Great Moments in Campus Visits

It's college admissions season, which means a steady influx of high-school seniors thinking about coming here next year, making campus visits. Most of these students sit in on at least one class, to get an idea of what it's like. Which occasionally leads to odd things, but nothing stranger than what just happened: a prospective student just sat in on my junior/senior level elective class on quantum mechanics in the state-vector formalism. I suspect he didn't get a whole lot out of today's lecture, on changing state vectors and operators from one basis to another. In fact, I suspect this might be in the running for the Worst Campus Visit EVER.

(Due to the way first-year classes are scheduled, we don't offer any of the intro classes in the 9:15 MWF class block. Apparently, he started to go to the pre-med physics class downstairs, but they told him it was aimed at life-science majors, and sent him upstairs to look for the engineering physics class. But my class is the only physics class offered in that time slot, so he ended up hearing more than I suspect he ever wanted to know about matrix representations and basis rotations...)

I'm never entirely sure that students get much useful information out of these visits, anyway. Thinking back on my own experience, I'm not sure the physics classes I went to told me anything I didn't already know. 100-level physics classes tend to be taught in giant lecture halls, maybe with some demos, and were all more or less the same, over a wide range of institutions (Williams, MIT, Cornell).

Really, the highlight of my college visits in terms of classes attended was at Swarthmore, where one of my student hosts insisted that I HAD to go to a Psych 101 class taught by a particular professor. Which wound up being the most fun of any of the classes-- I remember the professor going on at length about how Freud was a pretty whacked-out dude, and I think they also showed a short movie about the infamous Milgram experiment. That's the only psychology class I ever attended anywhere, but it was a good time, and probably at least as informative as any of the more relevant classes I attended.

I suspect that, when the time comes for SteelyKid to do the college search thing, circa 2026, that'll be my advice to her: if you do the overnight visit thing, ask your student hosts to recommend the best professor/class combination on the list of open classes. If you know what you plan to major in, you should definitely make a point of visiting the relevant department(s), and talking to whatever faculty and students they have available to talk to prospective students, but I'm not sure that sitting in on one class selected more or less at random from the intro offerings is going to tell you all that much. So find something fun, and go to that.

What's your best (or worst) college visit story?

More like this

Monday is the decision deadline for accepted students to decide whether they're coming here next year, and we've had a slow parade of people getting tours of the department and suchlike over the last few weeks. We've also had a couple "Open House" events, where accepted students and their families…
One of the many things I wish I had had time to blog about during the just-completed term was the big New York Times article on attrition in science majors. This generated enough commentary at the time that people are probably sick of it, but I haven't seen anything that exactly matches my take, so…
Over at Dot Physics, Rhett is trying to learn his students' names: I have students sitting at tables (in this class and in labs). As they are working on something, I go around and write down who is sitting where. Yes, this means that you have to actually ask each student what their names is (I hate…
Inside Higher Ed has a short piece today on a lecture given to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching by Carl Wieman on how to teach science. Though, from the sound of it, it was mostly about how not to teach science. During the talk on Friday, Wieman said that traditional science…

Last semester in my Advanced Inorganic Chemistry course (also a junior/senior level course) I had 4 or 5 prospective students sit in throughout the semester. I think some of them may have been lost (at the beginning of the lecture, I mean. I'm sure they were lost by the end) since the intro chem course was in the next room over.

But if the students came out with an understanding of molecular group theory or ligand field theory, all the better.

I didn't have the time or money to do much campus visiting as a high schooler/prospective-undergrad. I just spent an hour being shown around the University of Nebraska's physics department by the department chair, trying to convince me that my local state university would still give me a quality physics education. (It must have worked, or else I got a severe case of sticker shock when I saw what going to college out of state or at a private school would cost.)

In grad school, the most memorable visit was to Arizona State: I over-exerted myself on a hike in the desert park because it was March and I hadn't adjusted to 70/80-degree weather, two local bars refused to let me come in because I had an out-of-state ID card (while noting my companions' out-of-state driver's licenses were fine), and then I wrote down the wrong time for my return flight, causing me to trust to the luck of flying standby to get back to Lincoln. This was also the only Physics and Astronomy department I visited, so there was some awkwardness when most of the visiting prospectives were astronomers, but most of the grad students and professors helping were physicists.

By Becca Stareyes (not verified) on 08 Apr 2011 #permalink

We had a couple of prospective undergrads wander into my solid state class back in undergrad. This class had probably the worst teacher I've had to deal with, solid state is not an easily accessible class, and the lecture itself was simply one long derivation that no-one understood (and kept on being punctuated with errors).

We apologized to the students afterwards.

We had a couple of prospective undergrads wander into my solid state class back in undergrad. This class had probably the worst teacher I've had to deal with, solid state is not an easily accessible class, and the lecture itself was simply one long derivation that no-one understood (and kept on being punctuated with errors).

We apologized to the students afterwards.

As a high school sophomore, my parents gave me a birthday present - a trip to Cambridge, MA. Unfortunately I woke up that morning with a vicious case of food poisoning. I insisted that I Was Fine, Dammit. I made it through the plane ride (spent most of it in the bathroom), where I rounded up every barf bag in a four-aisle radius, because I knew I was going to need them - I had a tour of MIT that afternoon. Fortunately, the tour was in late afternoon; by that time my digestive tract was out of ammunition, and I only barfed once. Then I went back to the hotel and had a can of ginger-ale for my birthday dinner.

This wasn't my worst tour, actually. In my senior year, I spent the night at a certain school that rhymes with Barvard...let's just say I went to MIT instead.

I can't remember if I sat in on any classes back in 1985 or thereabouts when I was looking at colleges. However, I do remember my worst college visit. It was Caltech. I'd flown down from the Bay Area for the day to visit Caltech and Harvey Mudd. I flew down with my Dad, who was going on business (and who stayed a few more days after I flew back that night, so as not to miss more than one day of school).

We got to Caltech, and got to the admissions office. We sat there for 15 or 20 minutes watching a video they had of news reports about Caltech's ditch day. Then, the admissions person came out and said that the student that was going to take us around hadn't shown up, but here was a campus map if we wanted to try looking around on our own.

I didn't even apply to Caltech after that. Harvey Mudd, on the other hand, was the place I ended up going.

(The other "bad" campus visit was Stanford, where the student giving the tour did a good job of convincing us that Stanford was, in fact, a place where rich kids with good grades went to party for a few years. That was very much not what I was looking for in a College....)

I went to Harvey Mudd, and was nearly run down by the members of their unicycle dorm.

You read that right, unicycle dorm. Rob Knop can attest to this fact.

By Herp N. Derpington (not verified) on 08 Apr 2011 #permalink

I know the students come not to see the academic side but to get a *feel* of the school. They care about having fun and seeing the day-to-day student life.

My youngest did a weekend at her top prospect over the Presidents' Day Weekend. We were to get her there by Saturday lunchtime and pick her up after Monday lunch. Pitch and social stuff Saturday and Sunday, but Monday morning she sat in on three or four classes. When I picked her up, she told me that this was where she was going.

While not my worst campus visit, the most cringe worthy moment of the whole process was a tour at a SLAC by a student who said she was a bio major. We stopped by the planetarium where the tour guide started talking about astrology classes being fun and popular. A parent who was an alum said "you mean astronomy right?" The guide said "astronomy, astrology same thing."

The other memorable moment was in a sociology class where the was some discussion of religion and the professor stated "Lutheran's don't dance, like in Footloose." No qualifiers or anything. Having been Lutheran my whole life and never having heard of such a thing, I was not impressed. While there was a strain of non-dancing Lutherans it was long dead in the mainstream by then.

By katydid13 (not verified) on 12 Apr 2011 #permalink

The only campus visit I remember was to a SLAC where I attended a lit seminar discussing Their Eyes Were Watching God. I loved the atmosphere of being in a small class talking about the sort of book that we never read at my school - and I loved that the students were so engaged. It was, however, the only time I felt at home at that college, where everyone was very nice but the student culture was not what I was looking for.

I suspect upper-level humanities courses are more accessible to visiting high school students than upper-level science courses.

Hilariously, my one and only great class visit as a senior in high school was at...Swarthmore. I actually decided to go to Swat on the basis of that class, pretty much entirely.

For me, the class visit was less about learning something, and more about seeing what the student-professor interaction was like. At Swarthmore, students actually asked questions, offered opinions, and seemed to be engaging with the material; at other schools (including similarly-profiled ones like Amherst) the professor was desperately trying to get students to talk, and they just weren't.

By Catherine (not verified) on 14 Apr 2011 #permalink

Funny, I think I went to that same Swat class...the professor with the curly hair and all the books on how too much choice is irrational. I did end up going to Swarthmore, so it clearly worked.