College — the one word that has dominated the past half year of my life and has influenced it since I was 13. As a junior in high school, college is a major blip on my radar, growing louder and brighter on the screen as the moment approaches. My school formally started the college counseling process just a few months ago, but I was already in the midst of it much before then. In fact, I had attended multiple college “seminars,” where a travelling admissions officer would try to convince me to apply to their college because it had the “best academic programs” and “extracurricular activities.” But what does it all mean? And how am I supposed to make this momentous decision, based solely on small tidbits of information, delivered by a paid proxy of the institution? The decision is impossible without visiting campuses myself. Luckily, I had a place to start.
I debate competitively with my school’s team. Some of our teams travel around the country to compete, but my partner and I decided at the beginning of the year to limit our travel so we could focus on academics in what we had heard would be a crucial and difficult year of school. The rumors were true: junior year began with a rush of work, and the maelstrom only subsided during the short reprieves that the powers-that-be decided to give us. One of these breaks was Thanksgiving break, and, coincidentally, a major national debate tournament was the weekend before the break in Chicago. I had already created a list of 40 or more colleges that I had some interest in, and two of them were in or around Chicago. A perfect opportunity came to mind, and my partner and my parents both agreed. I would attend the tournament, and then my mother and I would visit two schools in the area and one more near a connecting airport on the way back.
There was, though, one problem. I had no idea what I would do when I arrived at the college. I had a great recourse, though, in the form of one of my school’s college counselors. When I met with her, she gave me some materials the office had prepared for other students visiting colleges and explained the process to me. Her briefing was comprehensive, and it left me more than a little daunted by the process. Afterward, I felt more overwhelmed than ever before.
At the debate tournament, my partner and I didn’t do as well as we hoped. Coming out of a depressing weekend, my first visit to a college campus, Northwestern University, loomed. I was apprehensive, excited, and terrified all at once. My mother and I arrived on the campus at around 9 a.m. and headed into an “information session,” where an admissions officer talked to us about the virtues of his school for about an hour. My counselor had warned me about this: these people were paid to say good things about their school. At the school, though, the session gave you first-hand access to admissions officers and a visual impression of the campus.
Next was the tour, which allowed me to see most of the campus and evaluate it. I had also signed up to visit a class, Biology 310. I snuck away from the tour group and headed to the place designated on the map as the science center, but I got hopelessly lost. This turned out to be a good thing, though, because I ran into a student who was in the class and I got a chance to exercise a bit more advice from my college counselor. As she was showing me the way to the class, I asked some of the targeted questions I had been advised about, like, “Why did you choose this school?” and “What do you like best about this school?” When I asked her about the class, her response surprised me. She said she didn’t really like it — I hadn’t expected such an honest answer. It’s amazing what a little prodding will do. During the class, I actually was interested in the material, but it seemed that the students weren’t. That summed up my experience there: I didn’t like the feel of the place.
Since then, I have visited six more college campuses, each with varying degrees of success. I’ve begun to narrow down my list of colleges significantly after having discussions with my counselor about the characteristics of each college that I did and did not like. As of now, I like four of the seven schools I’ve visited, and I’ve only really loved two of them. That has helped pare down the number of schools that I still want to visit, making the process a bit less daunting. In the end, I don’t see how anyone could decide where to apply to a college without visiting: my perceptions of the colleges I liked completely changed during each of my campus visits, and as I move forward in the process they will probably change further.
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