Taking part in a “Sleeping Bag Weekend" -- an overnight stay at a potential college, often with a current student -- is a beyond-amazing way to see if a school is the right fit for you. Make sure you know what to look for and the questions to ask to make the most of your time on campus.
1. Get to know the student body
Getting a feel for the student body at a university is just as important as checking out the dining halls or facilities. Is there a lot of diversity at the school? Do the students seem friendly and helpful?
“You want to make sure that you feel comfortable with a school before you decide to go there,” says Rachel Petty, a junior at James Madison University. “There's no better way to do that than to interact with students around campus.”
The first step to interacting with the student body is to be set up with a current student for the overnight stay. If you already know someone that attends the school, like a friend, family friend or neighbor, ask if you can crash in their dorm for a weekend to see what the school is like. Getting in touch with a campus representative first is necessary because they can oftentimes set you up with free dining hall passes, a university goodie bag and other necessary items such as an official campus map and a calendar of events for the weekend. If you don’t already know someone, contact a campus representative and ask to be set up with a current student. You can also check the university website to see if there is an official accepted students weekend and what dates they offer.
Now that you know how to actually take part in an overnight weekend, focus on meeting the student body! First, think about what majors you may be interested in.
“We recommend applicants seek out under and upperclassmen pursuing different majors," David Petersam, president of AdmissonsConsultants. "Sitting in on classes is recommended and finding students in intended majors is very important."
If you’re sleeping over with a current student, ask to meet her friends. If you are going to be on a sports team, try to connect with a couple of the athletes on the team.
Remember, current students can be the best people to ask your questions to. “We advise our clients to come up a list of what is important before they visit the campus," says Petersam. "The written checklist is important. We always recommend talking to many different students as the questions asked should be subjective and answers will vary depending on who you ask.”
If you hit it off with someone, following them on Twitter or other social media is a great way to stay connected. It’s great to have at least one familiar face on a campus of strangers during the first week!
2. Check out the dining halls
In no way should a dining hall make or break your decision to attend a certain university, but you’re going to be living off this food for the next four years; believe us, you at least want to make sure it’s edible.
According to Rachel, checking out the dining facilities around campus is an absolute must during an overnight stay. And, there are many things to consider. Does the cafeteria offer healthy options, or is it basically just pizza and burgers? (In other words, exactly how fast are you going to get that Freshman 15?) Is there just one dining hall on campus or multiple? Checking whether the school provides food that accommodates your diet, should you be vegan, vegetarian or have severe food allergies, is also extremely important.
Alaina Marie Leary, a graduate student at Emerson College, did not originally look into her campus’s dining hall during her visit, and ended up deeply regretting it. “As someone who doesn't eat meat, I should have checked into what sort of items were typically served on the day-to-day at the campus, rather than relying on the food that was presented during an official tour, or what tour guides have to tell you," she says.
Beyond that, make sure you ask about the available meal plans. What are the hours of the dining hall? If you have class in the morning and work in the afternoon, are you going to miss lunch hours? The school’s website, a campus tour guide or a representative from the school or dining hall will have all of this information ready for you!
3. See where you’ll be living
Dorms are kind of like dining halls—they shouldn’t necessarily be the deciding factor of which college you go to, but you are going to have to live with it (or in this case in it) for the next couple of years.
Check what kinds of dorms the school offers. Do they just have doubles? Triples? Do any have their own private bathrooms? Are there apartment complexes or university-owned houses you can rent? If you are an incoming freshman, you probably will be in a typical double dorm with a communal bathroom somewhere on your floor.
Alaina recommends thoroughly examining the dorms if you are going to be living on campus. “It's great to get a feel for where things are before you choose where to live," she adds. "You might realize that one of the dorms has better lighting, or that one is right next to a current construction site, and that will help you make your decision.”
If you take part in an official sleepover weekend where they place you with a student or in an empty dorm, realize that they may purposefully be showing you a nicer or more updated residence hall. Make sure to take a look at the older residence halls (because that’s usually where they stick the freshmen!).
Brianna Susnak, a sophomore at Indiana University, adds that your host may also be able to show you more types of rooms. “Ask to visit their friends in different residence halls,” she says. “Plus, they may even be able to show you the buildings they have classes in depending on the time of day!”
Remember, your housing options will change over the course of your four years. Many schools require that you live on campus for at least one to two years. After that, you are free to move off campus -- or even be required to! Many will move into an apartment or house with a group of friends. Securing off-campus housing can be a very easy process and is something that can drastically reduce your cost of school.
4. Show some early school spirit
During your short sleepover weekend, immersing yourself in the college experience is one of the best things you can do. “When it comes to overnight stays at colleges, definitely maximize your time as much as you can,” says Brianna. “Ask the person you're staying with to show you their favorite restaurants to eat at, or go to an athletic event, game, concert or show that interests you.”
By showing some school spirit and experiencing all the activities campus has to offer that weekend, you will get a great idea of what campus life will be like. Keep in mind that every school is completely different. If it’s a Division I or pretty large school, the campus activities and sporting games will probably be packed. If it’s a Division III or small private school, sports may not be a huge focus. Experiencing all these things during your overnight stay is a great way to figure this out, but remember that there’s always a way to get involved on campus!
5. See what resources the school offers
Taking time to thoroughly check out the facilities at your potential school is absolutely crucial during your overnight stay. Definitely don’t leave it until move-in day!
If you know what your major is ahead of time, start with that department. Don’t just take look around, though. Ask around and learn whether the department has updated technology such as computers, iPads or tablets. Also see what kinds of services they provide. For example, if you are an English major, does the school have a writing workshop, peer review office or student editors that can look over your work? And if you’re the type of person who can’t study in your room, don’t forget to check out the library! Many often have private study rooms or quiet rooms to take advantage of.
Other important facilities to take a look at are the gym, student union and the campus chapel or religious center. Does the university offer work out classes that would interest you such as Zumba, yoga or cycling? Does the student union or student center seem like a fun, relaxing and inviting environment? Does the university hold religious services that you require? Remember, this could potentially be your home for the next four years -- checking to see if it has an abundance of resources is absolutely necessary!
6. Find out the school’s quirks and oddities
Some of the best things about colleges are the weird traditions, quirks and oddities upheld by the student body. At some schools, there are underground tunnels you can explore. At others, it’s a campus rule to never step on the university seal while walking to class.
Not only can they make the college experience fun and memorable (and asking a current student about all of them can get you so excited for college), but learning about the do’s and don’ts of your potential school ahead of time can prevent you from looking like a total freshman when you move to campus. Is wearing your lanyard around your neck a total no? Do students never walk across the quad to class? Make sure you get the scoop!
7. Get familiar with campus
Having a firm grasp of your way around campus is absolutely necessary before going to school. Taking advantage of an overnight stay is the perfect time to master your mental campus map (you will also be that freshman if you walk around the first day with a map of the school).
“If in doubt, just ask [your host] to walk around campus with you and point various things out!” says Brianna. “When I was going on overnight stays, I was surprised just how much I learned by walking around and talking with a current student.”
While you are familiarizing yourself with campus, make sure you are also committing to memory which academic building is which (you will have classes in more buildings than just the one pertaining to your major!) and where the dining and residence halls are as well as sports facilities and the gyms. Also make sure you are able to find your way around campus from more than just your host’s room—college campuses can get confusing!
8. Explore (a little) off campus
As much as you’ll be absolutely loving life on campus next fall, remember that at times, you’re going to want to get out. An overnight stay is the perfect time to take a glance at the city or town the potential college resides in, as well as to ask yourself whether you could have a fun time there, find things to do and most importantly, whether you feel safe.
Alaina adds that if you’re planning on spending time off campus, be sure you know how you can get around.
“If they can, [students] should take a look at what is in town where they'll be going to school, and what public transport is like, especially if they aren't planning to bring a car with them," she says. "Schools in really large cities typically have great transport and easy access to great activities off campus, but schools in small towns don't always have this, and it's good to know.”
She continues, “I went to undergrad in a small town and I had to take two buses just to get to the mall, and it took over an hour. That's something I wish I had looked into, not that it would have changed my decision.”
If you don’t want to spend too much time away from campus during your overnight stay, a convenient time to take a quick look around is during the journey to and from the school. Even if you just stay in the car, you’ll get a glimpse of what the surrounding area has to offer!
9. Ask about the logistics
So you’ve looked at all the fun and exciting parts of campus. Now it’s time to talk about the logistics. Make sure you touch upon very important aspects of college admissions with a campus representative.
“Questions too many applicants overlook involve entry or exit hurdles," says Petersam. "Is it easy or difficult to get admitted to a particular major/school? How many [name of group, but often times pre-med] start the program but aren’t able to complete it? What are the reasons that some can complete the program but others can’t?”
Other important questions to consider and ask include not just what the university can give to you during your four years, but also what it can provide you beyond your time as a student. “A lot of parents in this current economic climate are pressing their applicants to learn about career services and employer perceptions of the school and its students,” adds Petersam.
Have a whole laundry list of questions? Petersam advises heading online! “The time on campus is too precious to be wasted,” he warns. Many answers to your questions can easily be found online or with a quick call to the university. For example, gender ratios, admission requirements, and statistics on graduation and job placement.
For most, an overnight visit is the first look at what college is really like. Make sure you take the time to really see what that particular college is going to be like before you commit!