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How To Turn College Visits Into a Winning Essay

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College Tour

When researching colleges, every interaction with a potential school plays a role in the decision whether to apply. Everything from the drive up to campus to the interaction with a tour guide to an Instagram post you scroll past right before you fall asleep is evidence you can use to decide whether a school is a good fit for you. Choosing to apply to a specific university is more than making a pro/con list and confirming they have your major—it is a visceral feeling that this place could become a home.

College admissions is about crafting the most compelling and dynamic campus community as possible. So, to make their jobs easier, admissions committees will often ask you to write a “Why us?” essay — of all the hundreds of colleges out there, what about our university are you drawn to?

It may seem like a daunting question, but this should be the easiest essay you’ve ever written because you’ve already done all the work! Using personalized and detailed information collected during your visit will help distinguish a supplemental essay and make it unique.

Help the admissions officers imagine you on their campus. Here are four ways to make the most of your college visits to prepare yourself to write a killer supplemental essay:

Keep a college visit journal

As you start your college planning process, a journal is one way to capture your immediate thoughts and impressions about each and every school during your travels. Write down the first thing that comes to mind after the tours and information sessions, in addition to the names of the people you met along the way. Those initial thoughts and names may come in handy when writing your college essay. And make sure to take note of the key themes that continue to pop up during presentations, tours, and in print materials. Does the school consistently discuss how collaborative their students are? Is there an emphasis on community service?

Schools are usually very transparent about the things they value and therefore the kind of students they want to admit. If you have a handle on the school’s sense of identity you can write an essay that explicitly connects you to that identity.

Connect with a current student for an informal conversation

Reaching out to current students to ask them about their favorite places to eat and explore around campus when they’re not in class is a great way to get the inside scoop Finding the coffee house students enjoy hanging out at in between classes, the one with free WiFi and comfy couches, will provide a lens into how you might spend your days at the school. Current students were in your shoes just a short time ago and they are usually more than happy to shed some light on how they chose the school they attend.

Tour guides, in particular, are always excited to share what they love about their colleges—they’re often unpaid so their enthusiasm for the school is genuine. There are also opportunities to meet with current students or alumni for a conversational interview. The more conversations you can have with current students, the easier it will be to imagine yourself living and learning at that school.

Plan an Overnight

Auditioning colleges should be an immersive experience whenever possible. Unlike the formal college visits, the overnight stay is a way for students to be with their peer group and get a real feel for student life. How do students interact outside of the classroom? Where do students go in between classes? What is the nightlife like? During my college search, the swim coach at one school set up an overnight visit with several members of the swim team. Within hours of my arrival I learned a handful of the women had not enjoyed their experience and were actually transferring. It was valuable information I never would have gathered had I not taken the opportunity to stay over.

The best supplemental essays come from students who have a real grasp on not only what is offered at a school, but also how they will fit into that environment. Spending the night, whether through a formal visit or just crashing on the floor of someone you knew in high school, is a perfect way to emotionally connect with a school—a connection you can refer to when it’s time to write that essay.

Have a meal

Some readers know that the strongest connections are forged with food. Investigating the local flavor when on a college visit will leave you with a sensory experience that will confirm whether a school is the right fit for you.

And eating can be a great way to connect with people. Some of our fondest memories of college visits are of the people we met while enjoying a meal on or near campus. During one college visit with my son, as we were finishing our lunch at the hot spot for BBQ, several members of the men’s soccer Team grabbed a table nearby and within moments, they engaged my son in a discussion as to why their school was the only one worth applying to. My son smiled, laughed and confidently interacted with these players for what seemed like an eternity. After the meal, suddenly that school was at the top of the list.

Once you can imagine yourself on a college campus, the next step is to help the college imagine you there as well. Admission committees are looking for applicants to demonstrate a vivid interest in the school. Leveraging your experiences from the college visit adds a level of awareness others may not include.

Happy hunting!