “I work really hard on projects and at times some people think that I don’t spend enough time on my personal life because I love being at work.” Of course, it’s even more helpful to have tremendous connections, such as you would get with a great internship. That would likely be easier somewhere with close ties to a tremndous range of businesses and organizations…Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like George Mason University. Wow. What a coincidence.

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