The Grad School Campus Visit

Top things to know when you are shopping for schools

I don’t travel to as many of our graduate admissions fairs as I used to, but when I do I love to hear from admissions staff who table at the events about their day-to-day activities back at school. Over time I have had quite a few conversations about the Campus Visit and wanted to share some nuggets of wisdom here.

Visiting the admissions office:

One recent discussion was with Emmett Griffin of Georgetown Public Policy Institute about prospective students’s visits to his office. These are his tips:

As with any professional encounter, it’s wise to make an appointment with an admissions officer, a week ahead of time if possible. Admissions staff are busy. You’ll make a much better first impression if you set up a time to meet, and they are expecting you.

Read before you go. Of course you want to ask a lot of questions. But before asking anything of a school’s faculty or staff, read the web site and/or any available print material. Those will likely answer a lot of your questions, and you’ll make a better first impression if you have done your homework (this is, er, school, after all). (Imagine if you had a job where you were constantly asked questions — wouldn’t you answer all the most common questions on your web site and in your brochures?)

What if you happen to be visiting a city for other reasons and decide to drop by campus for an unannounced visit? Still call ahead, even if it’s just an hour ahead — and read as much as you can, even if it’s skimming all you can get your hands on in the admissions office itself, before chatting with an admissions officer.

Visiting classes:

The tips below are from conversations with Idealist’s Graduate Admissions Advisory Board (of which Emmett Griffin is a member):

Consider visiting a class or two while you are on campus.  But do not show up to a class unannounced. Schools love for prospective students to sit in on a class or two and will have different policies about how to set up the class visit.

Contact your target school’s admissions office, or the department. Sometimes you can sign up for a class visit right on the web site, other times the admissions office will direct you to the registrar or individual professor.

Also, professors might want you to have read some course materials ahead of time and expect you to participate in class discussions. Find out about these expectations ahead of time, if possible.

Other activities while you are on campus:

• Talk with someone in the career center about internship and career transitions support (grad schools often have their own career office)
• Meet with a current student to ask what it’s like to be a student there (see this article about informational interviews)
• Participate in a campus tour; many schools offer these a few times per day. The admissions office can let you know the details

Before you go, write a list of questions and/or considerations you’d like to keep in mind on the day of your visit. It might also be a good idea to jot down your top priorities in a school so you can objectively evaluate your experience later on. For example, if you intend to use the athletic facilities, you’d want to make sure you get to see them and find out how much (if anything) it costs to use them. You might be looking for an academically rigorous environment, or a lot of support setting up excellent internships.


When you get home, reflect on your list of questions:

√ What did I learn?
√ How interested am I in exploring this academic program further?
√ What values, skills, and interests of mine fit – or don’t fit – with the degree, department, or student culture?
√ What are my next steps from here?


After you visit, send thank-you notes to the professors, students and staff you met with. You can have the thank-you notes stamped, addressed and ready to go (save for writing the note itself) when you arrive on campus. As your last stop on campus, take a few minutes over coffee or lunch to write the notes, and pop them in the nearest mail box. The important thing is to make  the note meaningful, and to state something specific you learned. If possible, enclose your business card in the envelope.

Read more about grad school choices, admissions, and financial aid.

Find an Graduate Degree Fair for the Public Good in a city near you. (We are only going to 18 cities this year — we are genuinely sorry if we miss yours.) We’re coming to Philadelphia Monday 9/22, then off to the West Coast!

Blog for us (deadline extended).

How to find grad schools

Even the savviest, most passionate grad school seeker may get a crush on one or two famous grad schools, and have a hard time generating a “long list.”

But most admissions professionals will tell you it’s a good idea to apply to several schools (including—eek, I hate to say it—”safety” schools) to be sure you get in somewhere. I am not sure that I agree—you may want to work for a few more years in your field and apply again to your top choice schools when you are more established.

However, in case it’s useful, here are the main ways of fleshing out your list of prospective schools:

1. Attend the Graduate Degree Fair for the Public Good or another graduate admissions fair in a city near you. No, this isn’t a commercial, it really is a good way to find schools. If you go to a fair, I challenge you to approach at least three schools that you haven’t heard of, or you wouldn’t think of applying to. Let the admissions professional know your plans for the future, and see if they surprise you.

This week: Toronto (9/18) and Washington, DC (9/19). Next week, Philadelphia (9/22). See the rest of the season schedule here.

2. Informational interviewing. Talk with professors and professionals in your field, and find out how they got where they are now, if they even went to grad school, and where they would suggest you go.

3. School associations! Many different types of schools, from international affairs to business, are affiliated with an association of similar schools. You can learn about many different programs and the degree itself through the association. We don’t have a list of school associations online that I can link to (I will work on that) but do take a look at our grad fair cosponsors, which include many types. Other school groupings include schools that offer to match the AmeriCorps Ed Award, and schools that partner with Teach For America or Peace Corps to extend benefits to participants.

4. Conversations with graduate admissions personnel, who are well-versed in the characteristics of peer schools. Some schools’s admissions staff even travel and attend recruiting events together regularly. Whenever you have a chance to speak with admissions officers, share with them what you are looking for in your ideal school or degree. They should be able to let you know what other schools to look into, and whether or not their school is a good fit for you. If their school is a good fit, be sure to ask for guidance in navigating the application and admissions process.

5. Research online through sites like Peterson’s,, and (we hope to launch a directory of public interest grad schools in 2009, but for now, search for “organizations” using key words like “graduate school,” “social work,” “MPA,” etc.)

Best of luck, and read more about grad school on our Public Service Graduate Education Resource Center!