Choosing colleges to apply to can feel overwhelming; after all, you're selecting a place where you might spend the next four years, a place where you will learn to take care of yourself and do your own laundry.
In my experience, visiting prospective colleges in person can be a big help. Many colleges offer virtual tours online if one can't visit, but on campus I find it easier to imagine the day-to-day experience of being a student at a university. A real-life tour also allows one to meet current students and ask them questions ranging from the quality of campus food to the four-year graduation rate.
Visiting prospective colleges has allowed me to learn things about the college that I would never have guessed; for example, the University of California at Berkeley has a museum of antique microscopes and a class on playing the bells in the clock tower. I wouldn't make a bell class a key factor in my decision, but it's an interesting piece of trivia and something to remember should I ever attend Berkeley.
Visiting a college also gives a better sense of the local history. While no American university has the antiquity of Oxford or Paris, the University of Utah was founded in 1850, just three years after the pioneers arrived in Utah, and Harvard University boasts the oldest library on the continent. Many colleges are closely tied to more recent history as well, such as the 1990s technology boom. Stanford University even has the original Google servers on display, an unassuming stack of old disk drives held up by Lego bricks.
Some attributes of a college are more difficult to quantify; visiting a college can help prospective students gain a sense of the college's general atmosphere and whether they feel that atmosphere is a good match for their own personality. Luckily, the United States and even Utah alone contains multiple colleges and universities to choose from, all with different styles. Rice University refers to itself as a "geek chic" kind of school, while Brigham Young University focuses on the Mormon community, and Southern Utah University is justly famous for its theater program.
On that note, if finances permit, a college visit can be turned into a great vacation. No trip to Southern Utah University could be complete without taking a look at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. If Shakespeare makes you groan, don't worry. The actors' body language and tone of voice make Elizabethan expressions clear, and the festival also includes productions by other playwrights.
Or in the northern Utah region, the University of Utah has the Natural History Museum of Utah, which boasts many impressive casts of skeletons of ancient animals. My personal favorite is Smilodon fatalis, better known as the saber-toothed tiger, which has quite possibly the best scientific name ever.
If possible, another method of getting to know a college might be to spend a few days living there, such as in the Biotechnology Summer Academy at Utah State University. I attended this program last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it; it was a great way to learn more about both bioengineering and Utah State.
In short, visiting a college campus is a good way to get a feel for prospective colleges and narrow down the list of places to apply. If you're going to spend four years of your life at a school, it's best to know it well before you make your decision.
Angelica Previte will be a senior in the fall at Weber High School and is an inveterate bibliophile. She can be contacted at email@example.com.