The pandemic is still with us, but most universities have lifted their lockdowns and opened their doors, and are welcoming prospective students on campus.
If you have the opportunity to visit a school on your list, you should. Much can be learned about a school virtually, but there is no substitute for that first-hand encounter with a place you might spend the next three or four years. The value of seeing a school up-close and in person may be especially important for international students for whom the decision to attend a school abroad means choosing to be a foreigner, and maybe an outsider, leaving home, family, native culture, and familiarity behind.
Here is some guidance to take along on your trip.
1. Plan Ahead
Do not just show up. A meaningful visit with the right questions and campus experiences is harder to achieve than you may think, and so research and planning are needed. Either be focused and visit your top 3 – 5 choices or, if you have a long, varied university list, visit a representative sample: urban vs. campus-based vs. small vs. big schools, etc. Scour university websites and social media accounts in advance to inform your visit, and arrive with a list of things you need to know. Try to visit on days when classes are in session to see as many students and as much campus life as possible. Keep in mind that universities are busy places. Tours and meetings with administrators must be scheduled in advance.
2. Avoid the Speed Date
International students are often on tight schedules when they visit schools abroad. Many will try and pack in a long list of tours in just a few short days, running the risk that visits will be too short to be meaningful, and in such quick succession that the outlines become blurry. Instead, try and prioritize. Avoid visiting more than two universities in a day, and take photos and notes to jog your memory later. Try to adhere to a similar agenda on each visit so that afterward you can compare apples to apples, not fitness centers to studio space. Plan your visits to include a tour, a meal in a food hall, stops in administrative offices, and time to poke around the university neighborhood or nearby college town.
3. Take the Tour
A self-guided walk through campus is better than nothing, but when possible, take an official campus tour. This will ensure that you hear the school’s official story, see many of its high-value assets, gain a sense of the campus layout, and have a current student answer your questions about academics and student life. Try not to judge a school by whether or not you like the tour guide. If you’re a prospective Arts student, try to join the tour with the guide doing a BFA; likewise, STEM students might try and connect with the STEM-related guide. Make sure you sign in: taking a tour demonstrates your interest in the school, and admissions committees will happily take note.
4. Meet with Student Services
International students have all the needs their domestic peers have and more, and yet universities vary widely in the support they offer, for example regarding visas, travel, storage, banking, accommodations over breaks, and medical and mental health. A discussion during your visit with staff responsible for student services is advisable, as are meetings with the financial services and career placement offices.
5. Think ‘Fit’
Being an international student means accepting a certain level of uncertainty — and adventure. But “fit” matters and should be your compass during your university visits. Fit is the shorthand for a whole set of impressions and feelings that a university is right for you. As you tour, imagine yourself a member of the university community and stop, look, and listen to see if you feel you can belong.
The campus visit is one of the most important parts of the university research process for international students. Do it if you can. You may find a school that feels like a home away from home. Or, you may find several that feel like exciting, challenging, and supportive places to spend a few years.
Joanna Levison is the Guidance & Careers Counsellor at Riverside School in Prague, Czech Republic, and the founder of the independent educational consultancy University Bound.