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As any good student of science knows, experiments are the core of the scientific method—the place where the rubber meets the road.  By the experimentation stage, you’ve decided on a question, you’ve engaged in observation, you’ve discerned a hypothesis, and you’re ready to explore that hypothesis through tests designed to prove or disprove your educated guess.

We’ve been applying this method to the college admissions process for science-math-engineering-technology-minded students.  And we last discussed the hypothesis stage, where you’ve used your imagination to see yourself in college, to make some educated guesses about what kind of a college experience you think you want.  So how do you test your college hypothesis?  How do you experiment with colleges?

The key college experiment is the college visit.  This is the opportunity to get on campus, see how your educated guesses about college measure up, and most importantly, to get a feel for the different kinds of college experiences out there.

There is an art to the college science experiment.   Almost anybody can go to a campus, grab an admissions pamphlet, and take a tour—and everybody can tool around a college website and click on the virtual tour.  The college visit can be so much more than this.  But you have to design your visit experiment to make it work.

First things first—you do need to visit colleges.  Just like you do need to conduct an experiment if you want to do science, you have to do a visit in order to do the college admissions process right.  It’s not easy, and it’s not cheap.  So you need to start early and be strategic.  You can’t cram a dozen college visits into the fall of your senior year—it just won’t work.  You need to use your sophomore and junior years.  Make it a family project.  Explore the universities near you.  Figure out other cities you might be going to for other reasons where colleges you might be interested in are located.  Do the visits.

Second, try to figure out a way to sit in on a class or two.  Try to arrange to tag along with a student in your desired major.  The courses are the beating heart of the college experience, so getting into the classroom is a key element of your college experiment.  Likewise, aspiring scientists and engineers need to get into the labs, get a feel for the facilities, and see research in action.

Third, try to arrange for an overnight stay.  College is far more than just classes and labs.  It’s dormitories and dining halls and, yes, parties.  Getting into the residence halls and test driving the social scene can be an incredibly informative part of the college experiment process.

Fourth, like any good scientist, ask questions.  Lots of them.  On the tour.  In the admissions office.  Wandering campus.  People will talk to you, particularly when you let them know you’re a potential student.  Satisfy your curiosities about college through the art of conversation and inquiry.  It will help you not only get information, but get a sense of what the people are like on campus.

And finally, take notes, like any good scientist would.  Write down your experiences during your visits—on your way home, or when you get home, take some time to journal about your visit.  You’ll find they’re invaluable later on when you’re making decisions about where to apply.  And not only that, your notes will be a huge help with your applications—colleges often ask you to describe why you want to go to that particular college, and answers rooted in observations about your visits are more likely to resonate authenticity.

This experimentation phase of the college admissions process should play to the strengths of science- and math-minded students—it provides grist for their keen observational and analytical skills, and gives them something tangible and less theoretical to work with in making decisions about college.  It requires careful planning and a lot of effort.  But as with any science experiment, a well-executed college visit experiment can lead to real discoveries, both about college and about yourself.

By Jenny Umhofer