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Where will YOU go this summer? Is a good long stay at camp in your future? Will you head abroad to study or volunteer? How about a trip to Canada to hang out with ducklings and nice people? Is the inside of the local ice cream parlor your destination of choice? Will you be wielding a scoop on the other side of the counter? No matter where, we know you’re going places. And in the midst of your travels, near and far, we expect you’ll be making a stop or two at college campuses along the way. Pro-tip: make sure you prep a driving playlist before your folks do.
While these initial college tours may seem like a very early step in the research process, they should also factor into your long-term strategy. First of all, making an in-person visit is a great way to demonstrate your interest in a school, and it’s a detail that many places will keep on file. It’s also the perfect opportunity to gather the kinds of unique details you need to write a stellar set of supplemental essays. Most schools won’t be releasing their official essay questions until August or September, but we already know that you can expect a ton of them to ask, “why do you want to go here?” or to describe your aspirations to participate in different activities and communities on campus. No matter the question, you should always do your best to tie your answer back to what you know about the school. So, we’ve devised a handful of note-taking strategies that will help you capture the targeted information and vivid details that will make your essays come to life.
Even if you’re just beginning to explore schools and have no idea what your final college list will be, you probably have at least a vague idea of what you’re looking for. Think about what you love about high school from classes to activities to culture. (We know, at this point in the year you’re going to have to dig deep, but try.) And think about what you hate, what you’d like to leave behind. (This should be much easier.) Based on your favorite and least favorite things, concoct a few open-ended questions for your tour guide that will shine a light on the things that matter most. Questions that start with “how” or “what” are likely to elicit longer, more detailed answers than simple yes/no questions. For example: “How easy is it to double major?” is better than “Can you double major?” and “What do people do on weekends?” is better than “Do people party here?” Take notes on the answers you get, the details that tour guides and students include, and even notable snippets of dialogue that might be worth quoting later. Having specific, fact-based notes will give you a solid and unique base for your school-specific supplemental essays.
A campus tour and information session are great places to start and gain a basic understanding of the campus layout and lifestyle, but don’t stop there! You’re on an actual college campus! You have traveled miles on miles to get there! Take some time to explore it independently and keep an eye out for memorable moments. Even in the quieter summer months, you’re still likely to see some students roaming the campus, who have decided to stick around for classes or work or even research. If you observe from afar (the cafeteria is always a great place to start), what do you notice? How do they interact with each other? What kinds of conversations do you overhear? If you approach any students (and we recommend you do), what do they have to say? What is their demeanor and attitude? All of these little moments you observe and experience will ultimately contribute to the impression you get, so make sure you retain the specifics by jotting them down. A school’s course offerings look the same to everyone, but your experience on campus is uniquely yours.
Even if this is your dream school… Even if you think you’ll remember this experience forever…. Even if this school stands out from all the rest… The details are going to fade with time. They may even begin to blend into your memories of other institutions. It’s okay; it happens to everyone. The surest way to remember your campus experience, is to spend some time writing immediately after you leave. In the plane, train, or automobile, give yourself at least 15 minutes to quietly jot down everything that comes to mind. It can be messy and disorganized. The idea is to get your thoughts down on paper. What stuck out to you? What surprised you? What do you really like? How did you feel walking around campus and how do you feel now? Your gut reactions are just as important as the specific details of what happened, and the best way to capture them is to note them while they’re fresh.