For many high school students, college tours are a rite of passage, a necessary step in the undergraduate application process where they can check out dorm rooms, dining halls and the social scenes (along with academic offerings, of course) at the schools where they might apply. Prospective graduate students often don’t place the same importance on the campus visit — and that can be a mistake.
“I think the campus visit is underrated for graduate students,” says Eric Allen, founder and president of admissions consulting firm Admit Advantage. “And, to be honest, I think the visit for undergraduates is probably a little overrated. Most 17-year-olds don’t know what they want to do, but graduate school is really about a fit for your career future.”
Graduate school is a major investment of time and money, and a campus visit can go a long way in helping prospective students find the right schools and programs for their career objectives. Here are six tips for making the most of a graduate school campus visit.
Know the best time to visit
This can vary from university to university and even from program to program. Sometimes students are invited for preview sessions before they apply. In other cases, a program might invite accepted students for a weekend to showcase what the program offers (and help convince them to accept their admissions offer). And in some instances an interview is part of the admissions process. So it’s important to understand what’s involved in the programs on your list.
A visit when school is in session and the students are going about their usual business is always best for giving applicants a true sense of what a graduate program entails. But for working professionals, that isn’t always easy.
“People always ask me, ‘If I can only go on a Saturday, should I go at all?’ And I think the answer is yes,” says D.C.-based educational consultant and admissions strategist Steven Roy Goodman. “Is that better than not going at all? Yes.”
Lay the groundwork
After you’ve done your initial research on potential graduate schools and programs, reach out to the admissions office to find out dates for information sessions or to start planning a visit of your own. They can help connect you with on-campus resources and answer questions about the admissions process. And building up a favorable relationship with admissions staff along the way can sometimes prove helpful for applicants who may be more borderline candidates for a program.
Talk with current students
They’re in the program now, so they’re your best source on the faculty and the amount of work you should expect to have. “You can get the standard marketing lines on the website or in the brochure,” says Jeffrey Franke, assistant dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland. “But really talking with the current students will give you a true understanding.”
Ask about professors’ teaching styles, how much time students spend each week on their classes (especially important for folks who will be going to grad school part time while continuing to work) and if anything about the program surprised them. “Don’t pretend you already know everything,” says Kevin Connor, admissions counselor for graduate programs at the George Mason University School of Business. “And ask questions that are unique to you, not just questions you looked up online.”
Meet with career services
What better way to get a sense of what’s possible after completing your graduate degree? “You can find out where people from that program are actually matriculating to afterwards,” says Allen.
Students should know exactly what they want to get out of a graduate degree as they’re looking at programs. Do they want to use it to climb the corporate ladder, or do they want to focus on research or perhaps become a professor themselves? Understanding their end game is vital as they’re assessing programs; getting information from career services can help them determine if a program matches their goals.
Respect faculty members’ time
Meeting with faculty during a campus visit is typically more important at the doctorate level than the master’s level. “You need to define the faculty you want to work with,” Franke says. “And since you’ll be spending five to 11 years in that department, you want to make sure that you understand what you’re walking into.”
Professors are busy people, so if you do set up a meeting, come prepared with questions or topics to discuss. Look through their university and LinkedIn pages to get familiar with work they’ve done.
If this meeting takes place while your application is still being considered, take it seriously. “Don’t be naive and think it’s not part of the admissions process, because it is,” says Allen. “This is an opportunity to impress — or for someone to say that you’re not someone they’d want in their program.” This is especially true for small Ph.D. programs where the professor could be part of the team that reviews applications.
Use what you learn wisely
A successful campus visit provides valuable insight on whether a program is the right fit. You should leave a visit with an understanding of a program’s values and culture, and whether they align with yours.
“A lot of people have a vision of what a business school or law school or master’s program is like,” Goodman says. “But it’s important to test whether or not you really want to go to that kind of graduate school. The value of a visit is not only to improve your chances of being admitted, but to also make sure this investment ... is something that makes sense in your life trajectory.”