How to plan a university visit for prospective students and parents

Shanghai educators advise on what to do and what questions to ask when touring college campuses

The university application process can be long and tiring – and that's before preparing for freshman year – but it's also an exciting period of self-discovery and an opportunity for students to learn what their priorities are. Nowhere does this come more into focus than during campus visits.

If you’re travelling abroad to tour prospective unis, which is likely the case for Shanghai students, it’s important to form a plan of attack for going beyond the brochures, guides and rankings and getting the most out of your trip. Here are some tips from educators for how both parents and students can shape their campus visits.

Parents, how involved should you be?

Visiting universities together is an invaluable experience for both parents and students. But while it is great for parents to get a sense of where their child might be spending the next four years, ultimately it’s the student who will be attending and it’s important to keep this in mind when touring campuses.

‘It’s always good to have a parent or trusted adult to provide valuable insight and advice,’ says Mark Weston, Head of Higher Education Guidance at the British International School Shanghai, Puxi. Weston advises making sure that students ask and answer their own questions, and that you ask for your child’s impressions first before sharing your own.

Similarly, Director of College Counseling at Shanghai American School, Pudong, Mindy Rose says, ‘What’s most important is that the student takes the lead in framing priorities and communicating with admission officers, tour guides, professors and receptionists.’ Have faith that you’ve done your job the last 16 to 17 years. ‘Parents must hang back so students can make their own impression and opinions, trusting that the work they’ve done up to this point has instilled in their children the values the family holds dear. If they do that, students will be more likely to draw on them for help in shaping priorities, alleviating anxiety, and understanding these new environments.’

Ask thoughtful questions!

This is your time to dig beneath the surface. Students should draw on the self-knowledge that you’ve gained throughout the university process and ask questions related to the specific areas that are most important to you as a learner. Be deliberate about your approach. ‘A smart strategy is to identify a few questions that get to the heart of your priorities and ask them at all of the universities you visit so you can get a sense of how different institutions handle matters of significance to you. Create a spreadsheet and record the answers,’ suggests Rose. ‘Don’t be surprised if the answers change how you see yourself in the world. Be prepared to allow your questions to focus and change as you go.’

Use these campus visits as an opportunity to speak with current uni students to get insights beyond what you can find in the prospectus. ‘Good questions to ask would be, “Why did you choose this university?”, “what do you wish you had known before you arrived?” and “what don’t you like about the university?”,’ recommends Weston.

Sit in on a class

‘Whenever possible, check in with the admission office. See if you can schedule a visit to a class in a discipline that interests you,’ says Rose. This is a unique chance to see the places where you will be spending most of your time and see the curriculum in action. It’s also important to take note of how the physical environment of the university makes you feel, advises Rose. ‘Are factors like access to sunny weather, nature, or a metro stop an absolute deal breaker for you? You may not know until you visit a few schools.’ Again, it’s not a bad idea to take notes and photos along the way as all the visits may run together.

Finally, some example questions to ask...

Here are some examples of questions that can keep ‘the engine of self- understanding moving’, as suggested by Rose.

  • How much time do students spend on work outside of class?
  • How and how often are students assessed (exams and papers)?
  • How do students receive feedback on academic work, and how often?
  • How often and how many students work on research projects with faculty? Who assists students with course selection and career advising?
  • What health and personal counseling services are available?
  • What career and internship planning services are available?
  • What data is available about graduate and professional school admission and the types of jobs held by alumni, especially young graduates?
  • How are students housed and what are the different options? How is housing assigned?
  • How are students governed?
  • Can I afford it?