Admissions

College Visit Planning for Juniors: Part One of Two

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The year 2018 is about to become history. Here comes 2019! If you’re a high school junior, you’re probably thinking about what 2019 will bring.

If you’re a college-bound high schooler, then one of the foremost issues that’s probably in your mind is which college to attend and all that that decision entails. “Where will I apply?” “Which schools are a good match for me?” “How competitive will I be?” “What will it be like living away from home for the first time?” Will my family and I be able to afford college?” “What major is best for me?” And so on.


These are the questions that you may be asking yourself when you think about the coming year and your upcoming college process. They are legitimate questions that need to be answered. One of the more important questions you have to consider is: “How will I feel about a college once I get there?”

This leads us to the important topic of visiting colleges before you apply, after you have applied and before you make that final enrollment decision. How should you be thinking about this now, as a high school junior, and what can you do to give yourself all the information you need about a particular college to answer those important questions?

That’s what I want to discuss today. This topic has a lot to consider, so I’m approaching it in two parts. So let’s get started with part one.

I coined a little phrase back in the Eighties, when I was looking for a concise and memorable way to impress high school students, especially juniors just getting involved in the college process, about the importance of visiting colleges they were considering. Of course, it goes without saying that seniors must visit the colleges they have already applied to, but juniors need to be forward thinking right now.

Here’s My Key Admonition: You’ve Got to Trod the Sod!

The trend lately, perhaps over the past six to 10 years, has been for some particularly driven students to apply to as many as 15 to 20 colleges (yes, you read that correctly — fifteen (15) to twenty (20) colleges!). With a list that extensive, it would take a marathon visit trip to cover all those bases. The reality for applicants in that league, however, is that they many times limit their visits to a handful of their most desired schools, leaving some of the lesser-competitive colleges for a possible last-minute visit, if circumstances dictate.

Believe it or not, many high school students don’t fully understand what to look for when they do visit a college. They naturally follow the traditional tour group across campus, many times with their parents in tow, somewhat like sheep being herded, with the tour guide as shepherd. There are some anti-sheep strategies that can bring to light the more “hidden” aspects about colleges. You should be aware of these important ploys so you’re not blinded by the marketing approaches colleges use to dazzle you.

Check out the Dumpster?

One of my favorite approaches for revealing the “truth” about colleges is to investigate dumpsters and bathroom facilities. It’s unlikely that your tour guide will ever lead you up to a dumpster and say, “As you can see, our trash is certainly worthy of its top 20 ranking in U.S. News.” Likewise, you’ll probably never be led inside a dorm bathroom (“Perish that thought!” some of you may be thinking). However, a lot about a school can be revealed by looking at what’s being thrown out and how well important facilities are being maintained.

Thus, Dave’s College Tour Tip of The Week: Take careful note of what kinds of trash you see in those dumpsters near dorms. Are there tons of beer cans, broken furniture and other remnants that appear to have been victims of a tornado or tactical nuclear weapon? What should that kind of evidence tell you? Answer: Party School!

Maybe that’s what you’re looking for. But keep in mind the kinds of things that go with a party school: Noise, possibly bizarre or disruptive behaviors and the aroma of malt beverages filling the air. If you’re into higher education for — well — education, you may want to evaluate the pros and cons of an apparent party school.

Bathroom clues are vital. Break away from your tour group and slip inside a dorm to check out the restroom facilities. Yes, I know that dorm access is controlled by keycards, but you can usually hang out near an entrance door and slip inside when someone arrives or leaves. If queried about your presence there, just explain that you need to use the restroom and can’t make it back to the admissions office (or library, or whatever).

Oh, one other important issue: Be certain that you’re about to enter a dorm that is in sync with your gender. Many dorms are coed, as are their bathrooms, but try to limit the chances that you may be accosted by residents. Just a word to the wise.

Once you’ve located the bathroom, take a look around and ask yourself, “Do I see myself using a place like this to take showers, brush my teeth and perform my other ritual ablutions?” If so, great. If not, then you may want to dig deeper into the overall qualities of other physical plant facilities. Remember: You could be living here nine months out of each of the next four years (or more).

Okay. Now that we’ve covered dumpster and bathroom intelligence gathering, let’s take a look at college visits and the points juniors should be keeping in mind, now that a new year is about to unfold. First of all, parents should organize outings to area schools early in the search, even before target colleges are identified. By summer, students ought to be planning visits, tours, interviews or information sessions at target schools and, finally, by fall of twelfth grade, should arrange to spend the night, whenever possible, on top-choice campuses. A sleepover on campus can be a real eye (and ear) opener.

A Visit Is the Best Way to Make College Matches

Sure, there are bound to be those random moments that may make or break a school unfairly. One young woman determined her favorite college before even getting out of the car. “I saw this guy who looked just like Johnny Depp,” she told her admissions interviewer, “and I knew right way that this was the place for me.” Other eager applicants have been turned off by rainy weather, campus construction or the grouchy graduate student who gave bad directions. Nonetheless, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a morning or afternoon on campus is far better than all the catalogs, viewbooks and web pages you can read.

Parents ask how to know which schools to visit. Here’s some advice about that. Take a look at the list of candidate colleges. Has your child read the appropriate publications for every one? There’s no point in getting all the way to the University of Notre Dame before discovering that there’s no diversity studies major, or in flying to Berkeley if you want a rural campus. Eliminate the marginal colleges, then try to see the others, when cost and distance permit.

The more colleges you visit, the easier it will become to discern differences and to pinpoint priorities. “It wasn’t until I had seen seven schools,” one junior recounted, “that I realized that some libraries had ‘open stacks,’ where I could look among the shelves myself for books I needed, while others had ‘closed stacks,’ which meant that titles had to be first picked in advance from a database, then requested at the main desk. I didn’t want to do research that way. I like to browse.”

On the downside, the more schools you visit, the more confused you may be -- the first visit could be crystal clear, but a dozen colleges later, you can’t remember where you’ve been at all. Logic may dictate that you shouldn’t see too many schools in a short a time. If you live in Maine, you’re unlikely to get to California more than once. Try to limit visits to two schools per day, and no more than a half-dozen or so on a single trip. And be sure to take notes during or right after every visit to avoid confusion later. This is where cell phone videos and pictures can be a big help.

Knowing When to Visit Is Key

Planning and reality can often be at odds. Aim to see schools when all the students are on campus. For many, that means September through mid-May are the months to make your visits. Even some colleges with year-round sessions are not in full swing during the summer, but for many families, summer is still the best time to hit the highways. You’ll just have to use your imagination if a campus seems dead.

High school and college spring breaks don’t normally overlap. So March or April of junior year can be a good time to see campuses in action. Before finalizing any visit, check with the admission office to see if you’ll be arriving during fall recess, reading period or semester break. Websites often include these schedules too.

The timing of your visit to campus will also depend on what you plan to do once you get there. Many colleges offer group information sessions that usually include a Q&A period and perhaps a video. This may take the place of an on-campus interview, depending on the school. Some colleges schedule interviews on multiple days per week. Some don’t do interviews. Some “elite” schools require interviews by alumni in the applicants’ home regions but do not hold them on campus. … [To be continued.]

This ends part one of what juniors should know about planning college visits. Next time we’ll look at additional specifics of visit planning, share some helpful tips to keep in mind and discuss what to do near the end of your college process when you haven’t yet made a decision about where to enroll. That’s where a key visit can make all the difference.

So, stayed tuned…