Visiting a college campus is an important step in deciding where you want to continue your education after high school. It's an opportunity to explore the campus, meet with professors and students, sit in on a class and get a feel for the school culture. Asking the right questions can help you make the most of your college visit as the answers you receive can be invaluable for helping you narrow down your choices.
Here are 10 questions to keep in mind as you head to your next campus visit.
1. What are the most important qualities that you look for in potential students?
The admissions office may give you a solid elevator pitch of what they're looking for, but it doesn't always paint a complete picture.
Timothy Jaconette, who spent five years as an undergraduate admissions application reader for Stanford University before founding San Francisco-based college admissions consulting firm Advanced Admit, says it's a good idea to do some sleuthing on your own.
"Ask a student or someone in the student life office what qualities differentiate students at this school from students at another school," Jaconette says, adding that you can also try the undergraduate major advisor for your proposed major. The more people you talk to, the easier it may be to create a profile of the ideal student.
2. What type of career services are offered on campus?
You may just be starting college but it's never too soon to begin thinking about what you'll do after graduation. Jaconette recommends asking about how many career fairs the school hosts and which companies are attending and recruiting students.
"Ask yourself if these are places you want to work," he says.
Aside from that, consider what type of support is available once you graduate. A school that offers lifetime career counseling, for instance, may be more attractive than one that requires you to pay a fee to access online job listings for alumni.
3. What types of honors courses, learning communities, and other distinctive programs are offered?
Many schools offer special programs or learning opportunities beyond the traditional course load. That may include things like honors programs, independent study, seminars, study abroad or internships. Do some digging and find out what makes them unique from one university to the next. If you're interested in studying abroad, explore what countries you could go to. If you'd like to do a summer internship, ask which companies partner with the school.
EJ Carrion, CEO of San Antonio-based Student Success Agency, which collaborates with high schools across the country to offer mentoring and guidance counseling services, says students should look for opportunities that allow them to implement what they're learning in class.
"This could include incubator programs for technology and engineering students," he says, "or internships at local healthcare and research facilities for medical or science majors." These kinds of programs give you a chance to merge classroom knowledge with hands-on application and take learning to a deeper level.
4. Typically, how many students are in the freshman class?
Knowing how many students will be members of the freshman class can help you identify where a school fits in your comfort zone. Some students might prefer a school that offers a smaller, more intimate setting. Others may not mind being one of several thousand students.
Enrollment trends can give you more insight into whether a school is getting bigger or smaller. If you want to go to a smaller school but class size is growing, that may be a red flag to consider a different university instead.
5. How many courses are taught by a professor versus a teaching assistant?
At larger universities, it's not uncommon for introductory courses to be taught by teaching assistants, versus professors. But does that really matter? Yes — and more than you might think.
For instance, a professor may approach a topic very differently from a teaching assistant. They may also have a deeper knowledge of the subject. A difference in styles and experience could affect how much you're able to take away from the class.
"You really have to think about how you prefer to learn," Jaconette says.
6. How many freshman students return the second year? How many graduate?
The freshmen who start off in the fall don't always make it to graduation day, or in some cases, the end of the spring semester. Carrion says a high retention rate usually means a school has a strong community culture and on-campus support system, which can keep students from leaving early. But what if turnover is frequent among freshmen?
Jaconette says some freshmen may leave or fail to graduate because they can't maintain the costs of paying for college, while others transfer to a different school to pursue other learning paths. In some cases, however, high turnover could be the result of poor teaching, administrative problems or other issues, such as concerns about campus safety. Talking to upperclassmen may offer some context on what drives freshmen to leave or stay.
7. What types of work-study opportunities are available?
You can apply for the Federal Work-Study program via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). It can help you earn money to pay for some of your college costs, but the quality of programs can vary from school to school. While some colleges offer the typical positions — library assistant or working in the computer lab — others may partner with established companies or organizations to place students. If you know what you want to major in, you may want to look for work-study programs that can give you relevant experience in your field.
"If you're in pre-med or nursing, for example, you want a college that gets first pick at internships, training or work-study at local healthcare facilities," Carrion says.
8. What percentage of students participate in campus clubs or groups?
Campus clubs and student organizations are a great way to take a break from studying. And they foster a deeper connection with your classmates and your school as a whole.
"Students should seek a college culture where there's an inspired and motivated student body," Carrion says. "This is the basis for a positive college community and it makes it easier to build a network by meeting and having relationships with people doing similar things."
As you compare schools, look at the number and types of groups, organizations and clubs available. Are there groups that speak to your interests? How many members do they typically have? Do student groups regularly interact with the rest of the student body or the community at large? These questions can help you get a sense of how engaged students are on-campus.
9. What is the average amount of student loan debt for students who graduate in four years?
This is a critical question if you think you may need loans to pay for some or all of your college costs. Depending on the amount of financial aid you receive, you may also need to take out private loans to cover your college expenses. Knowing how much average debt students have when they graduate can give you a sense of what your own student loan burden may look like.
10. What is the average amount of the financial aid package offered to students?
It's important to also evaluate how much aid you may be eligible for in relation to your total cost of attendance.
When you're asking about the size of the typical aid award, be sure to ask whether the school guarantees enough aid to meet your financial needs. Also, ask how often students receive grants versus federal loans. Unlike federal loans, grants don't have to be repaid, so that's an opportunity you don't want to miss if you're hoping to minimize student debt.
FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.