How can I make the most of my college visit?
March 29, 2007 4:50 PM   Subscribe

How can I make the most of my college visit? Details: I'm a high school senior, visiting University of Washington at Seattle and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I'll have 3-4 hours at the campus to myself, but times are flexible.

I've already been accepted to both universities, I'm not considering any other colleges, and I plan to do Computer Science. Both my visits will be on weekdays.

I have the weekend to email counselors and setup stuff, if I need to do that in advance.
posted by theiconoclast31 to Education (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can your high school put you in touch with someone a year or two older than you who is now at those universities? I found (many moons ago) that the people that admissions departments tend to introduce to perspective students are somewhat atypical, and having a backdoor introduction was helpful.
posted by toxic at 5:01 PM on March 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I suggest you spend your time getting to know the areas around campus. You won't be just going to school, you'll be living in these communities for 4 years. You need to make sure you'll like it there!

(On a side note, no one calls it the "University of Washington at Seattle", they just call it the "University of Washington" or "UW")
posted by falconred at 5:06 PM on March 29, 2007

When I looked at colleges, and I looked at a lot of colleges, I spent my time during visits checking out extra curriculars that I knew I'd want to participate in, like art, choir, newspaper, marching band (yes, I am a dork.) I also ate a meal in a dining hall (to evaluate food), checked my email in a lab, and looked up a few books at the library. I checked on parking, the med shed, lecture halls, etc.

I had the time to sit in on a class in my major and a few different rehearsals to get an idea of how the classes are laid out and classrooms are structured, but I mainly spent my time on campus evaluating the lifestyle there. That is, I wanted to look at all the things about the college you can't learn just from looking in a brochure, like what classes are required for a specific major or what buildings will hold your labs, etc.

For me, the deciding factor was finding out that I didn't have to be a journalism major to write for the paper, and I didn't have to be a music major to be in marching band and choir, and I didn't have to be an art major to take life drawing, etc.
posted by santojulieta at 5:07 PM on March 29, 2007

If they're like big (generally public) universities that I've been to, you can just wander around like you own the place. I don't know where you are in New Jersey but if it's urban, (for example, I go to college in NYC) you can't just walk in the building thanks to security, and that's what I would have expected if I had gone to visit UIUC or something.

Because of this, when I was at Penn State for a summer, I expected to be challenged and bothered on my first day there going to meet the professor. Instead, I found I could go just about anywhere I wanted with no one bothering me. So if there's something you want to check out, try just going there. Not like just walk into a prof's office and demand a meeting, but if you want to see the atmosphere and what people are doing.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:12 PM on March 29, 2007

I suggest you set up appointments if possible with the Undergraduate Studies directors in the CS departments at both schools. (You may already have thought of this, but just in case...) Ask about how their program is structured and what their graduates end up doing. Don't make your decision solely on the basis of this meeting--as a prof., I know that people sometimes get those jobs because it's their turn, not because they're really committed to undergrad education--but it can provide some useful information.
posted by brianogilvie at 5:33 PM on March 29, 2007

Best answer: Things to do:

(1) Sit in on actual classes you plan on taking -- as many as possible. Get a feel for the culture of the department. You could try getting permission to do this ahead of time, but I have a very good feeling that just approaching the professor before class and asking to sit in would be suffice. I highly doubt anyone would have a problem with it (they don't at my school).

(2) Check out the city and the area around campus. Is there stuff to do that you enjoy off campus?

(3) Check out the dorms. You might need permission to do this, but if you can sneak in, go for it. Peek your head in some rooms and see what they look like.

(4) Talk with professors. Obviously you need to set this up before your trip. Offer to buy them lunch. Or, if that is too much of a time commitment for them, ask to swing by during their office hours and have a brief chat. Be sure to come prepared with a list of questions.

(5) Read the school newspaper. This is often a pretty decent way to get a feel for what the school is really like.

Bottomline: pretend like you actually go to the school and then go through an actual weekday.
posted by JPowers at 5:42 PM on March 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

(On a side note, no one calls it the "University of Washington at Seattle", they just call it the "University of Washington" or "UW")

Pronounced "you-dub." Because we are lazy that way.

Both places you are looking at are really big schools, where it is really easy to just "become a number" and disappear into the masses of students. Any way you can talk with actual, real students in your major would be good -- they can tell you how things really work, what life is like as a CS major, etc. I would also strongly suggest making, if possible, an appointment or three with professors in the department. Ask them about opportunities for research (if that interests you), or about whether the department connects undergrads with work/study jobs in the field, and summer opportunities, and so on. If they are rude and unapproachable now, imagine what it will be like when you have questions about your final project...

Sit in on some classes, if you can. Ideally, both a big intro class and a small upper-division class, to see what life will be like at the beginning and end of your studies. Check out the dorms (if you will be living in them -- that's mandatory at some schools, optional at others) to see if they are pleasant or disgusting caves.

Don't forget to ask someone about what happens if you decide not to be a CS major halfway through. You are sure now, but things change...
posted by Forktine at 5:47 PM on March 29, 2007

I would also check out the areas surrounding campus. Find out how long it takes to get to a major grocery store, Ikea, etc. You might even pick up a bus schedule or visit the library (that was my favorite part of Kent State--the huge library). I know these may seem trivial, but they really made my college experience.

Also check out local apartment listings, or at least get a feel for what rent is in the area.
posted by vkxmai at 5:55 PM on March 29, 2007

Best answer: Find out what the policy for acceptance into the major is. I know at UW at least it's a competitive process, and definitely not a sure thing.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:59 PM on March 29, 2007

Best answer: Try to get ahold of the advisor of the major you are interested in. If it is a small major, there should only be one, larger ones have multiple advisers. This is a nice test of a good adviser, since a good adviser will always be willing to meet with prospective students. Search the department website for this information. This person will be your lifeline if you go here.

Find the hubs of activity and hang around for a bit. This will usually be the Student Union building or something similar. It'll give you a good feel of the student population, since almost everyone ends up there at some point in the day. Pay attention to flyer boards to see what kind of activities happen on campus and in the area.

Visit the shittiest dorms you can find, this will be your dorm for your freshman year.

The school should have a guided tour, with a current student as the tour guide. Go on it, but don't trust what they say as they are paid to sell the school to you.
posted by Loto at 6:08 PM on March 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Definitely get an older student. I highly recommend an upperclassman (junior or senior at best) in the field in which you want to study. They will have passed the honeymoon stage of college and begun to see how their college and program compares to schools that their peers go to. This means internship opportunities, grad school opportunities and grad placement. All schools will feed you a line of bullshit, you need to see how accurate it is. Sure one or two will always go into top tier programs/jobs after graduation, you need to decide if that is the exception or if a bright student can reasonably have an opportunity to enter into it, that is if that is your goal.

I would not really worry about social life/area you go to school in. If you enter into a program you are interested you will find like minded peers, and it is only a few years that go by fast. If you are reasonably sociable and are not afraid of alcohol even the frat scene is bearable on the weekends when you want to go out. It is much more important how the classes/opportunities the college provide than how well you get along with your classmates. I mean it is college, everyone gets along anyway.

Can I reiterate: Make sure you ask about life after college, and get specifics. By this I mean: ask which companies that people in your field go to (pay specific attention which firms and how those firms rank in their respective field and which jobs students get), ask where students go to grad school if that is your eventual goal. Of course only students will be able to tell you if this is a line of shit or not, which is why they are so important.

I do not think you will gain much from visiting classes. You have nothing to compare it with (and no, high school is not reasonable to compare it with). Required courses your first year or two will be drastically different from those of your actual major, unless you get into an incredibly focused field. Visiting "Survey in Western Literature" will do you no good if your field is physics.
posted by geoff. at 6:49 PM on March 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Neat that you're checking out UIUC; it's a wonderful school for CS! During the weekdays almost all the UIUC buildings are unlocked and you're free to roam where you want. At worst you'll just look like a lost freshman :). On Friday, however, many buildings close around 5 or 6 for the weekend.

The main CS building is the Siebel Center. It's a rather modern looking building off the north engineering quad (also called the Beckman Quad). The department used to be in the Digital Computing Lab (DCL) but they've mostly moved out and now DCL houses the campus computing services division (CITES). There's several large lecture halls in Siebel Center, plus some interesting architecture, so make sure to take a look. The UIUC chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) is in Siebel Center.

On the north quad there's also the Beckman Institute and the Coordinated Science Laboratory. Both are really awesome buildings, but it's mostly offices and labs, so you'll have trouble seeing anything interesting unless you're on a tour.

For the main engineering quad (Bardeen Quad) there's Grainger Engineering Library. Definitely stop and take a look here. It's a popular place to meet for groups and do homework, and anyone who's been inside can see why. Also, all the stacks are open (not true at the main library) so you can wander a bit and check out the collection.

At the south end of the engineering quad is Engineering Hall. A couple years ago they undertook a major renovation and the building looks beautiful now. Many student engineering societies are housed on the first floor. For example: Engineering Council (EC), Society of Women Engineers (SWE; anyone can join), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and several others.

Going further south, across Green St., you run into the Illini Student Union. The entire building has a foot court (basement), a court yard for small performances, meeting rooms and office space for registered student organizations (RSO's), hotel rooms, study lounges, a computer lab (which I help administrate), and other conference rooms. In the east hall there's many portraits of distinguished alumni, including Roger Ebert.

Leaving the back of the Union you end up on the main quad. Most of the buildings are for various LAS departments and many general education classes meet inside them. On a good day the quad is packed with students.

If you head west on Green St then you hit the heart of campus town. There's two dozen or so restaurants and bars. For gyros there's Zorbas; quick italian there's Za's; chinese there's either Mandrin Wok or Empire (there's a ton other asian places, but these two are the best). The main engineering bar is Murphy's Pub, and they serve a decent burger and fries (if you like things greesy). There're also the standard places: Qudoba, Chipotle, Noodles, Flat Top, Pot Belly, Subway, etc. Not to mention the cafes (Bar Guiliani and Espresso Royale are the big two).

Also around Green and a little south on Daniels you'll find the three main bookstores. The official campus on is at Daniels and Wright St. There're plenty of t-shirt shops and other such places. Also, Rentertainment is right on John and Sixth and they have a great independent movie selection.

Those are the main haunts. Hope you enjoy your trip, and if you have any questions my email is in my profile.
posted by sbutler at 7:32 PM on March 29, 2007

I think it comes down to talking to someone in the CS department and trying to get some unvarnished opinions from some upperclassmen. They are both big schools and as far as I know both have good CS reputations (UIUC espacially). These schools will be big enough that the on-campus life should be diverse enough that you can find whatever you need to float your boat. I will add that a significant difference to these two campuses is that one is in a huge metropolis and the other is relatively speaking in the middle of nowhere. To some people that's a big deal, to others, not so much.
posted by mmascolino at 8:19 PM on March 29, 2007

As a bit of a side note, I was a campus tour guide, and I have to say that I never memorized an official script, lied about anything, or misled anyone in any way - if there was a protest or a rally or a bunch of construction, we talked about it honestly. We talked about sexual assault, drug use, the police, and all the other unpleasant things at a college campus so people could make an informed decision about the next few years of their life. I worked there because I liked where I lived and studied and because they were hiring when I was offered a job, not because it was amazing pay (which it was not) or because I was compensated based on how many people took a tour and then enrolled (which I was not). I even told people that perhaps my campus wasn't the best choice for them - so please don't assume that your tour guide is lying to get you to attend.

[/rant :)]

Tips for a good visit:
- be open-minded about the dorms, because even the "worst" ones will be full of people to connect and network and hang out with
- read all the literature you can, from officially-endorsed things to leaflets handed out by the labor rally/anti-growth NIMBY neighbors/surf club/whatever, to get a good idea how the community skews regarding issues you'll care about as a college student
- put away the map and wander a bit - find some little nook to have a cup of coffee and watch people go by, because you'll need a break after all that walking, and because you'll want a chance to chat about what you've seen with someone (are your parents going too?)
- realize that both of these universities are awesome places and that you really can't make a bad choice here

Congrats on getting in!
posted by mdonley at 8:37 PM on March 29, 2007

Boy, there's lots to agree with, and lots to disagree with, here. I'm a college educator and have some opinions about this, but no recent experience as a prospective.

Endorse: walking the campus a little, checking out where students study, finding an undergrad in your likely major, checking out a class if you have time, getting some recruiting/placement info (esp. from the likely department or majors in that department).

Do not endorse: chatting with professors in their offices (many will be resentful, it's totally hit or miss . . . but again, would try to focus on the major if possible, and skip offering to buy them lunch (or flee if any accept)), spending lots of time roaming off campus (if 3-4 hours is the total cap on free time).

Be careful of becoming influenced by chance or unrepresentative interactions: the hot guy or girl, the one lecture on an interesting subject, the cool campus guide. Here let me specifically but genially disagree with Geoff. It'd be awesome if you got great insights from a student about prospects after college, but many will be completely clueless until the 11th hour, and that includes many of the best and brightest. Oh, and try to discount the weather on the day you visit, unless it's truly representative.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:39 PM on March 29, 2007

When I went to visit my prospective universities, I didn't really have a game plan, so I did what everyone else in my high school group did: took the school tour, floated about a bit, talked to the department head of engineering (because at that point I was still considering engineering as a discipline), had some lunch on campus, and then got on the bus and went home.

Out of everything I did, the single most helpful thing was the tour—not because of anything your student tour guide tells you, but because the tour goes through most of the campus and on the way you'll notice a lot of things that maybe wouldn't even hit you if you were wandering around. Like how far the residences are from the lecture halls, or whether the campus is isolated from the surrounding town/city, or even whether students hang around the student centre or rush on past as fast as possible. Having lunch on campus is good for this too, plus you can discuss with your parents or high school group things you liked or disliked about what you'd seen up to that point.

You know what I think eventually decided my university for me? While I was on the tour, paying very little attention to what the tour guide was saying, I saw a student sitting on a bench underneath a tree, studying. I saw that and immediately that image stuck in my mind, to the point where I could tell you exactly where that bench was if we went back to my university now. And then a week later, I went to the other university on my list and it was a concrete shell with a big empty greenbelt surrounding the campus and lovely building nicknames like the Bomb Shelter. I hadn't known it then, but my mind was made up. I graduated two years ago and to this day, I have never once regretted my decision, even though I never went into Engineering or met any of my professors or sat in on a class.

In sum: look at your surroundings and focus on student life, not academics. Don't think of it as just a bunch of classes you'll be taking. You will spend the next four years of your life living and breathing that campus, and if you see something that makes you feel at home, you've found the university for you. Good luck!
posted by chrominance at 11:20 PM on March 29, 2007

Best answer: Do not endorse: chatting with professors in their offices (many will be resentful, it's totally hit or miss . . . but again, would try to focus on the major if possible, and skip offering to buy them lunch (or flee if any accept)),

Although I strongly disagree with this, and think that talking with professors (in your major) is one of the best things you can do, I do strongly agree that offering to buy them lunch is not the right approach. As someone who teaches, I would refuse to let a prospective or current student buy me lunch -- it would feel a bit unethical, whether or not it really is. And anyway, I make more money than they do, and part of what I get paid for is to talk with students, both current and prospective. (I'm always happy when a former student comes by and suggests meeting for coffee or lunch -- it is really neat to see how people have changed and matured, and to start to get to know them as a person, not just as a student.) Come to office hours, or suggest "meeting for coffee," which is cheap enough that it doesn't really matter who pays.

Part of the professors' job is to be available to meet with students; if they act resentful or unhelpful now, you know it won't get better later. Different departments have really different cultures around student access, and figuring that out for the places you are considering is an important reason for visiting. A lot of opportunities (for scholarships, jobs, etc) are made available only via word of mouth, and if they don't know you exist, you won't be considered when something is available. (My graduate school funding came out of a chance conversation, for example, and recently an undergrad here received a major fellowship because I had just seen the announcement when he stopped by to talk, and I suggested he apply.)
posted by Forktine at 4:32 AM on March 30, 2007

Find out what the policy for acceptance into the major is. I know at UW at least it's a competitive process, and definitely not a sure thing.

I second this. I strongly considered Urbana for a Computer Science degree. They offered several, one from the Engineering department, and one from the Sciences department, if I remember correctly. The engineering department was very competitive, and I was not accepted to the school after applying for that major.

I later learned that a much better method would have been to apply for a less competitive or undecided engineering major, and then transfer in after the first or second semester (If your grades are decent). Setup a meeting with the CS counselor, he/she will be able to let you know if this is still a good route.

I ended up going to Georgia Tech and graduating with a B.S in C.S, and not regretting it by any means, except for the huge out of state student dept I saddled myself with. (By the way, GT is a great school with a great program I'd be happy to talk it up if you email me)

Good luck, you've picked two great schools to focus your efforts on.

~ wm
posted by WetherMan at 6:06 AM on March 30, 2007

Definitely talk to upperclassmen about how easy/difficult it is for them to get into the classes they need to finish their requirements and graduate -- both within their major and for general studies. Are there enough sections offered? Are they offered every semester, or on alternating terms?

There's nothing more frustrating than being ready to graduate and start your dream job, then having to spend an extra semester in school because the only section of Required Class A conflicted with the only section of Required Class B, which is only offered in Spring semesters when the moon is in retrograde and Mercury is in Sagitarius. Beware campuses that are rapidly increasing their enrollment -- they probably aren't increasing their faculty hiring at the same rate and its your class schedule that'll suffer.
posted by junkbox at 6:32 AM on March 30, 2007

Pretty much agree with most of the above. A few things I always found useful/interesting when I did my college visits:

a)Visit the Library. Even though most of your research will probably be electronic (most/all academic journals are accessible online through the library), it's always a good idea to get a feel for what resources are available. Plus, the library itself usually is a great place to study.

b)I always like going to visit the campus bookstore whenever I visit a school. You can get an idea for textbook prices and see what computer services they offer. And of course this is where they sell all that university branded merchandise. I also just really like bookstores. If you've got time you might check out any independent, non-affiliated bookstores, but one is usually enough.

c)Look at bulletin boards. When you visit the CS department, they should have postings announcing interesting lectures, student activities (*cough* LAN parties *cough*), job offers, grad schools, etc. Elsewhere on campus you'll find fliers for films, events, student clubs, etc.

Like Clyde Mnestra, I'd spend most of my time on campus itself. But, at UW after doing your campus visit, I'd spend a few minutes wandering University Way, "The Ave". It's the closest commercial district next to campus and will give you an idea of what's available when you want to take a quick break from campus (and dining services).
posted by timelord at 7:51 AM on March 30, 2007

I just briefly scanned the other answers, but I don't think anyone has mentioned that you should at some point eat on campus. Having bad campus food may not be a make or break point for you, but it's something to consider.

And as a CS graduate, I can't recommend sitting in on some classes highly enough.
posted by geeky at 10:03 AM on March 30, 2007

Talk to students! Talk to students! Talk to students!

It is so hard to get a feel for what a school is like, and what your experience there would be like, unless you talk to the students there. Try to find freshmen or sophomores, both in the CS department and elsewhere, and ask them questions about your program.

Also keep in mind that people generally tend to speak positively about their school, even if they have frustrations with it. So try asking questions like "If there is one thing you could change about the school/dept, what would it be?" That one always got me some very useful insights...

PS. Seattle is an amazing city... pick UW!
posted by stilly at 11:02 AM on March 30, 2007

If a school's reputation in your major of choice is important to you, you also might want to look at what they offer in the areas in which you're also interested. I don't have a statistic to cite, but many many college students change their majors -- I know I and most of my friends did. When I started college (full disclosure: I went to UIUC for undergrad) I was waffling between 2 pretty different majors: English and Bio. I started in the former, switched to the latter, switched back (and graduated with) the former plus creative writing, and now I'm doing a premed post-bacc. UIUC's reputation had no bearing on my school decision then (it was a family/legacy thing), but I lucked out with my creative writing choice, where I studied under a few rather well-known writers.

If you want a diploma from an institution that's highly ranked in your field (and you don't necessarily want to transfer schools), consider that you might change your mind.
posted by penchant at 11:30 AM on March 30, 2007

Response by poster: Outro: Campus visits were amazing. I did the following:
  • Walked around the campus for an hour/two.
  • Attended my first two college classes (woohoo).
  • Spoke to some students (The professor was answering questions afterclass, so I spoke to some students while they waited).
  • Spoke to the professor.
  • Met an educational advisor.
  • Saw the restaurants.
  • Got a copy of the school paper.
It was a tough call, but I've picked UIUC. In terms of location, I think Seattle beat Chicago slightly because of it's proximity to all the cool tech stuff. Academically, I don't like the race to get a major, which is why I picked Illinois. Thank you all!
posted by theiconoclast31 at 2:32 PM on April 26, 2007

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