Wednesday, August 02, 2023

The College Visits

Campus tour at an AI generated university
My wife's cousin and her daughter came and visited Chicago. The daughter, between junior and senior year of high school, is on the tail end of college tour season and visited Northwestern and University of Chicago while here. She's visited a dozen plus schools at this point.

As an academic and administrator I think of universities in terms of the faculty who are there, their academic strengths and reputation and sometimes the internal and external politics (people like to talk). All academic departments and universities have issues, in their own unique ways.

The visiting prospective students get a thoroughly different view: A tour highlighting the architecture and amenities, giving cherry-picked statistics that puts the school in its best light. The impressions students get have little to do with the quality of the education and can get affected by the personality of the tour guide or even the weather the day of the visit.

The daughter is interested in computer science but the Northwestern tour focused on South campus, the more artsy part of the university where she wouldn't be spending much of her days. Her favorite school, which I won't name, has by far the weakest CS program of the ones she has visited. But it seems those first impressions are also the lasting ones.

If you are a high school student take the tour but don't let that be your only impression. Track down the places on campus that matter to you, whether a department, college or extra-curricula and talk to the people there, particularly the students. Understand the parts of the university that matter to you, not just the ones that they put on display. 

Or perhaps avoid the campus visits entirely. You'll probably make a better choice if you aren't distracted by the size of the spires. 


  1. Of course, your post assumes that a school where the faculty have higher research profiles will also provide a better education. It is not at all clear that this is true, in general

  2. The personalities of the tour guides (and those of the others in the our group) have a huge influence also. That may or not give a sense of the social aspects of the institution, which is also a huge part of the decision since it is where the student will be living for the better part of four years.

    BTW: I also went on the Northwestern tour in the summer with my son who had interests in both humanities and computer science. Having a tour that completely ignored half the campus and didn't give a sense that the combination was possible made the day for that tour very well spent - it was now easy to cross Northwestern off the list.

  3. Twelve seems like a lot of schools to visit. I only applied to 3 (and didn't visit any beforehand): My first choice, my emergency school, and a joke school (Harvard). Harvard let me in, so I trucked over there, and talked to some folks doing computers and math things. They.Tried.To.Snow.Me. By blathering on and on about math way beyond what I had studied. It was seriously obnoxious.

    One of my best friends from high school (someone people here may know: he's done important work on Java, Fortran (really!), and Lisp) went to Harvard and frantically graduated in 3 years: "It's like hitting your head against a wall: it feels good when you stop." (Yes, he actually said that.)

    (I think they remembered that I had turned them down, and returned the favor when I applied to grad school there (Humanities, not Comp. Sci.). Oops.)

    But the bottom line is I agree with the post: the intellectual culture is way more important than the buildings. Harvard's buildings are real nice, though, even though the Harvard architecture never took off...

  4. I encourage people to visit old British schools like Oxford and Cambridge. It is a very different experience.