In the college admissions world, they’re called “stealth” visits. A prospective student forgoes the usual counselor- or student-led tour in favor of a drop-in, under-the-radar look around.
Yeah, you can do that.
And not only can you do that, but you should also strongly consider doing just that in the months before and after you start applying.
Why? Because this sort of visit will help you truly get a sense of what life on campus (and just off campus) can be like.
Some campuses even produce do-it-yourself maps that they hang on their visitor center door for after-hours visitors.
Why you should try the self-guided tour
If you find yourself in close proximity to one of Colorado’s 12 four-year public colleges or universities, by all means, find a parking spot and start walking. As state-supported campuses, the university’s grounds are open to you, and most have clearly marked visitor centers where you can easily snag one of the afore-mentioned self-guided tour maps.
In as little as 30 minutes on foot, you can get a good sense for the size of the campus, lay eyes on dozens of buildings and outdoor plazas, and maybe even meet a few students. (Pro tip: ID yourself as a visitor and ask the locals how they like the dorms/food/professors. You’ll get their real opinion.)
If you have 30 minutes more, circle the campus perimeter and drop in for a cup of coffee or slice of pizza at a nearby establishment (pizza and coffee — as much a part of the college scene as the bell towers). Pick up a magazine or the college newspaper (look under the bulletin boards), strike up a conversation with the barista (“It’s my first time in town. Seems nice. How do you like it?”), and take a seat and try and imagine yourself in the environment with a laptop, chemistry textbook, and a few hours of work ahead. In no time, you’ll know if this “feels” right. You’ll also be qualified to write your own Yelp review of the place.
The fine print
If you’d like to visit one of our state’s fine private institutions (such as the University of Denver, Colorado College, Regis University, etc.), you absolutely should. But please know that at private institutions, you may want to proceed more officially. At the very least, find your way to a visitor center. That’s probably the best place to start.
At Colorado Christian University, for example, the visit coordinator accommodates families looking for drop-in tours. The student body is small enough that if random people start inspecting campus, security might be notified. But visitors are welcome to explore after their tours, and one enrollment counselor even suggested staying with a current student when you have friends at a school and want an insider's look.
Why you should come back for the REAL tour
After squeezing in off-the-record looks at a few colleges, dive in for the real deal: the scripted campus visit. Whether you attend a half-day weekend event or simply drag the family and some friends along for an official visit during the week, you’ll get to see a lot in a short amount of time during one of these trips.
Sean Broghammer, director of admissions at UNC, suggests you join a campus tour for this reason: convenience.
“We take the guesswork out of the equation,” says Broghammer (who has been welcoming visitors to campus for the past five years). “We know what people want to see, and we show it to them. We try to make it fun but also authentic. At UNC we pride ourselves on providing a personalized visit experience. Let us help you interact and meet those whom you are most interested to speak to.”
The best part? Your tour guide will probably be a student who can candidly tell you why they chose that school. Maybe they wanted to be an engineer, and the school has a great engineering program. Maybe they wanted a school with lots of sports and extracurriculars.
Or maybe the pizza at the dining hall was just really, really good.
Get your game face on and get out there, college-seekers. And good luck!