Reasons to Do a College Overnight Visit, and What to Expect

A Detailed Look at an Overnight Stay on a College Campus

College Dorm Room
College Dorm Room. Erin Patrice O'Brien / Taxi / Getty Images

8 Reasons to Do an Overnight Visit:​

Overnight visits on college campuses can be daunting: you get thrown into an entirely new environment and social situation, dependent on your current student host for information, directions, food, and a piece of floor to sleep on. It's all worth it, though. An overnight stay can be invaluable to you in uncovering the true college culture hiding behind the glossy brochures and inspiring slogans.

It's an important tool for helping you choose the perfect college. Here's why you should leave the nest and spend a night in college:

1. You'll Meet Current Students Who Don't Work for Admissions

Tour guides, overnight hosts, and anyone else who has a standing relationship with Admissions got there because they adore their school and they want to spread the word--and they may be less inclined to talk critically about the college you're visiting. That's not to say that they're not being genuine: it's likely that the college is just a great fit for them, so they don't have many downsides to discuss. But, before you make your decision (whether it's to send an application or to send in your first deposit), it's a good idea to have a more balanced concept of the school.

Lucky for you, if you do an overnight visit, you'll get to meet your host's friends, roommates, and floormates. They won't all be the super enthusiastic cheerleader types when it comes to talking about their college experience.

This is your chance to ask current students who aren't part of the Admissions operation about what they like and what they don't like about their college experience.

2. You'll See What Campus Is Like on a Weeknight

You're going to spend more weeknights than weekend nights in college. An overnight visit is the perfect chance to find out what evenings at the college you're visiting are like.

You'll get answers to questions that will help you gauge what kind of work-life balance current students have. "Are people hanging out together?" "Are they studying intensely or casually or not at all?" "What kinds of events (speakers, performances, screenings, club meetings) happen on weeknights?" You also have a good chance on an overnight visit to ask current students work-life questions, i.e. "how many hours do you tend to study on weeknights? on weekends?" Granted, quantity of work tends  to increase at certain times in the semester, but it's still pretty telling if they all look up from behind a huge stack of library books and tell you in a frazzled tone that they never have any fun.

3. You'll Go to Classes, Sometimes with Your Host

You can attend classes on most college campuses without doing an overnight visit, but for all you shrinking violets out there, if you do an overnight visit, you have the opportunity to accompany your host or your host's friend to class (or you can strike out on your own, of course). Perk 1: when you're choosing classes to go visit, you can get your host and others to weigh in on their favorite professors or courses so that you'll see the best teaching the college has to offer.

Perk 2: when you're sitting with current students, they can show you their class materials so that you're not completely lost, and when it's all done, they can give you an honest opinion of the professor as compared to other professors they've had in the department. Perk 3: you'll feel just a little bit more legitimate when you're under a current student's wing. (Keep in mind that college academics are very different from high school.)

4. You'll Eat in a Dining Hall Surrounded by Current Students

Colleges vary on whether or not they allow visitors to campus to eat in their dining halls. By doing an overnight visit, you are guaranteed to eat what the current students eat, and even better, you'll eat it with them. Dinner after a long day of classes is a great way to see lots of current students interacting with each other, and for you to ask lots and lots of questions of your host's friends.

5. You'll Live in the Dorms for a Night

Most campus tours do include a visit to a dorm room, but sometimes Admissions is sneaky and sends tours to a particularly spacious new dorm, immaculately decorated, of course. An overnight visit is a good opportunity to see what living in a regular dorm is like--and to ask your host and his or her friends about the housing situation at the college. It's also useful to observe how people living on the same floor interact. Do they smile at each other and chat in the halls? Or is it clear that dorms are just a place to sleep? And most importantly, which do you prefer?

6. You Can Attend Club Meetings or Other Campus Events

Good news! Lots of things happen on college campuses on weeknights--club meetings, lectures, performances, art openings, intramural sports, performance rehearsals. When you're with your host, ask questions about what things are going on that evening, and if anything strikes your fancy, see if you can arrange to go. Even if your host doesn't usually attend the meeting of your favorite organization ever or can't go to the performance you really want to see, they can usually find one of their friends who's involved or who's free, or you can go by yourself. Alternately, your host may have a meeting/performance/lecture he or she needs to attend, and even if you're not sure it's your cup of tea, it's not a bad idea to tag along--something might surprise you.

7. You Might Meet Your Future Classmates

Are you overnighting during an on-campus program, like admitted students' weekend or a spring preview event? Getting to know other high school seniors who are interested in or have been admitted to the same school as you can be a really fun experience. It's a great chance to meet people interested in similar things and to scope out who might be in the incoming class--in other words, your potential future classmates. Once you've run through the gamut of predictable questions -- "What's your name? Where are you from? Where else did you apply?

What do you want to study? What are your interests?" -- you can sit back, chat, and attend events with your little-while friend. Who knows? Maybe you'll both end up back on the same campus come September and can reconnect then.

8. You Can Do a Better Job of Imagining Yourself There

For many people, deciding where they want to go to college all comes down to fit, i.e. whether or not the college has the combination of academic programs, extracurricular opportunities, community support, location, and social scene that they're looking for. Some of these variables are easy to figure out--just visit the college's website or take a campus tour and you'll get a laundry list of the college's academic and residential programs, information about its location, and a catalogue of its student organizations. But surfing the web and even taking a tour won't help you figure out what a class discussion in an area of your academic interest is like, and it won't tell you how you fit into a standard evening hanging out with friends in the dorms. At the bottom of it all, that's the real value of doing an overnight visit: you'll experience a day-in-the-life at the college you're considering, which means that you'll be better equipped to accurately envision yourself spending the next four years of your life there. 

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What to Expect During a College Overnight Visit:

In my years as a campus tour guide and overnight host, I ran into my share of prospective students who alternately glared and cast piteous looks at their horrible, cruel parents who were forcing them to endure a miserable night of independence getting an insider’s look at a college they were considering.

This is a nasty situation for everyone involved: for you, the prospective student, because obviously you’re miserable, and for me, the host, because I feel super awkward now that I’ve seen how terrified/angry you are but still have to spend the next 20 hours with you.

So, in an effort to show you how painless and worthwhile doing an overnight visit is, let me host a hypothetical college visit for you right here and now.

The Meeting: the Slightly-Awkward-But-Still-Fun Part

Late in the afternoon on the fateful visit day, I arrive at the Admissions Office and check in with the receptionist, who confirms that you’re here. She points to where you and your parent are sitting on a couch with your overnight bag. I walk over.

Now, please don’t be terrified. I’ve seen the fear in your fellow prospective students’ eyes when I’ve come to meet them--like I’m a cross between some blindingly brilliant sophisticate and a malignant Wookiee thing that’s come to rip you away from your mother.

Actually, I’m a person who is probably only a few years older than you. I’m feeling sort of tired, because I stayed up late trying to get all my homework for today and tomorrow done so that I don’t have to do too much of it when you’re here. It’s possible that I got up early to finish cleaning my room and put on a nice upstanding-citizen-looking outfit (read: not sweatpants). I’m interested to meet you, but it’s a little awkward that you’re going to sleep on my floor tonight and really all I know about you is your name, email address (maybe--and if so, we probably corresponded a little bit before you came), and the fact that you have the good taste to want to come check out my school.

Now I’m introducing myself, shaking hands with you and your parent. I’m trying to be extra nice and charming because I really want you to feel welcomed and comfortable. I explain to your parent that you’ll be all finished with your overnight at about lunchtime tomorrow. Then I grab for whatever luggage you have, trying to sweep aside your protestations. It’s part of the charming thing.

We walk out of the Admissions Office, hopefully chatting a bit about your trip to campus and whether or not you’ve been here before, and I point us toward my residence hall. If conversation falters, I play tour guide a bit as we pass through the center of campus. Note: conversation must not falter at this point. I’m awkward, you’re awkward, and the only thing that’ll make it worse is if we have an awkward silence. That’s why I’m chattering away like one of our overfed and likely deranged campus squirrels.

We arrive at my residence hall and go upstairs to my room. I probably make some lame crack about “uh, hope you like to climb mountains because my room is on the third floor!” Please bear with me and give me a weak smile. I’m going a little nuts here.

I get out my keys and open the door and reflexively apologize for the clutter as I dump your bag in a corner of my room while you stare at my decorations. I hope you find them cool; I really do. Then I ask you to pull up a bit of my bed or my bean bag chair (college hospitality at it’s finest) and I begin in earnest on our first real conversation.

My first question will probably be whether or not you’d like an informal, personalized tour of the campus before dinner. I’ll especially push this if you haven’t taken an official tour before, but you should feel free to say yes or no. I’m just here to offer options; you’re here to call the shots. (Note: if you’re not familiar with campus, it can be really cool to get your own special tour, so if your host offers to show you around a bit, it’s not a bad idea to take them up on it).

Whatever we’ve elected to do--stay in my room until dinner time, or walk around--this is the time when we’re going to get to know each other. I’m going to ask you lots of questions about your academic interests, the things you do for fun, and your high school; you’re hopefully going to ask me lots of questions about my academic, extracurricular, and social experiences at this college that you’re considering.

This is the time for you to ask me the fun questions (Why do you love it here? What’s your best memory of your first year?) but also the hard ones (What’s your biggest complaint about the classes? Does literally everyone get drunk here every Friday night? Are people really judge-y?). I’m not being a tour guide right now; I’m not going to give you an airbrushed vision of life here. So ask me the things that you’re afraid to ask anywhere else--I’m going to give you my best straight answer.

The Evening: the All-In-Good-Fun Part

We’re engrossed in our conversation when the rapscallions I have for friends creep through my door and burst in on us in their loud, excited, hopefully-not-too-overwhelming glory. I introduce you and they tell you their names in rapid succession (don’t worry, they won’t expect you to remember those later) and then provide you with such touchingly specific testimonials as “Yeah, so, our college is AWESOME. You will totally love it here!” 

The scalawags explain that the reason for their exuberance is that it’s dinner time. So we all troop to the dining hall, where you learn that college life revolves around food and not much else.

I’m back to being proprietary again. Seriously, I’m hovering around you sounding like a worried babysitter: Does this food look okay? Do you have any allergies? Can I get you a drink from the juice machine? (Subtext: do I still look like Chewbacca, mean version? Come on, throw me a bone here).

At dinner we sit with the imps. They’re a little more civilized after a few minutes of shoveling food into their mouths. In fact, we play a fun and sort of awkward game. We all go around the table and say our names again, talk about our majors, where we’re from, blood type, SSN, favorite flavor of ice cream--you know, our college student vital stats. And we mention why we chose this school and why we like it so much. This isn’t our weird ritual. We’re doing it for you (or rather, I’m doing it for you, and the unhinged ones are doing it partly for you and partly out of love for me), because we all know how helpful it is in your college decision process to hear how and why others made their choice. 

Dinner time: this is your chance to see my little college community in action--and observe many other groups, lounging around their own tables for a post-dinner chat--and maybe to envision yourself doing exactly that in a year or so. Listen to what we talk about; listen when we complain. You’ll find your insider perspective hiding in the little things.

For the rest of the evening, we have options. Option A: I approach you sheepishly and explain that I still have some homework to finish up for tomorrow (hopefully you brought a book or some work of your own along; if you didn’t, I’m in a sort of awkward spot and will probably end up begging a friend to have fun with you for an hour while I’m speed-reading). We go to the library/campus cafe/study room/my room to work for a bit.

Option B: I again approach you, less sheepishly this time, and ask if you’d like to go to a performance/organization meeting/lecture/another campus event that I’m guessing you might like. Note: if proposed thing isn’t, so to speak, your thing, please don’t go just to be polite. This is your night to see the campus. You call the shots, remember?

Option C: We stay in and hang out or watch a movie or get silly on the internet with the hooligans.

After Options A, B, or C, we probably go for a walk downtown, maybe go have ice cream in the necessary college town frozen treats joint. Then we come back, arrange your air mattress so that I don’t step on your head on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, brush our teeth, and turn in for the night.

The Morning: the Nerd-tastic Fun Part

Warning: I’m groggy in the morning. I’ll probably rasp out a “Good morning, how’d you sleep?” while rubbing my eyes and remembering that yes, I do have old Professor Crazy in a little over an hour. So don’t take it personally.

We both shower and then do some delicate negotiating over who gets the room for changing purposes (good practice for you, soon-to-be college first-year-student living with a roommate in the cupboard under the stairs). I’m foregoing sweats for a second day in a row, all for you.  

We grab a quick breakfast with the rascals and then head off towards class. You may have elected to go with me to my first class (Professor Crazy) or taken one of my friends up on their offer to take you to their morning class, or you may have decided to strike out on your own. If it’s either of the last two, my mother hen is probably showing again. It’s so hard when you get all intrepid on me and strike out on your own, my sweet chicks.

I hope you enjoy the class(es) you’re visiting today. I hope they impress you and interest you, I hope you enjoy the lively classroom discussion, and I hope you appreciate the academic eccentricities of Professor Crazy. Please, please come back with a fun anecdote or fascinating fact that you learned. I don’t want to admit it, but I’m getting a bit exhausted with being super vivacious and hearing my own blabbing all the time. I’d love to hear what you thought about your class instead.

Oh, and before we move on: if you go to class by yourself, please introduce yourself to the professor beforehand. This is so that a) they don’t get weirded out by the random new person in their class and oh, say, stop the class mid-lecture to ask who you are b) they don’t absentmindedly call on you, thus perpetrating a rather embarrassing situation for both of you and c) so that you get to meet and talk to a real live college professor in a subject area that interests you. Not a bad deal.

The Goodbye: the Sappy-But-Awkward Fun Part

I meet you outside your classroom building. Luckily, you’re feeling talkative about your class experiences and we chat about that on the way to lunch.

The scamps are back and boisterous at lunchtime, and you get some more snippets to add to your insider’s perspective. You ask your last hard-hitting, Walter Cronkite-esque question of us. Then we leave to go get your bags out of my room and trudge back to the Admissions Office.

Here comes our last bit of awkwardness together: we say goodbye (warning: I’m probably going to go for the hug. I did spend the last 20 hours of my life with you as my shadow, you know). I tell you I really hope you enjoyed your stay and that you won’t hesitate to send me an email if you have any more questions. I genuinely hope you’ll end up here, in this place that I care about enough to try to show a complete stranger its ropes for a night and a morning.

Really, do send me an email. I may be a busy college student, but I’m not a Wookiee over the internet, either.

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