Although the advent of the Internet has made it possible to take "virtual" tours of college campuses and to view streaming video of interviews with current students, there simply is no substitute for the real thing. To make the best-informed decision between and among the schools on your list, you must walk their campuses, visit their dining halls, attend their classes, talk to their students yourself, and get a real feel for each campus's students and its architecture, atmosphere, and "vibe." By visiting a campus, walking around, observing life on campus, and watching the way the students interact with each other (and with you), you should be able to get a feel for what it would be like to go to school there — and for how well you would fit in to the lifestyle you observe.
Try to schedule your initial campus visits at a time when students are on campus and classes are in session, so that you can get a realistic sense of what a typical day on campus feels like. To accomplish this, you will need to avoid midterm week (usually the last week in February or the first week in March), the two weeks in March when students are typically on spring break, and any time after the third week in April, as that is often when "reading period" begins and students hole up to begin preparation for spring-term exams. You're also going to want to visit at least your top-choice schools during the school week so that you can sit in on classes.
Connecting with the Admissions Office
As you are planning your itinerary of campus informational visits, give each admissions office a call to ensure that classes are in session and that you are not planning to visit in the middle of exams or at another inopportune time. While you have the admissions receptionist on the phone, ask him or her whether the admissions office will be giving informational sessions on the day you are planning to visit and at what time they will be occurring. Ask the same question about campus tours.
If you would like to speak to a particular faculty member in an area of academic interest, you can typically schedule these appointments through the admissions office. The same is true if you would like to meet with a particular coach of a sport for which you hope to be recruited.
Finally, ask the person what the first date is that the school begins accepting appointments for on-campus interviews. Record all this information on some blank sheets in the section of your three-ring binder dedicated to this school.
When you've done this for every school on your list, compile the kickoff dates that each of your schools begins accepting appointments for on-campus interviews — as well as the phone number of the admissions office of the school — and get these dates and phone numbers into the relevant sections of your binder. This will help you keep track of the dates when you need to call each school to schedule your on-campus interview.
Think of this the same way that you think about ordering tickets for a concert. If tickets go on sale at 10 a.m., you are on the Internet or on the phone at 10 a.m., or you won't get tickets. On-campus interview slots are almost as much in demand these days as tickets to the hottest band, so plan accordingly.
To interview on campus at each of the schools on your list, or at least at your top-choice schools, you will need to work out a second travel itinerary. Try to block out ten days early in the summer when you can complete this important task — and then call each school on the first day that interviews are being scheduled, to fit the school into a slot that works for you.
The timing's right for academic interviews
When scheduling interview times, try to pick either the last slot on the schedule before lunch or the last interview of the day. Try to put your top-choice schools somewhere in the middle of the process so that you'll have an opportunity to get a couple of interviews under your belt before the high-pressure ones hit, but not so late in the process that you'll be too exhausted or such that your answers will seem too rehearsed or "canned." Scheduling interviews in early summer puts you on campus at a time when the admissions staff will be fresh.
Here's the rationale for choosing the slot immediately before lunch or the last slot of the day: If the interview is going well, you won't be artificially constrained by a time limit imposed because the next applicant is waiting behind you; and the more time you have to talk to an admissions officer, the more time you will have to burn an impression in her or her head.
Why are these interviews so important?
First of all, at many schools, admissions officers conduct the on-campus interviews, and at many of those schools, the admissions officer who interviews you will be the person who presents you "in committee" if your candidacy makes it that far. In a highly competitive game where candidates present with incredibly similar credentials, every little edge you can get matters a lot. If you can make a strong impression on an admissions officer, you can pull yourself out of the stack of people with identical credentials and make that officer want to "pull" for you a little harder because he or she met you and can speak for you personally, in three dimensions, beyond what appears on the printed page. The other similarly credentialed candidates who didn't take this additional step remain in two dimensions.
But in the close cases, the three-dimensional candidate — the candidate who has left a strong positive impression with an admissions officer — will get the little nudge that can make all the difference.