This post was written by Alexis Zimmer, a freshman in college. It was originally published on The Prospect, a student-run college admissions and high school/college lifestyles website. You can follow The Prospect on Facebook and Twitter.
I used to love reading about what to ask on a college tour. The lists ranged from some of the largest news sources to random blogspots hidden after page one of my Google search, and I used quite a few of their questions when I went on my own tours. I overzealously shot my hand up for every question opportunity. I weaved through the dozens of parents and their own notebook-toting children to get to the head of the tour line and, ultimately, I asked questions I would laugh at if I heard nowadays.
Looking back, a lot of the articles I read were from the perspective of parents, and while their intentions were genuine, the questions they encouraged students to ask weren't really that relevant or even remotely difficult to find on a college's website today. Trust me when I say it's really not important to ask what the average class size is at a prospective college or how the security is on campus. Not every class is going to be 14 students small, despite the average, and, as I caught on after my eighth tour, colleges tend to have blue light phones. Crazy, right? Instead, I would have asked what my tour guide's freshmen schedule was and how big their classes were, and what their alert system was like for crime or other suspicious activity. On that note, I also think it's important to see how often alert-worthy things happen, whether you Google it or straight-up ask the tour guide.
And here's the thing, college tours are fantastic opportunities, but they tend to be just as shiny as the pamphlets they send in the mail. You'll see the newly renovated student center, the best buildings the school has to offer, freshly cut sprawling lawns and an impressive, yet slightly over-done with school pride, dorm room. It's up to the students (and maybe their parents) to see past all of it. Because, yes, it's great to fall in love with those things, but there's a lot more to a school than its tour experience. Here's what I wish I had asked when I was a high schooler.
1. What is it like signing up for classes?
This is probably one of the biggest concerns I wish I had when I was looking at schools. Getting the schedule you want at my university is kind of like winning the lottery, for lack of a better comparison. Students get an enrollment date, and from there it's all about submitting enroll on the webpage the moment your appointment hits. The reason I wish I knew what I was getting into is because your schedule ultimately affects your ability to move forward each semester, and it's really lame giving up some of your buffer classes early on only to suffocate yourself with major classes later.
2. Does your school/state have a maximum credit policy?
Some schools and states actually charge you a lot more if you take too many credits, so this is super important if you're looking into out-of-state schools (or if you don't know your own state's policy). In my own state of Florida, a statute was passed in 2009 basically states that there is a surcharge applied to each extra credit hour taken that was in excess of the total hours required to complete the degree. I was only able to comfortably declare a minor due to a little more than a year's worth of credits I brought in from AP classes.
3. What was the most difficult thing to adjust to?
Whether you're planning on moving an hour or ten states away from home, you will have to make adjustments. Asking your tour guide some (reasonably) personal questions can really help you in the long run. For me, I found it wildly unnerving that my smallest class was a 60 person Biology II lab when I was used to classes under 20. I had to learn new study habits and reach out to my professors for advice on how to tackle the large amounts of material they threw at me every week.
4. What is the housing situation really like?
Your tour guide probably won't delve into specifics on this one, but it's something that I wished I paid more attention to during my tours. I often skipped the housing tours in favor of something else, and I wish I had taken the time to look at the models and see how I felt about them. Floor plans really only tell you so much. If off-campus housing is a more popular choice, see if you can find out why. For me, my school's off-campus housing is cheaper, there is often a shuttle system in place (parking is super inconvenient past 9AM) and there's no quest to find an empty washing machine, since it's in the apartment.
5. What if I fail a class?
Here's to hoping you don't, but it's a reality that could be all too real for you during your college years, so it's important to find out how your school handles it. Do they offer a no credit option (doesn't affect your GPA)? What does a withdraw mean? Do they offer grade forgiveness?
6. What is "X" department like?
Asking this question is really major-specific. Looking back, I wish I had focused on the biology and math department, since I'm on the biomedicine track. My school's math department is almost entirely online, and we have limited interaction with our professors. Despite what they boast, the majority of my learning has been done independently. This is where a lot of my extra free time goes during the week. If you can find out more about how some of the overall departments run their classes, it'll really give you an idea on how you'll be spending your time and efforts.
7. Where can I get food?
I mean this past the traditional "Where can I get a cup of coffee?" and "What are the dining hall hours?" You're not always going to want to eat on campus, so ask about grocery options. Does the school have a grocery shuttle, or do they have a location on/near campus? More importantly, can you bring your own microwave and fridge or do you need to buy/rent one from the school? Where do students typically eat around the area?
8. What's the buyback policy for the bookstore?
Sometimes you have no choice but to use your school's bookstore (a professor might require a weirdly specific text or coursepack, or you might just forget to get books until it's too late to order online). You will not use every textbook on the recommended reading list, and you probably never need that American history textbook after your freshman year. You might even drop a class and need to return a book, so ask your tour guide or bookstore associate about their policies. Does the textbook need to be unopened? How many days do I have? How much do they pay for used books?
9. What type of student discounts can I get?
This might sound a little shallow, but budgeting is going to be important once college hits. Does the school have any partnerships with computer companies, taxi companies, etc.? Do local businesses give student discounts?
10. Are there any major changes underway at the school?
Some things won't be openly advertised on your tour-like whether or not the school is changing major requirements, the parking situation, or dining options. You can also try and find the latest happenings in a student-run newspaper, which is always a great thing to pick up!
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