Visiting College Campuses
January 4, 2004
Howard and Matthew Greene
One of the essential tasks involved in finding the right college for any student is visiting campuses. Again yesterday we were asked by a family, "Is it OK to apply to a bunch of colleges, then see where our daughter is admitted, and then visit those campuses to see which is the best one for her?" The emphatic answer is, "No." For one reason, visiting campuses, at least some of them, is crucial to deciding which overall college list is appropriate. Second, visiting colleges today, especially smaller schools that tend to track a student's level of interest, may contribute to being admitted. That is especially true if the college offers evaluative on-campus interviews. It is not necessary to visit thirty-five college campuses, or even to see every college to which one will apply, but it certainly is important to see the majority of schools and to evaluate them carefully. Winter, spring, and summer of junior year is a good time frame during which to start those visits. Seeing some campuses in the winter and spring, when students are on campus, will lead to more thorough and productive visits. Here are some points to consider to help make the most of your campus visits.
Do your homework. You wouldn't buy a house or a car without shopping around, doing some reading on communities or models, and then doing inspections, kicking some tires, and seeing some contrasting options. A college education is typically the largest investment a family will make next to buying a home, so you should be equally diligent in researching a variety of colleges before going on the road, to be as well-prepared as possible.
The tour and information session represent your chance to hear the college present itself in its best light (hopefully!). Surprisingly, the large majority of colleges do not interview on campus anymore, so a campus visit will likely consist of a one hour tour, and a one hour information session, where an admission officer will present an overview of the college and then take questions. The point of your visit to campus, therefore, is mostly to learn about the place. By doing your homework, you should have some questions to ask, based on your personal interests, of tour guides, faculty and students you might run into, and admission officers conducting an info session or, possibly, and usually after May, an interview.
Most people don't know in advance much of what they are looking for in a college. That's why the shopping around is essential. Families should be part of the tour, not just the student, so they can share their impressions and really talk through them. A college must be right for the student, but there's no reason a whole family shouldn't weigh in and be comfortable with the decision. Note to parents: walk in the back of the tour, and don't ask questions (otherwise known as embarrassing your kids).
Visit contrasting campuses. Most of what students and parents start with in terms of their assumptions about colleges comes from misperceptions, myths, hearsay, and predetermined judgments. For example, some kids from small towns, thinking, "I just have to get out of here," may start by saying they want a big city, big university. When they get to campus, the student may realize it is too overwhelming and that a smaller campus or suburban setting might be more comfortable.
Keep an open mind. Try to get a real impression, and not just confirm what you think you already know, because it may not, in fact, be true. Listen to your own, as well as your child's or parents' perceptions.
Try to get a sense of the feeling of the campus. This is an essential part of making a good choice. You should get an intangible sense of a place. It needs to feel right to you. It should feel incredibly exciting and comfortable at the same time.
See areas of special interest. Make sure to take some time to see academic or extracurricular areas of interest: specific departments or research centers or schools within the university; sports facilities; arts and music buildings. See the area around the campus to get a sense of the surrounding community.
Visiting campuses takes some time, and a little money, but taking advantage of targeted, well-planned visits can help you reduce stress, focus your college list more accurately, and avoid the additional cost of applying to the wrong schools, and perhaps choosing an inappropriate college, only to have to transfer after a year or two.