Carolyn Z. Lawrence Educational Consultant

Tips For Making The Most Of Your College Visits

Tips For Students

Ask questions. College visits are your best chance to ask questions about the stuff that matters to you most.  Put together a list of three to four questions that cover your greatest concerns about academics and life on campus.  Ask those questions at every school you visit. 

Don't be shy.  Yes, it can feel a little intimidating at first to be walking around a college campus.  But, colleges receive thousands of visits from high school students every year.  You are not sticking out nearly as much as you think.  On tours, walk up at the front with the tour guide, and don't be afraid to ask questions.

Peek into a “real” dorm room and bathroom.  If you can, check out a dorm room and dorm bathroom besides the one they show on the tour.  Can you see yourself living here?

Eat in a student dining hall.  Four years is a long time to go without eating, so try to eat in a campus dining hall.  Dining halls are often also good places to observe what students are like, and get a sense of the social atmosphere.

Spend time walking around campus on your own.  Sure, you’ll probably be visiting with your parents, but when you actually go to college, mom and dad won’t be coming with you.  So, at some point during your time on campus, break away from your parents and walk around on your own for 15-20 minutes.  Ask yourself:  Is this a place where I can see myself being comfortable for four years?

Talk to students besides the tour guide.  Although it may be tough to strike up a conversation with a student on a busy campus, try to do so if you can.  Tour guides give you the “official” story of life on campus, but you want to know what it’s really like to go to school there.  Two good questions to ask:  “What do you like to do on the weekends around here?” and “If you could it over, would you pick this school again?” 

Talk to a professor and sit in on a class.  When scheduling your visit, ask admissions if it is possible to meet with a professor in your prospective major and sit in on a class in an academic subject that interests you while you’re on campus.  While this might seem intimidating, you’ll learn much more about the academic climate on campus this way then you will from just going on the tour or attending the formal admissions presentation.

Explore the surrounding area.  You’ll want to get off campus from time to time – what is there to do within walking distance of campus?  Do you feel safe walking in the surrounding area?  How friendly are the locals?  Don't just drive through the surrounding neighborhood; get out of the car and walk around.

Read the campus bulletin boards. Campus bulletin boards often contain clues about campus social life, the political hot buttons of students, and even whether it’s easy to find a ride home to where you live for spring break.  The student union is a particularly good place to peruse bulletin boards.

Read the student newspaper.  You’ll usually find the student newspaper in a rack near the door of the main library or student union. Don’t leave campus without getting hold of the latest issue.  Read it for insight into life on campus.  If possible, keep a copy for future reference.

Write down your impressions and take pictures.  After a few visits, colleges will start to blur together in your mind.  As soon as possible after your visit, write down your impressions of each school for future reference.  Take your camera (or cell phone) and snap as many pictures as you can of whatever catches your eye.  When you’re trying to answer application essay questions about why you want to attend this school, you’ll be glad to have your notes and the photos to refer back to.

Enjoy this exciting adventure. College visits offer an exciting glimpse of your future.  They are a chance to explore what it will be like to live on your own, study subjects you love, and make decisions for yourself. Treat college visits as an adventure, and have a good time!

Tips For Parents

Be selective.  Less is actually more when it comes to college visits; visiting twenty colleges (or more!) can be counter-productive and confusing.  College visits will be more productive if you focus on visiting the schools that seem like the best fits for your child while being sure to include a good mix of safe bets, realistic matches, and reach colleges.

Be realistic. Most students find campus visits – especially those first ones – tiring and a bit overwhelming.  Aim for no more than two campus visits each day; one visit a day is better, unless the colleges are located very close to each other.  Allow at least three hours for each visit, including time to wander around campus and the surrounding area after the tour.  A visit may take up most of the day if your child is going to be meeting with an admissions officer or a faculty member, sitting in on a class, or attending a more formal admissions presentation. 

Be flexible.  Almost every parent who has ever accompanied their child on a college tour has a story about the college (or colleges) where their child simply would not get out of the car.  When this happens, just calmly move on to the next school.

Blend into the background.  A campus visit is a chance for your child to “try on” their future.  Most assuredly, when they picture themselves attending college, mom and dad are not on campus with them.  So, blend into the background while you’re on campus.  Let your child ask the questions and walk up front next to the tour guide, while you hang in the back of the tour group.  Most important of all: give your child some space and time to walk around campus on their own after the formal tour, without you tagging along. 

If your child will be interviewing with admissions while you are on campus, it is especially important to take a back seat. Remember this is your child’s interview, not yours!  While most admissions reps will invite parents in to say hello at the end of the interview, this is not an invitation to chime in with things you think admissions should know about your child, or to ask what your child’s chances of admission are.  Similarly, if you and your child will be visiting academic departments, a coach, or the office of disabilities services, let your child take the lead. 

Visit the financial aid office, the security office, and the career services office.  Most families visit the admissions office while on campus, but few think to pay a visit to the financial aid office, the security office, or career services.  Yet, doing so is your opportunity, as a parent, to ask important questions about the cost of attendance and financial aid; safety on campus and in the surrounding area; and the school’s record of helping graduates find jobs.  Most kids’ eyes will glaze over when you talk about these topics, so this is a good time to “divide and conquer.”  Let your child explore the campus alone while you stop into these offices for a quick chat.

Keep an open mind.  Some colleges will likely resonate with you, but not your child – and vice versa.  Expect this, and try to keep an open mind.  Be careful of assuming that your reaction is the right one, or rushing to voice your opinions before your child expresses his or hers.  Help your child reflect on each visit by asking open-ended questions; listen carefully to their reactions before you begin talking about your own impressions. 

Take notes.  Your child will probably forget to write down the name of the admissions officer he or she interviews with,  whether the school uses the Common Application or not, the average SATs of admitted students, or whether the archeology department has field opportunities.  Take a small notebook with you on college visits, and keep track of the information that matters most to your child. 

Enjoy this journey with your child. Yes, this trip is about visiting colleges, but it is also a chance to spend some special time with your child before they head off into adulthood. Try to build in some downtime and fun activities that have nothing to do with college and enjoy each other’s company.

For Parents: Dealing with College Admissions Stress

© Copyright 2012, Carolyn Z. Lawrence.  May not be copied or distributed without the permission of the author.  School counselors: If you would like to share this article with your students, please contact me for a reproducible print version.

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