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The grad school campus visit

While certainly not a mandatory exercise, visiting the campus of your target school(s) can be really helpful in your search for the right school. It also can give the admissions office a stronger sense of who you are as a person, beyond what they'll glean from your application.

Your campus visit can include some or all of the ideas discussed in this article.

Planning ahead

If at all possible, plan your campus visit ahead of time. It shows professionalism and will help you schedule your time more strategically. Most campus visits take a day or two, but even an afternoon on campus is valuable if that is all the time you can spare.

A suggested checklist of action steps:

  • Set aside time to visit your target school(s). You may have to schedule time off work or your current studies, and travel long distances; purchase your plane, train, or bus tickets; or organize a rental car.
  • Book your accommodation ahead of time. See if you can stay at a place on or close to campus. (If you are on a budget, find out if the community offers a hostel or if the campus offers affordable guest lodging. You also may want to consider staying with a local resident or student for free accommodations through Couchsurfing.com.
  • See if your visit can coincide with open house days. Many universities have days dedicated specifically to prospective grad students. Schools often have special tours, and student and professor panels where you can ask questions in a public setting. Visiting campus on one of these days will also give you the chance to meet other students who are interested in the program.
  • Make an appointment with the admissions office to meet with a counselor if you aren't already holding your formal admissions interview during your visit.
  • Ask the admissions office about the possibility of sitting in classes, joining a formal or informal campus tour, and meeting with current students for coffee.
  • Make appointments with staff and faculty in the department or specific grad school that you're applying to.
  • If you have specific physical or other needs (like an ASL interpreter) connect with the campus office for students with special needs and find out what you can expect and what you should prepare for during your visit.
  • Prepare a list of what, for you, are essential qualities in a grad school—anything from student culture to support structures to on-campus eateries. Search for these things when you are on campus, and use your checklist to help you evaluate what you learn on the campus visit. (See the section on Campus tour, below.)
  • Read as much as you can about the school—its culture, programs, and students—before you go. Prepare to ask questions to gain further insight in each of those areas and validate what you have read.
  • Based on your research, infer a list of qualities and qualifications the school is looking for in new students. Prepare talking points that address your own qualifications for the school to share (read more below).

Planning ahead means you'll be able to take full advantage of your limited time on campus while also making (and taking away) a good impression.

An admissions office visit

Your visit to the admissions office can be the cornerstone of your campus visit. There you can meet with an admissions counselor, possibly the person you've already been communicating with over phone and email. By visiting the admissions office, you can get a sense of other things to do on campus and in the neighborhood during your trip. And you can get a better feel for the culture of the school and the admissions team.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you plan and implement your visit:

As with any professional encounter, it's wise to make an appointment with an admissions officer, at least a week ahead of time if possible. Admissions staff members are busy. You'll make a much better first impression if you set up a time to meet, and they are expecting you.

Read before you go. Of course you want to ask a lot of questions. But before asking anything of a school's faculty or staff, read the website and any available print material. The website and brochures are designed to answer the most common questions from prospective students, and you'll make a much stronger first impression if you have done your homework. (Imagine if you had a job where you were constantly asked questions—wouldn't you answer all the most common questions on your website and in your brochures?)

What if you happen to be visiting a city for other reasons and decide to drop by campus for an unannounced visit? Still call ahead, even if it's just an hour ahead. Read as much as you can, even if it's skimming all you can get your hands on in the admissions office itself, before chatting with an admissions officer.

If at all possible, dress professionally—a clean, ironed pair of pants, or a skirt that ends at your knees or longer; and a blouse or button-down dress shirt. Avoid jeans and sneakers, and clothes that are stained, wrinkled, or revealing. Even if you are staying at a motel in town, you should be able to access an iron (if there's not one in your room, call the front desk—you should be able to borrow one).

The admissions interview

Your reason for visiting campus might be your official admissions interview. (Not all schools conduct or require admissions interviews—you can find this out as part of your application process.) If that is the case, here are some pointers:

Remember that the admissions interview should be a two-way street. You are also interviewing your admissions counselor. Know what you are looking for in a grad school, and prepare some questions to help you discern whether this school is truly suited for you. It's fine to bring in a typed list of questions to serve as a prompt—but don't read questions off the page and do maintain good eye contact with the admissions counselor.

Do your homework. As you would for a casual meeting with an admissions counselor, or for a job interview, come prepared already knowing quite a bit about the school. Make sure you understand its focus, degree options, and mission. Avoid asking the most obvious questions lest you be mistaken for an applicant who's not serious about getting into the school.

Based on your research of the school's recruitment priorities, prepare some talking points for yourself. List the qualities you sense the school is looking for—anything from your undergraduate course load and performance to your public service experience since graduating from college. Then, prepare some specific anecdotes that illustrate how you are a good fit for the school. Read more in the article "Sharing your story with the admissions team". Use these prepared anecdotes in response to questions about your experience and skills, and also as a springboard for posing your own questions. For example, "When I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, I worked on a Guinea worm eradication project with some public health workers from U.S.-based NGOs. I learned a great deal from them and am wondering how your school helps students transition to that kind of work after graduation."

Find out ahead of time how long the interview is scheduled to last, and respect the clock during your interview. Avoid long-winded responses that skirt the question at hand.

An interview is a great opportunity to highlight your passion for social impact work, your key accomplishments, and your enthusiasm for the program.

A visit to the financial aid office

It's crucial to begin your search for financial aid while you're searching for schools. Even if you aren't sure this school is the place for you (that's why you're visiting campus after all) it's a good idea to think seriously about how you'll finance your degree if you do eventually attend this school.

Depending on your school or department, you may want to schedule a separate visit with the financial aid office. (You may have had the opportunity to discuss financial aid during the admissions office visit. It's best to determine ahead of time whether you'll need to set up a separate appointment with a financial aid officer to discuss ideas for financing your education, or whether the admissions office handles financial aid as well.)

At the financial aid office, you should learn about scholarships, assistantships, and grants offered through the school, as well as external funding sources (such as student loans and special funding specific to your field of study).

You should also visit the graduate scholarship office to gather more information on funding resources; they may have greater knowledge of scholarships and grants than the financial aid office.

For funding available through the school, find out what the eligibility requirements are, whether you need to supplement your grad school application with additional documentation or materials, and what the deadlines are to be considered for school funding. (Keep in mind that your chances for funding are better the earlier you get your application in.)

Finally, pick up any financial aid forms you'll need (if paper forms exist).

A visit to the financial aid office can prove very valuable, both in terms of accessing funding information, as well as developing a rapport with a financial aid officer. You'll feel more comfortable asking questions once you're back home if you have the name and contact information of a real person in the financial aid office.

A departmental visit

If the admissions and financial aid office are general administrative offices for a large graduate studies division or university, you should also seek out the offices of your specific department. It should be possible to schedule chats with the administrative staff and faculty and ask to be put in touch with current students.

For conversations with faculty, be respectful of time. If at all possible, enter the conversation well aware of the professor's area of research, and having read some recent publications (articles or books) so you can ask about them, and share your specific professional and academic interests with them on their own terms.

Ask staff or current students questions about departmental aid and how competitive the process is for becoming a teaching or research assistant. It may also be a good time to ask what benefits graduate assistants earn—stipends, health insurance, parking rates, etc.

While you're in the office, it's also a good chance to pick up copies of any journals or other publications the department has created. These, too, can offer valuable insights into the program's character.

A class visit

Consider visiting a class or two while you are on campus. But do not show up to a class unannounced. Schools generally love for prospective students to sit in on classes but schools will have different policies about how to set up the class visit.

Contact your target school's admissions office, or the department you are applying to. Sometimes you can sign up for a class visit right on the school's website, other times the admissions office will direct you to the registrar or individual professor.

See if you can find a list of available courses (the program handbook will usually have a list), this will enable you to request to sit in on the classes that most interest you. You may also want to see if there is a class review website to discover what students thought of the class. Also, if there is a particular professor you are interested in working with, try to sit in on their classes.

Before your class visit, find out how you need to prepare. Professors might want you to read some course materials ahead of time and expect you to participate in class discussions. Find out about these expectations ahead of time, if possible. Also, try to obtain a course syllabus or gain access to the course website. This will give you a better sense of the content, required reading, and workload.

As you arrive, you may choose to introduce yourself to the professor if they are present and if they notice you (i.e. if the class is a small seminar, seated around a single table, etc).

During the class, pay attention to the interaction between instructor and students—is it light-hearted with a robust amount of give and take? Is it purely lecture? Are students able to ask questions freely, or are they reserved and formal? How are students seated? How is everybody dressed? Are the students engaged and prepared? Does the content of the course seem as compelling to you as the description seemed when you signed up? How else does the class stack up to your expectations and goals?

As you're leaving class, attempt to briefly introduce yourself to the professor if you haven't already done so. If a student offered a question or comment that was particularly interesting to you, you might instead consider striking up a casual conversation with them on their way out the door. You also might try mentioning something about their research or professional background that interests you. Be aware of the amount of time you're taking, unless you're invited to interact further. You may also want to chat with some of the students from that course to get a better sense of the professor and rigor of the course.

And remember that generalizing from one case is rarely advisable or accurate. Your class visit is a great chance to experience part of the program, but it's never going to give you a complete picture of what the program is like.

A campus tour

The admissions office can let you know if you can join a formal tour and whether any tours are especially geared to prospective grad students. Find out ahead of time so you can schedule your day wisely.

The advantage of joining a formal tour is that your tour guide will have a sense of what prospective students are interested in seeing, and can often give you a little of the university's history and fun facts about campus. Tour guides are also used to getting questions, so they are prepared to offer a range of information in ways that untrained tour guides might not be.

If a formal tour isn't taking place the day of your visit, consider planning ahead to meet up with a current student who can show you around. Whether or not you take a formal tour, you can (and should) also take a campus map and have a look around on your own.

Things to look for on your tour include cues as to the campus culture and facilities.

  • How do current grad students interact? Do people seem engaged and friendly, or overworked and "dead" inside? Are they dressed the way you aspire to dress when you're a grad student?
  • Also, how do the school's facilities and services measure up to your needs?
    • Do graduate assistants get their own or shared office space?
    • What are the health facilities like on campus? Is there a gym that grad students can join? Are there places to eat on campus that suit your dietary needs? How accessible are the medical facilities? Can you purchase medical insurance through the university?
    • Is there a lounge or a place where grad students can get together after class to relax, study, and interact?
    • What is the library like? What support does the library offer grad students in your program? Do grad students get their own or shared research carrels to stash their books? Does the library have the books, journals, databases, and resources you need to carry out your research or final project? Will you have access to free interlibrary loans? (Consider inquiring about a library tour, if you have the time.)
    • If you have alternative learning or physical needs, consider the support services and infrastructures available on campus. Can you easily and intuitively access campus buildings? How responsive is the campus office for students with special needs? Does the school provide additional funding for special needs?
    • How is the career advisory office? How much support do they offer students in your program? What specific support do they offer? (Consider support to connect you with internships and field experiences, as well as post-graduation career transitions support like resume and interview training, social impact career fairs, and non-corporate employer connections.)
    • How easy is it to get to campus and around it? If you have a car and are commuting to school, is there plenty of parking (and how much does a parking pass cost)? If you are car-free, what are your options? Are there bike racks and paths in convenient and safe places? Does the school offer free campus shuttles? Can students easily access public transportation? Are discount passes available for students?
    • If you are planning to live on campus, what does grad student housing look like? What kind of feel do you get for the culture in the residence hall(s) or apartment buildings designated for grad students? If you live on campus are you required to purchase a meal plan—if so how is the selection of on-campus eateries? How will on-campus housing and a meal plan impact your budget? Is it more or less affordable than catering on your own?
  • What campus activities and groups can you participate in (e.g., sports, language exchange groups, student government, reading groups, etc.)?
  • What other amenities exist that will benefit you (e.g., grocery stores, ATMs, credit unions, crisis lines, print shops, computer work stations, and bike repair shops)—and what's missing that raises red flags for you?

Informational interviews with current students

Especially if you've planned ahead, you should be able to connect with at least one or two current grad students during your campus visit. If possible, meet with students who are currently in your target program.

Informational interviews are a great way to ask more challenging questions and to get a better pulse on the student body—what do other current students tend to see as their academic priorities? What is the learning community like? How happy are people with the benefits that graduate assistants earn? What are the challenges of the program? What made them decide to study in that particular program? What unforeseen strengths or weaknesses in the program have they uncovered since joining it?

If you can't conduct informational interviews, try striking up a casual conversation with students you meet in your class visit or campus tour.

Exploring the city or town

Though grad school isn't known for giving students copious free time to enjoy their surroundings, you should devote part of your campus visit to off-campus exploration.

From the utilitarian—is there a grocery store or food co-op that meets your needs?—to the frivolous—does the local movie theater offer a decent student discount?—spend time getting answers to questions that will affect your quality of life as a resident of the local community. This is especially important if you are considering relocating with your partner or family for your graduate studies; indeed, researching critical needs like schools, employment opportunities, and other aspects of everyday life should be a priority during your visit.

You may want to strike up conversations with locals at bus stops and in libraries, restaurants, cafes, and other public spaces to get your questions answered and gain a sense of the quality of life and people in your potential community. During your visit, take the chance to pick up local newspapers and magazines to read in depth later on.

In addition to grocery stores and cinemas, some other things to investigate include:

  • The location of affordable, off-campus student housing if you don't plan to live in campus housing
  • The location of the nearest post office, public library, bank, drug store, thrift store, cafe, photocopy shop, gas station, bookstore, school supplies retailer, clothing stores, restaurants of interest, place(s) of worship, neighboring colleges, and nonprofits that link to your field of study. Before or after your visit, consider exploring town via interactive services like Google Maps.
  • The location and availability of public parks, bike trails, and other places to spend time outdoors.
  • The routes, cost, and accessibility of public transportation in your city and throughout the region (especially if you don't have a car).
  • The location of the nearest off-campus medical and emergency facilities, such as a hospital emergency room.
  • The location and availability of anything else important to you: night clubs, music venues, yoga studios, affordable and safe child care options, kayak rental shops, ethnic food stores, hair salons, vision care centers, pubs that show your favorite team's games, and anything else that you consider crucial to your personal life.
  • Don't forget to check out the local television, radio, and newspaper situations if these are important to you. How clearly does the local public radio station come in? What kind of programming is offered? Does the local newspaper cover the topics you like to read about, or carry the comics you favor?
  • Potential organizations you may work, intern, or volunteer for.
  • If this is a smaller town, find out how far it is (by bus or car) to the nearest city where field experience options (e.g., internships) may be more plentiful during summers. How far is the nearest airport or major transportation hub (in the event you need to travel)?
  • What is the university's relationship to its surroundings? Does the university feel separate from or integrated into the life of the town or city?
  • Is this a place I'd like to reside after graduation?

In grad school you may spend more time in the library than you did as an undergrad, but you will still exist within the context of the larger community, and as such it's good to know that you can get your needs met in this new place. As you visit a few different campuses, keep in mind the surrounding towns and regions and how well they fit your expectations.

Following up

Immediately after your visit, send thank you notes to the professors, students, and staff you met with. You can have the thank you notes stamped, addressed, and ready to go (save for writing the note itself) when you arrive on campus. As your last assignment on campus, take a few minutes over coffee or lunch to write the notes, and pop them in the nearest mailbox.

You may also send an email to thank people you've met, but nothing beats a promptly posted note. It's old-fashioned but satisfying. The important thing is to make your notes meaningful, and to state something specific you learned. If possible, enclose your business card in the envelope.

Following up is also beneficial for you, as it keeps channels of communication open in the event that you have further questions about your target program or destination.

Evaluating your campus visit

On your trip home, take out that list you created with your essential grad school qualities, and compare it with what you've learned. How does the school measure up? If a few elements are sorely lacking, does the school make up for it in other ways that are equally as important to you?

Some specific questions to reflect on include:

  • What did I learn?
  • In what ways did this visit meet my expectations? In what ways was I disappointed?
  • How interested am I in exploring this academic program further?
  • What values, skills, and interests of mine fit—or don't fit—with the degree, department, university, or student culture?
  • What are my next steps from here? (If you are interested in pursuing admission to this school, your next steps may involve letting the admissions office know, and following their steps to apply.)

Your campus visit isn't the only way to answer these questions, but it should give you an invaluable in-person sense of the school, the culture of the students and faculty, and the state of its facilities, while also raising further questions you may want to have answered.

Conclusion and further resources

Use your campus visit as a tool to gather information, shape the school's first impression of you, and supplement the two-dimensional application.

The people you meet in person during your trip may also prove to be handy allies as you apply, as you seek answers to further questions. And if you end up matriculating, once you are on campus these contacts can tip you off to helpful hints about navigating campus life.