College Counseling Corner: Planning Effective College Visits

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I once heard the phrase “kicking the tires on a college visit” and just loved the concept. Much like when buying a car, parents and students should gather good information when visiting a campus. Take a scheduled tour and attend an information session. It is important to get a sense of what admissions representatives think visitors should see and learn. This skill helps prospective students (and their parents) become better consumers. For some families, this is the best way to see a school; others may need a different approach. No matter what, remember to have fun.

Many parents ask me if they have to visit schools. I think it is important for students to have a good sense of college campuses. Often they prefer to visit after they hear the admissions decisions. My biggest concern, however, is that the child will not like any of the schools to which he or she is admitted. That said it could be cost and time prohibitive to visit all the schools on the list. Students should study school websites carefully and work closely with their college counselors. The Fiske Guide to Colleges is also helpful in providing a good feel for a specific college campus.

When visiting a campus, each person on the trip should bring a notebook. After finishing the tour, write down thoughts and observations before discussing the overall experience—it is impossible to remember everything later on, and this way no one can accuse another of “just saying that to upset me.” Most of my clients do not want to do this at first, but when they do, they always find it useful. Also, make sure to take quiet time to sit back and observe students on a campus. Ask, “Can I envision my child in that student body? Can I imagine my child’s friends?”

Beyond the Scheduled Tour

Good information is often gleaned in the student union, in the student published paper and on the posters and announcements around the campus. The tour guide shows the best side of the campus. Pay attention to the indicators that are not pointed out. For example, when touring a dorm room, ask which students tend to live in that dorm. If there are freshman specific dorms, ask to see them. Or get the name of a freshman dorm and look it up after the tour if it is not included. Usually, colleges offer all sorts of dorm options, including quiet, substance-free, coed and single-sex dorms.

It may also be helpful to get a sense of the number of kids on campus on the weekends and the type of activities that are popular. A tour guide is only one source of information. Unfortunately, first impressions are strong and a tour guide who is not right for one student can really turn him or her off to the whole campus. Even though I always warn parents and students about this, my own son drew a specific opinion about Bates based on the tour guide, and there was nothing I could do to change his mind. Teenagers are very sensitive to nuances that adults sometimes miss. The same can happen with an admissions representative. If parents see their children drawing conclusions about a school based on one or two people, remind them that there are many other students at the school. If their minds are made up, there are many colleges and universities to choose from, and it may be best to simply move on to the next one. Parents should take their time, not over schedule their day and try to enjoy this opportunity with their children. This can be a wonderful time to remember.

Checklist for a Successful Campus Visit:

  • Study the school’s website prior to the visit.
  • Bring a notebook and write down observations.
  • Sit and observe students on the campus.
  • Visit the student union
  • Peruse student publications

This article is excerpted from College Counseling Compass: A Parent Workbook to Navigate the College Counseling Process by Andi O’Hearn, Ross School’s Chief of Student Advancement.