strategies to pick your best-fit college: a guide to admitted/waitlisted students days, virtual resources, and college research
First and foremost, CONGRATULATIONS! If you’re reading this, you are probably a high school senior/transfer student about to embark on a huge life journey: COLLEGE. You’ve worked hard during high school/community college to keep up your grades, which all culminated in a lengthy college admission process. Now, with most of those days behind you, you have a huge decision to make.
This time of year is when most schools will host their annual admitted/waitlisted students day, where they offer tours, events, panels, etc. for prospective students trying to decide between colleges. After all your hard efforts to woo your favorite school, now they want to woo you! They want to get you to envision yourself in their community, and ultimately make the final call to submit a Statement of Intent to Register! At these kinds of admitted/waitlisted student events, colleges will pull out all the stops - they’ll show you the best of the best, the breadth of opportunity, and the kinds of life changing experiences that await you if you choose them. So, how do you navigate these events and really get the information you need to make an informed decision? How do you tune out the noise, glitz, and glamour, focus on your priorities, and find the right fit? Especially online, this can be a tricky process. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Admitted Student Day Authenticity: For 2 years during college, I was the lead coordinator for “Cal Day,” Berkeley’s annual admitted students day, which welcomes 45,000+ people to campus, and hosts 350+ events for those visitors. Additionally, just this past year, I worked on the executive team that transformed in-person Cal Day into a remote event, welcoming an even larger crowd from across the world.
My insider advice? Enjoy these days, but remember the context in which they are set - take advantage of the show these colleges are putting on, and absorb all the information you can, but remember that colleges host these events by pooling more resources than they normally have throughout the rest of the year. That means, it can feel like an exaggerated day-in-the-life of a student at that college, and may not really reflect the real daily experience you’ll have once committing. These days can be really rewarding because of how easy it is to be exposed to all the resources that are often overlooked on normal days: you can learn an incredible amount about what the college chooses to promote, and you get to see a multitude of possible futures for yourself all in one place. You can browse academic programs, athletic teams, spirit groups/bands, clubs, speakers, you name it! However, when you’re in the middle of that overwhelming display of endless opportunities, take a minute to reflect:
How will life at this college feel when you don’t have the band marching into your mock lecture to welcome you to campus? Will the spirit and pride you felt that day hold up in other ways? Will professors be as willing to stay after lecture with you and answer your questions? Will you still love walking through campus when it isn’t decorated in steamers, balloons, and posters, lined with student groups’ banners and brought to life by celebratory music?
If you have the chance to just walk around the university on your own (without a tour guide or classes in session), take it. Particularly for most public schools, the campus is an “open campus” which means that anyone can walk around at any time (just not inside the actual buildings). This can be useful to do after you’ve experienced the college on their admitted students day, since you can compare the two “vibes” that you got and see if they line up with one another, or if the admitted students day gave you a skewed perspective of what life is like at that college.
Pretend, for a day, that you’ve committed: For each college you are seriously considering, it can tremendously help you to play a little game: dedicate an entire day (maybe the day that the admitted/waitlisted students day is planned for), or even week, to that school, thoroughly imagining your future there. Act like you’ve already committed: try to let yourself feel the excitement and nerves associated with that decision, and track your feelings. On a scale of 1-10, how happy do you feel? What kinds of questions come to mind when you put yourself in that headspace? What parts of the campus, academic community, or social life are you drawn to? Do you find yourself feeling obsessed with doing research and learning all you can about that college, or do you find yourself actually feeling pulled in another direction? Maybe you get a T-Shirt from the student store, put it on, and observe how you feel. Do you feel proud? Do you feel a desire to walk around just to show off your connection to the college?
Keep a journal throughout this time. Write down the authentic thoughts and feelings you have during the time that you’ve pretended to commit somewhere, and use it to eventually go back and compare your notes. Maybe you can list a metric that is easy to compare to one another (rate how excited you are, choose 3 words to describe what you feel when you put on that college-branded t-shirt, list 3 things you learned from doing research about the college that stood out to you, list your 5 favorite, and 5 least favorite things about the college, etc.).
Programs Presented: At these admitted student events, take note of the programs/events/speaker series they offer for the day. You can tell where a university’s priorities lie based on the proportion of events offered for particular fields over others (i.e. there may be a list of 20 different events at any given time related to biology & research, and only a few art/design events, so if you are passionate about art/design as a major/study track, this might be a red flag!) A lack of representation on these days COULD indicate a lack of funding, attention, or general resources provided for that field, which tells you that the college may be more specialized in something you are not necessarily looking for.
On the other hand, some colleges go above and beyond and offer events for every major you could think of. So, you have options! If you are really set on a particular program, you could plan out your day with events solely about that program. Or, if you are unsure/undecided about what you want to study, browse a little! Attend vastly different sessions to get a feel for the range of programs the college offers - then you’ll know if the university you are looking at will have options for you if you decide to pivot and switch majors later on.
Recorded/Asynchronous Event Offerings: Additionally, a perk about a lot of these events being online means that you can most likely find recordings of events online after the live session has happened. This means that you can experience events that otherwise would have overlapped, and just watch them later! For international students, this also means that you can most likely skip that absurd 1am wakeup call and tune into recorded sessions at a more normal/healthy time in your schedule. Remote visit programs like this actually make it much more accessible to get information about a college if you are not in the area!
Online Admitted Student Events/Resources: By now, you don’t need me to tell you how hard it can be to “feel out” a college through virtual visits. So many people rely on that “gut feeling” when they visit a college campus - something that no amount of research can produce. However, the amount of technology we have at our disposal, especially after the shock of the COVID pandemic, can get you pretty close. When I created the Virtual Engagement Program at Berkeley (when our Visitor & Parent Services department had to close and could no longer give in person tours ☹), I saw the change in mindset that it produced: high-level college representatives realized in the short span of a few weeks how underprepared the university really was for completely remote operation. We even were in contact with numerous fellow public and private colleges, all scrambling to revamp their visitor program and create virtual opportunities - something that we all started to realize should have been done years ago. However, with time, colleges bounced back, and way more virtual visit opportunities popped up. So, how can you REALLY make the most out of virtual campus visits? First, check out some qualities to look for that I discuss in my blog: “How to Getting the Most Out of Virtual Campus Visits/Tours” (https://www.shcollegeconsulting.com/our-advice-blog/getting-the-most-out-of-virtual-campus-visitstours). Here are some other resources you can check and see if your desired college has, and some resourceful ways for you to experience a college online:
1. YouVisit: SO many colleges have opted to create a YouVisit program: an interactive tour around notable places on campus, using videos, photos, informational recordings, and oftentimes even a video of a real campus ambassador to accompany you along your journey. While they aren’t necessarily the most immersive option, they can give you a feel for the scale of campus and can point you to some key locations you might otherwise miss just by walking around. Berkeley just released a new YouVisit!! (https://www.youvisit.com/tour/berkeley).
2. Live Tours/Panels: Even if colleges offer photos and videos online, talking to actual students and representatives in a LIVE setting can be tremendously helpful. Personally, I would prioritize sessions given by students for students, since you’ll get a much more relatable, truthful description of what college life is like. However, even so, remember that most students who are chosen to represent their university in these roles will highlight the best of the best when it comes to their experience, so think about some questions you could ask that will get authentic, truthful answers (i.e. what was something you really struggled with when you came to this college, and what did you do to overcome that/what resources could you find? Where do you think your college has the most room for growth/improvement, and what are some ways that those issues are currently being addressed?).
Consider attending these sessions more than once in order to get a breadth in perspectives: different students most likely lead these tours/events each time, so you can hear from a diverse array of students about their own respective experiences, and compare!
3. Google Earth/Maps: Ok, this might seem like a weird way to experience a college campus, and sometimes these photos may not be completely up to date. However, you can often “walk” around on campuses using these maps tools, and also see how the campus connects to the surrounding city. You can see if there are trails, restaurants, theaters, or parks around you, and you can see how big of a campus it is. Sometimes, looking at a place in aerial view can be really helpful to determine scale and relation of buildings to other places on campus.
4. Dorm Video Tours: Look at your college’s housing page: many colleges upload animations or actual walkthroughs of dorms (sometimes with or without people currently living there). This can be much more helpful than a set of photos, since those photos often use wide-angle lenses that make the rooms appear much bigger than they actually are. Through a walkthrough video, you can really get a sense of how big the room is in relation to furniture and windows.
Additionally, you can check out floor plans, take note of the measurements, and set up a mock dorm floor plan in your backyard/nearby open area. Lay out tape on the ground in order to make the dorm floor plan in real-life scale, and then sit down on it! How does the space feel? Big? Small? Awkward? Comfortable? This can be a way to experience what the dorm might feel like without actually getting to visit and walk through residence halls yourself.
Pay attention to any amenities listed on the website, and try to find videos and floor plans of those too (do students have access to communal kitchens, laundry rooms lounges, game rooms, study rooms, etc.?)
Choosing the right college-fit is never an easy process - there are so many factors floating around that you have to think about, and there’s almost never a truly right or wrong answer. However, if you give yourself time to really think through your decision and keep your resources in mind, you can feel more confident when you eventually do come to a decision and commit.
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at: shcollegeconsulting.com.