From selfie stations to scavenger hunts, dorm overnights to tours of hidden gems, prospective college students are seeing it all on campus visits this fall.
Admissions experts say the visits, which kick into high gear this weekend, are critical in order for students to get a realistic look at college life beyond a scripted tour and statistics found in a glossy brochure.
“Visiting a college in person is the best way to determine whether or not the school is a good match for the student’s personal and academic needs and goals,’’ said Mindy Popp, founder of Popp & Associates, an independent college counseling firm in Wellesley Hills. “Only a college visit will enable a student to appreciate a college’s culture and community.’’
Local colleges all offer traditional tours for families, but knowing how first impressions can profoundly impact whether a student applies and attends, officials say they are offering students more than a walk around campus.
“They are turned off by the staged stuff,’’ said Bryan Gross, vice president for enrollment management at Western New England University in Springfield. “They want authentic.’’
One way Western New England is engaging students is by using social media, Gross said. Prospective students are given a map with three designated “selfie stations” around campus. When students post a selfie on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook during their visit using a special hashtag, it appears on big-screen TV in the admissions office and they receive a free T-shirt at the end of their tour.
“It’s a campaign that’s really taken off,’’ Gross said. “The high schools students love it.’’
The college will also using Periscope, a live video streaming app, to broadcast admissions events, a student-initiated idea that Gross said will give a behind-the-scenes look on campus.
Wellesley College has a Discover Wellesley Weekend Oct. 18 and 19 during which high school seniors visit classes, spend the night in a dorm, eat in the cafeteria, and attend events on campus.
They also have an opportunity to meet with a group of students representing different backgrounds and interests, said Lauren Dennis, Wellesley’s associate director of admissions.
“It helps students hear the authentic story, not admission-speak,’’ Dennis said. “I encourage my students to be honest and prepared to say what they don’t like. We don’t want to present Utopia. We want them to see the good and the bad because that’s real life.’’
Dennis said she encourages visiting students to ask questions that matter to them, even if they seem silly.
“What do you think of the food or ask what people get really riled up about,’’ she said. “That’s more telling about the vibe on campus than how big the classes are.’’
One way Wheaton College in Norton tries to give students the real scoop is by using student volunteer tour guides, a recent shift from paid staff members, said Grant Gosselin, vice president and dean of admission and student aid.
“Our guests can see that the guides aren’t required to be there but love the place and want to show it off,’’ Gosselin said. “They know that they are getting volunteers and hearing the real story. That’s really important to us.’’
Wheaton also offers Fall Visiting Days, half-day events that give students more time to explore campus, Gosselin said. On Wednesday, Nov. 11, one program features a broad overview of the college, while the other allows prospective students to work in labs with current students and faculty in science and math fields.
“We’ve always viewed it as one of the most influential parts of a search process,’’ Gosselin said. “They don’t really get a full sense of a culture of the institution and the unique opportunities that away them there until they can visit. We try to expose them to what their life would be like. We do everything we can to give them that quick snapshot.’’
Some schools are putting a unique twist to the traditional tour. Regis College in Weston is now offering evening tours to accommodate the hectic lifestyles of today’s families. The college provides dinner in the cafeteria and gives a tour of the campus and facilities.
Newbury College in Brookline, and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester have used scavenger hunts and Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley has a “My Favorite Places’’ tour for those who have already participated in the traditional visit.
Catarina Costa, associate dean of admission at Mount Holyoke, said the tour is individualized by the guide. One guide takes families into the radio station, the greenhouse and the fitness center – all places that aren’t on the regular tour.
“All I tell them is to pick two to four favorite spots on campus so people can get a glimpse of some spots that they wouldn’t ordinarily see,’’ she said. “Rather than a highly-scripted experience, it’s more conversational.’’
Costa said the tours have been well received by students and parents. But whether students take a traditional tour or have a behind-the-scenes look, the most important part is spending some time on campus, she said.
“In the college selection process, it is a pivotal experience in determining whether a college will remain, be added to or removed from a list,’’ said Costa. “To get a first-hand experience of meeting current students and seeing the facilities and hearing about the programmatic opportunities and resources is crucial. It is a must do.’’Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.