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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

What We Look for When we Visit Colleges

The Valley Library at Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR. Photo by Porter Raab on Unsplash.

I have always wanted to ask a professional chef what they think about when eating in someone else’s restaurant. I am sure there are details that are obvious to the professional that for the rest of us, are simply unavailable. Are there dishes they would never order? Is there a tell in the way dishes are plated that hints at the level of care put into the food? Are there details in the service that would be imperceptible to me that would be nails on a chalkboard to a trained chef? I have so many questions.

Likewise, we get asked how we assess colleges when we visit campuses, as professional college coaches. I will admit it; I love the way a college campus looks and feels, with their deep sense of community, purpose, and optimism. They are wonderful places to be. But, I will also grant that college campuses can be overwhelming.

As verified college nerds, having visited hundreds of campuses, we have learned to look past the shiny new buildings and fluff to focus on aspects of a college that really impact student learning and well-being. So, to help, we have developed an easy to remember mnemonic device to keep in mind when you take your next college visit that focuses on these key differentiators.

When you visit a college, remember that a good college is:


Open & Welcoming



And just like home, a good college should make you feel safe, comfortable, and most importantly, like you can just be yourself.


As a visitor to a college campus, you most certainly stand-out. For one, you are often holding a bag or a folder provided by the college admissions office, and secondly, most students are not walking around with their mom, dad, and little brother. But most importantly there’s the lost facial expression, accompanied with pointing in different directions and under-the-breath arguing.

So when we’re on a college campus, we are always attuned to how many times someone takes time out of their busy day to point us in the right direction and simply be friendly. It makes sense; someone who enjoys being a student at a college, will want to encourage others to also enjoy their time there, and will want to make a good impression on visitors. It is human nature to want to share with others the things we enjoy, whether that’s a brand of sunglasses, local restaurants, and colleges. Our favorite colleges will always have multiple instances of helpful students, faculty, and staff asking us if we need help.

Open & Welcoming

We start looking for signs of this as we start to enter the campus by way of looking for, well, signs. A good college is thoughtful about how visitors and community members find their way around campus, so consistent and accurate signage is key and one of those tells of a well-run college campus.

But the real heart of any college is its community which is what makes visiting a college campus so powerful, as you can experience this culture first-hand. Find the hub of the campus and spend some time there observing the people in the college community. What are people doing? Are there activities happening or signs indicating “____ program tonight”? Are they behind tables with petitions out in support of some issue, are they raising money for a cause, are they in small groups of diverse people? Are people wearing the school’s gear or another college’s logo? How many people are smiling? You can learn a lot from just people watching.


A college campus should visually inspire you, and should be a place you want to explore and simply be in. How well a college maintains its grounds is a huge indicator of quality and attention to detail. Weeds coming up through the concrete is like dirty dishes at a restaurant: it is admittedly a small detail that suggests that the basics are not a priority. In addition, has thought been put into creating spaces (indoors and out) for study, gathering with friends, or simply relaxing? When your roommate gets on your nerves and you want to take a walk, what will that be like? Where will you go and what do you want that to look like?


One of the most important aspects of a college is the level of academic engagement that students can have with faculty, staff, and their fellow students. More than anything else, how much a student engages with the learning community at a college has been shown to positively impact intellectual and personal growth among students. When we visit colleges we are listening closely for clues as to how a school ensures students have access to professors and other support resources, as well as provide opportunities for growth (e.g., study abroad, living and learning communities, student leadership development). And we’re not just talking about office hours where a student can visit a professor if they need help, which is a basic expectation and constitutes the bare minimum of faculty availability. We’re looking for ways that colleges are inserting professors into learning experiences within student life through deep learning opportunities outside of the classroom. We’re looking for meaningful co-curricular experiences where students can truly have seamless learning environments in and out of the classroom.

One of the best ways to assess the academic engagement level of a campus is by attending a class (when that is allowed again after the COVID-19 pandemic). Usually you are able to find a class with the help of the admissions office. Make sure to talk with the professor after class to get a feel for how they like teaching at the college, and if nothing else, to say thank you for sharing their class with you.

The term alma mater translates to “other mother” in Latin. It refers to the idea that the college we attend is not just a collection of buildings and individuals, but a collective whole that supports and nurtures us as family. The right college should feel like home.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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