Posted by Karen Nichols

Mar 10, 2015 2:25:00 PM

Previously, we’ve offered several tips on how to make the most of your college visits. We’ve even published an ebook on the topic. In this blog post, we want to help you with “the vision thing” — defining more specifically what you are looking for in a college and what features will matter most to you once you get there.

As you’ve inched closer to your senior year and graduation, your mailbox has likely been inundated with marketing materials from a variety of colleges and universities. Piles of brochures and “view books” have shown idealized portraits of college life. Your expectations about the college experience may also be informed by fictionalized stories in books and film, past visits to campuses for sporting events and other happenings, and the college experiences of your parents, older siblings, and friends.

Now comes the time to figure out what you really want in a college. This is more than just what the marketing brochures say you should want — really, is a game room in the dorm all that important? — or what your friends or even parents and counselors say you should look for. This is about deciding what really matters to you for the next four years of your life — and beyond.

Set aside a block of quiet time for yourself, when you’ll be completely undisturbed. Grab a pencil or pen and a notebook, journal, or sketchbook, and go through the following steps.

Step 1: Take an imaginary journey into your future.

Close your eyes, and imagine yourself at your ideal college. What do you see?

  • Is the campus small or large? Are class sizes cozy and intimate, or are you just another face in a lecture hall of hundreds? Do most students know each other, or is everyone somewhat anonymous, with the possibility of meeting interesting new people every day?
  • What subjects do you study? Have you declared a major, or are you exploring multiple interests with plans to decide on a major later?
  • Do you imagine yourself doing meaningful research with a professor who is a leader in your career field? Working in state-of-the-art facilities? Wandering the stacks of a world-class academic library?
  • Are you getting a traditional education, or are you having a more alternative learning experience? Such experiences might include self-directed study, experiential learning, study-abroad experiences, interdisciplinary studies, and/or design-your-own majors.
  • What is the overall vibe on campus? Laid back and relaxed? Serious, studious, and competitive? Relatively calm, or exciting and highly social? Is there a sense of tradition, school loyalty and pride, or team spirit on campus?
  • Do most students stay on campus, rarely going home except for breaks? Or do most go home on weekends or even commute from home daily? How far away are you from your own family and hometown?
  • Do you know some members of the student body from your high school days? Or did you arrive at this school as a lone ranger in terms of familiar faces and contacts?
  • What is the student body like? Are they mostly likeminded students who share your worldview? Or do they come from diverse backgrounds and a variety of political, social, and spiritual perspectives? Do most students seem friendly and approachable?
  • What do you imagine yourself doing in your free time? What kinds of extracurricular activities will you be involved in? Are you interested in Greek life (fraternities and sororities)? Volunteerism? Political or social action? Sports? The arts? A part-time job or internship in your career field?
  • What is your college town like? A large city, a small town, or something in between? Is it very similar or very different from your hometown? Are there many options for things to do in town or interesting places to hang out when you aren’t on campus? What sort of shopping is available near the campus?
  • What region of the country are you in? What is the geography like? Is it warm and sunny year-round, temperate to chilly (or downright cold) much of the year, or do you experience the full range of seasons? Are there mountains, beaches, forests, rolling plains, or some combination? Is it similar to or different from what you are used to?
  • What does your typical day look like? What are your living arrangements like? Do you live in an apartment, a dorm, or a house? How many roommates do you have? What are the dining halls like? How do you get around campus — on foot or by bus, car, or bike?
  • What other elements of your future college experience do you see?

Step 2: Record what you see in your mind’s eye.

You can do this in the form of a list, a brainstorming cluster, long paragraphs of freewriting — whatever helps to get your ideas flowing freely onto paper. Don’t worry about correct grammar and spelling or complete sentences. Just get your ideas down. Write all over the page. Use writing lines or don’t. Anything goes.

Sometimes a nonverbal approach, such as drawing, can more fully reveal the deepest desires of your heart. Try jotting down sketches of what you see in your college “daydream.” Don’t attempt to make a great fine-arts piece. Just let the ideas flow onto paper in visual form, using whatever techniques you prefer. You might use realistic images, symbols, or just simple stick figures.

Step 3: Turn your notes into a “needs, wants, and don’t wants” list.

Look at what you’ve recorded during your visioning session, and then decide on the importance of each feature of your college “daydream.” Turn to a new sheet of paper, and divide the page into three columns, one each for “Needs,” “Wants,” and “Don’t Wants.” This document can become a formal wish list you can use to rank the colleges you visit. Use it to record your must-haves, the features you definitely do not want under any circumstances, and the nice-but-not-essentials. If the feature doesn’t matter to you at all, leave it off your list.

Setting your vision is just one important step in preparation for your campus visits, as well as for your ultimate college decision. For more guidance, check out the newest ebook from Doorway to College, Making the Most of Your College Visit: An Interactive Guide. It will take you from the planning stage, though your actual visit, to the processing stage once you return home. You’ll learn how to find the real, behind-the-scenes scoop on each college, not just the shiny version presented to you by your friendly campus tour guide.

For more resources to help with the college planning process, visit us at

Related posts: 
Planning College Visits: 5 Tips for Ensuring an Informative Experience
Improving Your Chances After the College Application Deadline

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