For anyone visiting college campuses in the next few weeks, perhaps in conjunction with All Roads...
I have been accepted to both Duke and North Carolina State University's Master's degree programs for mechanical engineering. The waiting for decisions felt a lot like the two admissions rounds I had been through before, except grad schools tend to send emails rather than paper letters (not as much fun, and there is no time of day when the 'mail comes,' so I'm left checking my email every half hour to see if I got into grad school. Yuck). Even now, I'm waiting on financial aid packages from both schools to decide whether I can go to either, and checking my email inbox and not seeing anything has become a source of stress. When I applied for undergrad I had a better sense of the places that I really wanted to go to and those that I kind of wanted to go to. Visiting campuses helped an awful lot. There was a sense of a place you could get from a tour that never comes across in brochures or perhaps in admissions blogs. Three tours made invaluable contributions to my college search. One disqualified a college I had been seriously considering from the competition. The other two put the schools I visited at the top of my list.
The first school was a little liberal arts college that one of my favorite teachers in high school went to. He was the cool teacher, and I was confident that this would be the cool school. On paper this school was a midwestern liberal arts college, much like Oberlin. Except not like Oberlin. It was in the middle of a larger city, and it turns out a lot of students there are commuters. That was a bit of a turn-off. The brochures had touted the surrounding city as an opportunity to live in proximity to world-class museums and concert halls, but it seemed like it served to spread the students to the winds when weekends came. The community I felt in the Little Colleges on the Prairie seemed dilute there. The school also was big into sports, which made the place feel like the big state university in my home town. So it wasn't right for me, but it may be perfect for one of you.
The second college visit put a sunny, beautiful campus in the winning bracket for me. My family visited this college in February, which meant we drove through an ice storm in Missouri to barely make it to the airport alive, only to get off the airplane in sunny California to learn that there was a special on convertibles at the rental car place. We drove to another small liberal arts college in a red Mustang convertible with the top down. In February. The tour of the campus was impressive, the dining hall looked a little like Hogwarts, and the cross country coach was a really cool guy (touring also lets you talk with future coaches/teachers, which is really important if you're planning on spending 4 years with someone). Our tour guide tried to tell us how great the place was, but got out of breath more than once talking about how much he loved it. He was convincing. After the tour, another student took me and my family for lunch in the dining hall and told us about how much she loved the school. Of course, these were hired guns from the admissions department, aren't they supposed to be the most exuberant rah-rahs around? Maybe, but I believed both of them.
A third visit solidified a college's place in the top tier for me. I knew about the school's strong Neuroscience and Biology departments, some of my likely candidates for fields of study. The cross country coach had contacted me early in my senior year of high school asking me about classes, running, and family so I felt 'recruited.' I knew about the college's social consciousness and long history of activism (guessed it yet?). The visit was something else, though. The science center had lots and lots of lab space for learning hands-on. Tappan Square seemed like a cool space and a great idea, an automatic town-gown crossover place where the college could host community events. Our tour guide kept coming up with factoid after factoid about how Oberlin was the first institution to give degrees to black people and women, and hosted the reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as a commencement speaker in 1965. It was the last stop on the underground railroad before Canada, and was the site of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858. The AJLC Environmental Studies building was really fun to look around and hear about. I was impressed by the right kind of things. Nothing was really flashy or impressive in the way I had seen at other schools (although the turret and observatory in Peters are pretty sweet), but lots of things I saw and heard about just made sense. I also just liked Oberlin. Just liked it, I couldn't tell you why. Is this a reason, by itself, to go to a place? Well, why wouldn't you want to go to a place with an inexplicable magnetism? It certainly isn't a bad thing.
So, my advice to students who are visiting campuses: pay attention to how you are feeling as you tour them. The words in admissions literature are much less important than how much you like a place and the students there. If you visit a school where everyone tucks in their shirts to go to class and you're the kind of person who wears sweatpants to formal functions, perhaps it's not the place for you. Maybe you don't see anything that obvious, you just don't like the way the common spaces are super quiet or you love the way people push tables together to make massive pods of eaters in the dining halls. These are feelings you will be feeling again and again while you attend the school, so listen to them.