Type “college tour bingo” into Google Images, and up pop rows of gridded phrases such as “A capella groups!” “The library is open 24/7 during finals!” “Lots of students enter with undecided majors!” Jokes like these related to college visits are no surprise to anyone who’s toured a few colleges — the ubiquity of these phrases is the point.
But the cards highlight a more serious reality. Even as colleges strive to stand out from their rivals, once an applicant has toured a few campuses (virtually or in person), they can start sounding the same. And the colleges’ problem later becomes the applicant’s problem. If the schools sound the same during the tours and information sessions — while the applicant is on campus — they will be even harder to distinguish months after the visit, when the student is completing applications, and months after that, when the applicant is choosing where to enroll.
Our solution to this dilemma: take college visits notes.
We advise students to always bring two pens and a notebook on their campus visits. If it’s cold outside, bring a pencil too, as pens freeze easily. The notebook should be small enough to hold in one hand, to make it easy to write while walking. As for what to write down, students should record the names of any faculty or staff they meet. If they visit a dorm, they should jot down the name. If they sit in on a class — which we recommend — they should write down the course title and the professor. If the student asks a question during a tour or information session, they should take notes on the answer. Not only will the notes jog the student’s memory later, but the act of taking college visits notes keeps the student engaged in the moment. And we do specifically recommend that students use paper for campus visit notes. Taking notes on a phone looks a lot like texting, so an applicant working on their screen runs the risk of appearing disengaged and disrespectful.
We advise a bit more notetaking as soon as the applicant leaves campus. On the visit, applicants take notes based on observation — who they meet, what they learn. Afterwards, it’s time to reflect. How does the applicant feel about the school? Why do they feel that way? What did they think of the academic programs they heard about? That class they observed? The chance to pursue their favorite extracurriculars? The general mood on campus? What do they not want to forget? Gut feeling: would they be happy here?
The reflection doesn’t have to take long. We recommend writing for 7 to 10 minutes, just long enough for the student to work out their initial impressions. They don’t need to compose paragraphs, or even complete sentences. A list is fine. And while writing by hand has cognitive benefits, they can write this part on their phones, if they like. They can also snap photos of their notebook pages, to store all of their notes from college visits together digitally.
Ultimately, of course, not all colleges are the same. Occasionally, applicants step onto a campus and immediately feel at home; that’s an experience they won’t forget. But students generally apply to several schools, and the entire concept of applying to college — and choosing one, the biggest decision of applicants’ lives so far — can be so intimidating that the details of the schools get flattened in the applicant’s memory. Taking notes about college visits helps to demystify and deescalate that process. The little notebook will help students’ applications go more smoothly, and it will make it easier for students to choose the right school in the end.
Then, with this informed decision made, they can begin preparing for the next “game.” We’re referring, of course, to “first-year orientation bingo.”