A Guide to Touring Large Universities

6 Feb 2018

Julia Clausen | March Consulting Copywriter

I attended a very large state university with about 25,000 students in the freshman class alone.

Additionally, most of the campuses I toured before making my final decision were also enormous, and it often felt that, no matter how many hours I spent walking around, I would always be missing something important.

With larger schools there are always at least five types of dorms, thousands of classrooms, and more social groups and on-campus organizations than any one person can imagine. It feels less like a school and more like a small city.

However, after attending a state school, I can promise you that these vast institutions are not as overwhelming as they seem, as long as you know what to look for.

So, without further ado, here are the guidelines for touring large campuses:

First of all, come with a list of specific questions.

Tour guides only have time to skim the surface of the large variety of experiences available at their school, but chances are they know a lot more. If you ask about a particular dorm, or activity, or major, they probably know someone who has experience with it, even if they themselves do not.

Questions to ask the tour guide:

  1. Which dorms they lived in and why?

Are the dorms small community houses or large skyscrapers? Are they really far away from classrooms or right next door? Dorms are often the first places students make friends, especially because first year classes tend to be on the larger side, so be sure the dorms have the type of environment you’re interested in.

2. Where to find the best/cheapest food, and is a meal plan worth it?

Sometimes at big schools the food can be, let’s face it, pretty terrible. So many mouths to feed and so much food to keep fresh. I have heard horror stories of starched lettuce, grainy meat, and watery eggs, but I have also heard of (and eaten) just the opposite. Food is a huge part of the college experience that most applicants don’t think about, so know your own eating/cooking habits and choose accordingly.

3. What is the school known for socially?

Which extracurricular activities are most famous or popular? For instance, my university has a state-of-the-art video-gaming tournament room, is nationally ranked in Quidditch, and is known internationally as the largest hub for Asian dance crews outside of Korea. That tells you a lot more about where I went to school than the fact that the biology department is popular.

4. What are the general study habits of students.

Is it a work hard/play hard kind of school? Or just one or the other? Believe it or not, even large campuses tend to have a fairly unified culture. Of course, there will always be social spaces that are different from the norm, but make sure you’ll feel comfortable in the school as a whole before you take the plunge.

5. What are the campus legends?

Are there secret tunnels underneath the park? Are there haunted dorm rooms or good-luck rituals? Campus legends help keep a student body unified and can reveal a lot about the general “vibe” of the school.

6. Where are the best places to hang out in-between classes?

With big schools, students can choose whether or not they want to be in the center of all the action. From hidden rocks or benches to crowded pubs, there are spaces suited to every type of person.

7. What is the campus like on weekends?

State schools are the most popular choice for students who want to save money and commute from home. Places where this is common are called “commuter schools.” Sometimes students will even live in the dorms during the week and then drive home for the weekend. If you’re the type of student who loves a Saturday night out, maybe avoid one of these campuses, or find the dorms where students tend to stick around.

8. What activities are within walking/driving distance of campus?

This will tell you whether a school is more cozy and isolated (like University of Arizona) or right in the center of the action (like UCLA). This can have an effect on whether students tend to involve themselves in on-campus activities or go off-campus to have fun. If you’re not bringing a car, this is a good thing to consider.

9. What is the stereotypical student at this school like?

Every university has a stereotype, and even though this doesn’t encompass the diversity of a campus, it can give a general sense of who will feel most comfortable on campus. For instance, UC Berkeley students are known for being competitive overachievers who weren’t able to get into Stanford. (Don’t believe me? Try going to stanfordrejects.com.) UC Santa Barbara is known for having the most attractive students. (Other UC students often joke that a headshot is required to apply for UCSB.) For more UC stereotypes, check out this fun video.


Secondly, if you can, speak to someone from your department or major.

Just because a school is known for Biology, doesn’t mean its English department or Philosophy of Science department (Yes, that is a thing.) won’t be internationally recognized. My university has a literary theory department that was founded by one of the most famous postmodern philosophers in the world and also has one of the most exclusive creative writing MFA programs in the country, but your average tour guide wouldn’t know that. In fact, I didn’t even know that until my sophomore year.

Try to set up an appointment with an advisor from your prospective department, look online for an opportunity to meet or email with a student, or just walk around that section of campus after your tour and ask random students about their academic experience.


Which leads me to my final point: Walk around on your own after the tour!

Tour guides have a set path that they follow, and it often covers very little of the campus as a whole. Give yourself some time to wander, and ask yourself whether you can really see yourself living in this environment. Is it a campus with lots of mountains or hills that would get tiring quickly (or provide beautiful views)? Maybe the parts you were shown by the tour guide were beautiful, but just beyond that path it’s all dirt. Or, on the other hand, maybe the tour didn’t reveal the true beauty of the campus.

Get lost through secret passages and find all the old, charming buildings hidden in the corners. Look at the students. Do they look busy or relaxed? What kind of clothes are they wearing? Find a park or recreational area and see what activities are most popular. Is it more sporty or crafty or nerdy?

For me, this “private tour” was the most helpful part in deciding which campus to call my new home.


The most important thing is to believe there is a more to a big school than meets the eye, so treat the campus visit like a treasure hunt. What secrets can you uncover? What’s hiding just beneath the surface that could allow you to fall in love with the school?

In the end, state schools can feel just as warm and inviting as tiny schools and can have just as much quirky charm as any liberal arts institution, you just have to do a little digging to find it.

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