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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Choosing a Grad School? The Step You Can't Miss

While you can get a feel for a grad school by clicking around on its website, there’s no substitute for going to visit in person. It’s a chance to see the place you may live in and picture yourself as a student.

But given how expensive and time-consuming travel is, it’s important to get the most out of every visit. If you’re trying to make a decision on graduate programs, here’s a list of what you should do during each campus visit to get a really great sense of the school—and ultimately pick the right place for you.

Time Your Trip Strategically

If you’re visiting campus for interviews or admitted students activities—which you definitely should do if you have the opportunity, because the admissions office will be all set up to host visitors—the school will likely have a set schedule of events for you to attend (more on those in a minute). If you’re visiting on your own time, however, then you’ll want to be smart about how you time your trip so that you’re able to really get a feel for the program.

Do your best to travel while students are on campus, avoiding spring or summer breaks and even weekends if possible. It might not be convenient, but one of the best ways to learn about a school is to talk informally with current students, which can be pretty hard to do if they’re not in town! Many schools also host conferences throughout the year (mine has them almost every weekend), so if you can’t visit during the week, try to go on a weekend when there will be events on campus.

Go to the Official Sessions (Especially the Class Visit!)

I’d definitely recommend sitting in on the official events and meetings, even if it sometimes feels like you’re just hearing promotional talking points. Whether it’s just an info session or a full-fledged day with speakers and panels, I always found it helpful to see what a particular school chose to present to prospective students and how it framed its program. Administrators spend a ton of time thinking carefully about what information to share, so hearing their take on the school can give you a lot of insight.

At the very least, I would definitely recommend going on a class visit. Academics are a core part of the experience, so seeing what a class is like can really help you make your decision about a particular place. Try to get a sense of how the students are experiencing the class: Is it competitive? Are people bored? Do the topics seem applicable? But, most importantly, try to think about whether you’ll be able to stay engaged in a class like that week after week.

Visit the Place You’ll Live

Housing is one of the things admitted students tend to be the most stressed out about before starting grad school. It makes sense: Your housing situation can have a huge impact on your quality of life.

When you visit campus, you have a great opportunity to check out the local housing options and get a feel for the neighborhood around school. If the school you’re visiting houses students on campus, ask the Housing Office if it can show you a vacant room. Also ask where students tend to live off campus so that you can walk around potential neighborhoods and scope out other options. You might even want to test out your commute to school just to really get a feel for what it would be like getting to class in the morning. A one-mile walk might look fine on Google Maps, but actually trying out your 20-minute route could make you feel differently, especially if you’ll have to do it in inclement weather.

Check Out the Facilities You’re Most Likely to Use

Most schools have zillions of facilities that they’re excited to show off to visitors—gyms, libraries, study halls—but I’d recommend narrowing things down a little bit and just making sure to check out the places that you’re most likely to use. Remember that you’re going to be living wherever you end up going to school, so it’s important that you have access to the types of things you need in order to be comfortable.

If you’re really into exercise, for example, get a day pass to the gym, and see how you like it. I am terrible about getting work done in my room, so I always prioritized looking at libraries to make sure I’d have a quiet place to work. Many schools also offer on-campus daycare for the children of faculty, staff, and students, and they will typically let visitors in during certain hours to check out the site—a good thing to consider if you’re raising a family while going back to school.

Talk to a Career Coach

This is likely only an option if you’ve already been admitted, but I would definitely recommend setting up an appointment with a member of the career coaching staff so that you can learn more about what your options will be after school. I did whenever possible, and I found it to be extremely helpful.

When you go to the appointment, focus on asking questions about what students tend to do when they graduate and where it’s likely that you’ll end up. One career coach, for example, mentioned that the majority of the program's alumni lived in the city where the school was located, which helped me rule it out because I didn’t want my b-school network to be so geographically concentrated.

School visits ended up being a huge factor for me when I was deciding on b-school programs, so I hope these tips help you make the most out of your trips. Good luck!

Photo of university campus courtesy of Shutterstock.