Why You Should Visit Grad Schools Before Applying
School visits are typical for undergrads, so why isn’t this a more common practice for prospective grad students?
Grad school is an investment. Even if you land a great scholarship, you’re still investing your time. Yet for most of us, it’s an investment of both time and money.
Subsequently, if you can feasibly visit the universities you’re applying to, you’ll thank yourself later. It’s difficult if you’re applying to institutions all over the country. But if you can drive to your prospective universities, do it.
I know it’s logistically a lot harder to do this for grad school than it is for undergrad. It’s also hard to take time off of work, to come up with the money for these trips, so on and so forth. Here’s the thing about campus visits for graduate schools; it’s not going to be like it is for undergrads. You either want to attend an open house, a grad fair, or just walk around the campus on your own.
So why aren’t grad school visits more popular? There are gentle guidelines about grad school application etiquette. An eight-year veteran of graduate admissions, David Shorter, published a piece with The Chronicle of Higher Education cautioning prospective students with the following advice:
“Most programs do not favor campus visits from prospective students before they have been accepted. Campus resources are already taxed with current students. Some places do not want to privilege those applicants who can afford to travel or those who are local.”
He makes a very fair point — campus resources are often taxed and stretched.
Plus, if a department really doesn’t seem to have any outreach efforts like open houses or grad fairs, it’s probably best not to pester them too much prematurely.
However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t go for a stroll around campus to get a feel for the area. You can also visit the city or general region that the university is in. If you've never been there before, just seeing the place with your own eyes can be enlightening. It's important not to bother the university you're applying to since you want everything possible on your side when applying.
You might find that that the university grounds and community aren’t what you want.
It’s vital to do your research ahead of time into things like lodging and whether the campus is more geared toward commuters. If you can’t afford on-campus housing, is the off-campus housing close enough that you could easily get to campus? Would transportation from home to class be problematic if you don’t have a car and need to rely on mass transit?
As long as it’s okay to walk through the campus as a visitor, which it usually is, walking around the campus can give you a good feel for it. If you see events happening on any given day, it’s a good indicator that there’s a lot of program and club activity on campus.
I went to an open house for one of the graduate schools I visited since it was close enough for the trip to be pretty easy. I was living in Maryland at the time and the university was in New Jersey, but it was somewhat close to a relative’s house, so I could stay overnight for free.
But when I went, even though the people were friendly and the campus was nice enough, I realized pretty quickly that the program was tiny and that there wasn’t as much community surrounding the program as I had hoped for. They were growing and doing a lovely job, but I just knew that while I could make an impact there, it just wasn’t the perfect place for me.
If you’re considering moving, no matter how far it is, visit the area.
If you can feasibly afford to do this, do it. This takes a lot of planning and coordination to make it feasible and affordable. However, I promise you, it’s still possible.
In my case, when I added a few universities in California to my list, I signed up for a travel credit card and started saving up points. I used my card for everything from groceries to the electric bill and the phone bill and I got a $600 roundtrip flight to California for free. That’s future grad student budget worthy.
I discovered as soon as I got there that it would be a place I’d be happy to live for two to five years. Looking at universities in the mid-west… yeah, not so much my cup of tea. We all have our own cup of tea though. Every city has a different vibe or feeling. Some universities are very isolated and others are right in the hub of downtown.
You might want the peace and quiet of an isolated campus. Alternatively, you might want the convenience of grabbing a coffee from a cute cafe right down the street in a university with an open campus. It all depends on what you want and what is most feasible for you.
But if you’re going to spend many years somewhere, do as much research as you can. If you can physically go there, do it. You don’t want to love your program but hate the place you live. It’ll make a long-term commitment much harder.
You can learn a lot about the program at an open house.
Most grad school listicles will tell you to talk to students in the program. It’s good advice. But how in the world do you get in contact with students without either bothering the department or doing some hardcore cyberstalking?
For a devout introvert like me who is aware that department resources are often taxed, I didn’t feel comfortable emailing departments like “Hi! I would like to talk to your students, please! That way, I can maybe decide if I want to pay your application fee or not!”
Obviously, you can word it better, but that would be the gist and implication of whatever you say.
If your prospective universities do any kind of outreach events, check them out. This is a prime time to talk to departmental staff, professors, and sometimes students.
Don't be afraid to ask questions that could impact your decision to attend.
Seizing an opportunity to ask questions can make all the difference in your grad school experience. If there's something that might be a dealbreaker in your interest in a university, find a way to diplomatically and politely ask about that.
I drove three hours from Maryland to New Jersey to attend a grad fair and there, I learned that the program I wanted only had two spaces for student assistantships for the year I wanted to apply. I did still apply knowing the odds were not ever in my favor, but I didn’t receive any kind of funding offer, and I just couldn’t commit myself to the large loans at the time.
Here’s another incentive for attending these events; even if you do have to drive three or four hours, you might get a fee waiver for attending the grad fair. This is more common with smaller schools, but it’s wise to apply to a variety of programs. By going, you learn something and even after the cost of gas and tolls, you’re probably saving some money.
No matter how many visits you made, keep reading and researching the universities, programs, and regions where you’re applying.
Applications are tough and time-consuming. If you can afford and make time to do an in-person visit, do it. Even if that just means going to a city you’ve never been to before to make sure it’s somewhere you could enjoy living in, it’s a valuable experience.
Graduate school is a huge commitment of time and money. The program is going to be hard — you will be challenged and you will have times when you’re burning the candle at both ends. If the location adds to your stress, it’s going to make finishing your master’s or PhD that much harder.
Always be courteous and don’t make a nuisance of yourself when you visit. It might sound a bit harsh, but it’s important to be a thoughtful visitor. Explore as much as you can and apply to the programs that will work the best for your life, your preferences, and your happiness.