This is part 2 in a 3 part series for high school students and their parents. If you missed it before, please read How To Apply To College Part 1 – Getting Started.
How To Apply To College Part 2 – College Visits
Do visit colleges. Make this a priority junior year and use every school break possible to visit colleges. You will only have junior year and the fall of senior year to visit colleges before applying for admission.
Actually we started casually visiting colleges when my son was a high school freshman. Whenever we were on vacation near a college, we stopped by and walked around campus. We didn’t take an official tour; instead we just roamed around campus and stopped by the bookstore and bought a t-shirt. This plan was simply to get my son used to college campuses and how they felt. Sometimes it sparked an interest in that college, but sometimes it didn’t.
At the beginning of his junior year we went on more official college visits. Since it’s best to visit colleges while they are in session, we used fall break in October, winter break in February/March and spring break in April to take college tours. Although our objective was to visit colleges during our trips, we also made sure to include some fun days in our itinerary as well.
Unless you have definitive colleges in mind that you want to visit, it doesn’t really matter where you go, just go somewhere. The general rule is to pick small schools, big schools, public schools, private schools, schools in urban settings and schools with traditional closed campuses.
My son wanted to study music, so that helped us narrow down the school visits a bit. But other than that, he didn’t have much of an idea. We knew that NYU was a school that he liked (because it was in New York, one of his favorite cities, and it has a great fine arts school), so we took a family trip to New York City during fall break. Most of the weekend we had fun in New York – we saw a broadway show and visited all our favorite Manhattan spots – but we spent Friday at NYU at the information session and on an official tour.
During his winter break in early March we went to Miami to visit University of Miami, a school recommended to us by a family friend for the incredible music school. We didn’t know much about UM at the time, but my son had done enough research to see that it was a viable option for music school and Miami is a vacation destination, so that’s what’s we did – we vacationed in Miami and visited UM on Friday. Even if he hadn’t liked the school, we would have had a nice warm vacation in Miami.
My daughter didn’t really have an area of concentration, but a community feeling of a campus, a college town nearby and reasonable proximity to the ocean were important to her. Those criteria helped narrow the search a bit.
I know many people who cram as many as six school visits in a four day weekend. This was not our strategy. True, we could have seen more schools that way, but I know my kids – they can only take so much before they shut down. Once we toured three northeastern schools during a four-day period and it nearly did us in. During spring breaks we took road trips to visit several schools, but we also had a few days of just vacation time.
Geography – and your own family’s stamina – will determine how many schools you can visit during a single trip, but try not to burn your family out in the process. The schools will start to blur and the days of touring are exhausting. Our entire family went on every college tour so little sister was at every boring meeting and she walked every campus. We brought a drawing pad, markers and an iPad to keep her entertained during the information sessions and we bribed her with a promised treat at each campus. There was an advantage of dragging her along; when it was her turn to apply to college she already had a sense of what she liked and didn’t like.
However you choose to do it, do visit several colleges as your finances and family situation allows. We chose to make it a family affair because we used family vacation time and also because my husband and I wanted to be as involved as possible, but many students travel with just one parent or alone. Even if you don’t apply to every school that you visit, you will have a good idea about what you like or don’t like.
Take the official tour and go to the official information session. During the junior year of high school and beyond, your college visits should include the official tour and information session, registered through the university (usually an online form). This serves two purposes:
1 – By taking the official tour you will get access to buildings that you cannot enter on your own, like the student residences.
2 – The admission office has a record of your visit. This last point is very important because colleges like for students to show “demonstrated interest” (a buzzword in college admissions) and a visit definitely shows interest. If for some reason you cannot take an official tour, then stop by the admissions office during your visit, sign in and chat with someone. You want to make sure the admissions office know that you were on campus.
By the way, these college tours and information sessions fill up quickly, so register early. We were shut out of a tour during spring break.
Record your reactions to the school. As soon as we got home from a visit I pulled out my spreadsheet. I recorded my son’s feelings as well as my own about a school – what we liked and didn’t like. Believe me, after so many college visits they all tend to blur and it’s hard to remember one from the other. I’ve created a worksheet specifically for college visits. You definitely want to download the printable PDF below☟and bring a copy to each college visit.
Sit in on a class or lecture. Most professors are happy to have prospective students in class, but it is best to ask before hand. An inquiry can be made by email or phone to the admissions office or school of your potential major. While my child visited a class, I hung out in the student center or library, got a snack or checked my email. It’s nice for the student to introduce themselves as a prospective student to the class professor if possible. Although my daughter was initially intimidated by visiting a college class, in the end it was empowering. She left feeling like “this is not so scary; I can do this.”
Explore the surrounding area. During every college visit we always allowed time to explore the area around campus. Students: this is where you will be spending much of your leisure time, so it’s good know if it’s a place that you want to be. Where do students eat off-campus? Have a meal there. Where do students shop and hang out? Walk around that area. We had a couple of college visits where my daughter liked the campus, but didn’t like the area around campus and that was important to her.
Work your network. Before your visit, try to find a personal connection to the school. Ask friends, inquire on Facebook, Twitter and Linked In – I bet you know someone who knows someone who works at the school, is an alumni, or has a contact there somehow. Email or phone that person to arrange a meeting during the day of your visit, usually they are more than happy to meet. We had a personal contact at all but one school and arranged a coffee or short meeting with every one of them. We were able to ask questions and get an insider’s view of the school.
Meet with a current university student. Start with your high school college counseling office; they should have a list of students that currently attend that university. Send that student an email or text message a few days before arriving on campus; we have found that they are happy to meet for lunch or coffee (free food!). When possible, my son and daughter had lunch at the university dining hall with a student while we ate lunch elsewhere on campus or nearby in town. If there are not any high school alumni at the university, work your network. Someone you know probably knows a student there at the university. Students: it really does help to get a real feel for the college when you interact with current students.
Talk to students on campus. Your tour guide is a good place to start. They are usually very personable and have a broad knowledge about campus life. But don’t stop there; strike up a conversation with someone in line at the campus coffee shop or the cashier in the bookstore. We’ve found that they are eager to share.
One of our personal concerns was how the African American students felt going to a predominately white university and did they feel comfortable and supported. So we asked them. Since our children were often eating lunch elsewhere without us on campus, they weren’t embarrassed when my husband and I chatted up students eating next to us at lunch. Even if we were eating off campus, if they had on a university sweatshirt, we started a conversation.
Since I am in a historically black sorority, if I saw any black student with a Greek shirt on, I introduced myself as a fellow Greek and asked about their experience with university life. How is their social life? What did they do for fun? All of the students we talked to were very helpful and very nice. You may not be so bold, but those conversations really did give us insight into the overall campus atmosphere.
Visit the dining hall, student center, fitness center or anyplace that students hang out. Often times we saw the fitness center independent of the campus tour; we just went to the desk, identified ourselves as a visiting family and they let us see the facilities. Sometimes your official college tour will include a meal ticket to eat in the dining hall; it varies at each school. But even if your tour does not include a meal ticket, students may be able to pay when eating with another student. If that is not possible, check out the other dining options on campus, usually in the student center.
Definitely take a walk around the student center to see what’s there. During one campus tour in the northest, it was freezing cold and rained most of the day, so I hung out in the most dreary and dark student center that I had ever seen. As far as I was concerned, the dank student center was enough of a reason not to apply! (But I was not applying to college; my son liked the school and applied in spite of my feelings.)
If applicable, tour a specific school or department. My son knew that he was going to major in music, so in addition to the overall university tour, we arranged to visit the music school during our college visits. Usually these tours were private and unlike the general university tour, they were given by department staff instead of students. We were able to ask questions and really get a feel for the music program. These special tours greatly influenced my son’s decision about that college.
Follow up with anyone you met with during your visit. Students: you should write a thank you email to the person you met with at the university. Keep that network open; if you are a real person and not just a faceless applicant, it may be the thing to tip the scales in your favor.
Connect with the college reps that visit your high school. Of course you may not be able to visit every school that interests you, but meeting with a rep that comes to your high school is often very beneficial. Sign the registration form at the rep’s information meeting because again it shows “demonstrated interest.” If you become truly interested in the school, email the rep a few days later to ask any lingering quesitons. The reps do remember the students who ask questions and make an effort to connect with them.
Exhausted yet? Wait – we haven’t even gotten to the application process yet! That will be in the next blog post so keeping reading.
*The college landscape is always changing, but the over-all sentiment remains the same: applying to college is stressful. I hope that I made it less so.