The College Visit: Is the Chemistry Right?

Choosing a college is easy.  Okay, maybe not EASY, but there is basically one step to the process if you want to get this right: Go visit.

Sure, you can read up on colleges if you want. Go ahead. Google away. Buy the Fiske’s guide. Look at the pretty pictures. But, it won’t work. You won’t know where to go because the answer isn’t in a book or online. It’s in your gut. Choosing a college is about finding the right chemistry, feeling comfortable on campus and excited about the programs and opportunities offered. When you are there, you just know. Even if you can’t put your finger on why. (By the way, it is important to put your finger on why because this is the feedback you need as you choose the next school to visit. If urban schools feel uncomfortable, make the next trip to a suburban or rural school.)

I’ve been telling students for years to visit colleges. With all the busyness of junior and senior year and the time and expense involved in traveling to various colleges, they often don’t listen to me. Students assure me that they will visit the colleges they get into in the spring of senior year. They want to know that they are accepted and that the financial aid package makes the school a true possibility before they make the trip. That is practical. But, it’s not ideal. In my experience, students who guess at their short list of colleges do not work as hard on their applications because they are not excited about the possibilities. Their college list contains names, not positive campus experiences, hopes and dreams.

Hey, I get it. I didn’t visit too many colleges either when I was in high school. This was a big mistake. A visit would have given me significant information about what I was looking for in a college. I also could have saved myself 25 years of angst. Here’s my story:

I wanted to go to Cornell University. My experience on Cornell’s campus consisted of attending a fraternity party because my friend’s band had a gig and I tagged along to see him play. I arrived at night, went to the party and came home the next day. No tour. No information session. No meal in the dining hall. Based on this extensive and thorough research, I came up with the following reasons for wanting to go to Cornell:

I had heard of it.
It’s an Ivy.
I like red.
Everyone would be impressed.
It wasn’t too far from or too close to home.

Basically, no good reason. I did not have the information I needed to determine if Cornell would be a good fit for me.

I did not get accepted to Cornell that spring, not because I couldn’t succeed as a student there, but likely because I didn’t do what it takes to be a successful Cornell applicant. I made a few mistakes in high school (such as not taking the most rigorous curriculum my high school offered) because I lacked information about the admissions process. For me, not having proper guidance and complete information meant not having the opportunity to compete at the highest level in admissions. It is this lack of guidance and information, not the rejection, that has annoyed me for 25 years. (Click here to read about what else I could have done differently.)

Last month, my dog broke her tooth and needed to see a dentist. I took her to Cornell’s veterinary teaching hospital and while she was receiving a doggie root canal, I took a tour of campus. I knew within 15 minutes that Cornell would not have been the right school for me. Let me be clear. Cornell is one of the best universities in the world and I frequently recommend that students check it out. But, it would not have been best for me. Had I toured Cornell in high school, I would have known that the chemistry was not right – and avoided 25 years of angst.

So, go and stand on campus, look around, talk to people, listen to the admissions spiel. How long will it take to know if a college is right for you?

Probably 15 minutes.

Michelle McAnaney is the founder of The College Spy, a full service college consulting firm. In working with The College Spy, students and parents gain a comprehensive understanding of the college admissions process, the trends in admissions and how they relate to the student’s  unique circumstances and the key topics needed to find a college that best meets their needs and preferences. The College Spy addresses practical topics such as standardized testing, financial aid, college majors, careers, interviewing and essays. The College Spy provides “e-advising” and maintains a national and international client base through the use of video-conferencing. For more information on The College Spy’s services, please visit their website at Michelle can be reached by calling 1-800-207-4305 or by e-mail at