From a Teen’s Perspective: When college touring, notice the smaller details

by Dylan Lanier on April 17, 2023

I’m writing this on an airplane as I round out a Midwest-East Coast college trip. This isn’t the first time I’ve visited colleges, nor do I expect it will be the last. I’ve seen a wide variety so far, from big state schools to private universities — and discovered pros and cons to each and every one of them.

In general, I like to evaluate colleges as one might expect, focusing on the major aspects like academics, social life, and location. These make obvious sense: All will play a large role in my collegiate satisfaction and success.

However, I often find that it can be both fun and beneficial to look out for the smaller details of the colleges you visit, as many of them can be indicative of the student experience and the general vibe on campus.

1. The Rec Center: I would hardly describe myself as a gym bro — nor am I aspiring to be. But I always check out the Rec Center at whatever campus I tour. To me, a school’s Rec Center — typically fitted with a gym, a pool, and even a rock climbing wall — can help answer quite a few questions: How much money does the school allocate towards student wellness? How active is the student population? Are resources and facilities crowded? While tour guides or collegiate websites may not answer these questions directly, gyms can definitely provide insight.

2. The Bookstore: This is often a representation of a university’s image. In my opinion, a high-quality bookstore — one filled with books, merchandise, food, and anything else a student could need — indicates an emphasis on encouraging school spirit and facilitating student success.

3. The Library: This is an obvious one. While some college libraries are nicer than others (I’m looking at you, Stanford!), a library’s main purpose is to provide a quiet space for students to read and work. I always check out a campus’ main library to ensure that there will be a calm and productive space for my studies. Let’s face it, you’re gonna spend a lot more time there than you think, so might as well feel comfortable.

4. The Green(s): This looks very different depending on the school. At a large, suburban university, there might be fields everywhere. At a smaller, urban school, the closest natural area for students might be a nearby park or hiking trail. Whatever that green space looks like, I reccomend checking it out to get a read on the school and its student body. Look at how many kids are taking advantage of those resources, and how they’re using them. Are there a lot of intramural sports happening? Do people like to host study groups outdoors? Consider how you would use them and see if current students are doing the same.

5. The Cafeteria: I am a foodie, now and forever, and I must admit the idea of eating the same few options every day is unsettling. Alas, although college is not about the food (or so I’m told), I’d still like to know that the food will be edible and have at least a touch of variety. I check out the cafeteria and other dining spots at every campus I visit to scope out the food scene and make sure I wouldn’t be sick of it by the second week. Eating areas are also great places to watch students in their everyday lives. I can usually somewhat determine how social or studious a school is based on the number of students who are hanging out while they eat vs. the number who are chowing down with their heads in their computers.

For those who want to learn about these details at a certain college but don’t want to travel all the way out there, you’re in luck. I suggest looking up something like “How good is UCLA food?” and skip all the unviersity’s “official” sites. Instead, click on sites like Niche, a fairly reliable database that compiles information about almost every university. Keep in mind that some information might be dated or out-of-touch with students.

I also reccommend clicking on sites where any user can contribute, such as Reddit and Quora. I’ve found that there’s usually a page for each school where students honestly answer questions about their experiences. Another disclaimer: there’s no way to verify accounts on these sites, so be wary of the answers. Also, students have a wide range of experiences; just because one student loves or hates something about a school doesn’t necessarily mean that you will, too. However, these sites can still be useful as long as you take them with a grain of salt.

Everyone has different criteria for finding their perfect college, and that’s part of the beauty and fun of the search process. I wanted to share some of the often overlooked details at universities that have helped me in my own evaluations. Once you know what you want — and how to look for it — you can make a better-informed decision about where you want to continue your academic career. Happy touring!

Top photo: ULCA Royce Hall with students on lawn; second photo shows student studying in the Lane Reading Room at Cecil H. Green Library of Stanford University

From a Teen’s Perspective is a weekly column contributed by Menlo-Atherton High School Junior Dylan Lanier, who has lived in Menlo Park since he was two.


One Comment

Samira April 18, 2023 at 9:57 am

Great points – super helpful for those doing college tours!

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