Visiting campus can be helpful in your search for the right graduate school for you. While it can be tough if you’re not living nearby, few things are as informative as in-person experiences. Using a visit as a chance to meet with professors, fellow graduate students, and admissions staff can also provide them with a stronger sense of who you are as a person, beyond what they will glean from your application.
Planning for your campus visit
Scheduling your trip in advance can help with logistics like transportation (especially if you’ll need to fly or take the train to your destination), lodging (if you’re planning to stay more than one day) and scheduling meetings. Take a look at the admissions calendar to see if you’re able to visit when there are events like an open house weekend for prospective graduate students or alumni panels offered. Visiting campus on one of these days will also give you the chance to meet other prospective graduate students who are interested in the program.
Take full advantage of your campus visit and meet with as many representatives on campus as you can. You might pair your visit with a formal admissions interview, but if not be sure to still make an appointment with the admissions office. It’s a chance to put faces with the names you’ve likely been emailing with as you’ve pursued the program as well as an opportunity to make a good impression.
When you get in touch with the admissions office, ask them about the possibility of sitting in classes, meeting with current graduate students, or other prospective student events it might make sense for you to join. 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.
During your visit
Take it all in. Pay attention to everything from the way students interact, what the area is like around the campus, the feel of classes and ask yourself if it’s a place you can see yourself. Be sure to also dress professionally and wear comfortable shoes as you’ll likely to do a lot of walking across the campus.
Here a few additional pointers to keep in mind for particular aspects of your visit:
Visiting the Admissions Office
Even if you’re not interviewing formally, it’s important to come to your visit with the admissions office prepared. You’ll make a much stronger first impression if you have done your homework. Bring questions that you haven’t been able to answer from researching their website and be sure to express your excitement about the program. You’ll also likely set up other parts of your campus visit, like a tour or panel discussion through the admissions office so be sure to express gratitude and be thoughtful about your requests.
Interviewing with admissions
Graduate admissions interviews are formal conversations with a representative from the school that allows you to share your passion for the field, the story of your accomplishments, and your enthusiasm for the school. Not all schools require an interview, if they do or make one optional, you should prepare for it as though it were a job interview. Learn more about the process and how to prepare in our article, Preparing for the Grad School Admissions Interview.
Meeting with the Financial Aid Office
Depending on your school or department, you may want to schedule a separate visit with the financial aid office. Even if you aren’t sure you will attend the grad school you’re visiting, it’s a good idea to think seriously about how you’ll finance your degree and understand the options and opportunities available to you.
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). 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.)
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.
Visiting the Department
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. 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 can offer valuable insights into the program’s character and feel.
For conversations with faculty, be respectful of time. Do some research ahead of time about the professor’s area of research and recent publications and be prepared to share about your specific professional and academic interests and how they relate to the program.
If you get the opportunity to meet with current grad students, think ahead about some questions you want to ask. Here are a few examples you might consider:
- What is your favorite part of this program?
- What is your least favorite part of this program?
- What has your experience been working with professors in this program?
- What are your plans after you graduate?
- What are your favorite things to do on and off campus?
Sitting in on a class
See if you can find a list of available courses (you can usually find this in the program handbook) and ask about the opportunity to sit in on a class that is of most interest you. Also, consider sitting in on the classes of a particular professor you are interested in working with.
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. Also, see if you’re able to take a look at the course syllabus to get a better sense of the content, required reading, and workload.
During the class, pay attention to the interaction between instructor and students. Do students seem engaged and challenged? What is the professor’s teaching style? Would you be excited to take a course like this as a part of your graduate study? How else does the class stack up to your expectations and goals? As you consider these questions, remember that generalizing from one class is rarely advisable or accurate. Your class visit is a great chance to experience one part of the program, but it’s not going to give you a complete picture of what the program in its entirety.
Taking a campus tour
The admissions office can let you know about any tours of the campus that might be available. 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.
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. 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.
After your visit
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.
Following up also helps you keep channels of communication open in the event that you have further questions about your target program or destination.
On your trip home, take some time to reflect on your experience. Make a point of talking to a friend or writing about it a bit to help capture and process your thinking. Some questions that may be helpful to reflect on include:
- What did you learn?
- In what ways did this visit meet your expectations?
- In what ways were you disappointed?
- How interested are you in exploring this academic program further?
- What values, skills, and interests of yours fit—or don’t fit—with the degree, department, university, or student culture?
Safe travels as you explore your schools and get a taste of campus life!
Planning on returning to school? Check out our Grad School Resources and connect directly with social-impact programs through Idealist. And if you’re interested in speaking with an admissions representative, find out which cities near you are hosting an Idealist Grad School Fair this fall.