Preparing for College

Summer Visits to College Campuses: Worth the Gas?

Question: I'll be a high school senior in September, and my family is planning a college-visit trip for mid-August when my day camp counselor job ends. I have heard that it's not a good idea to see colleges with no students on campus, but my father thinks that this is the only time we can go. With gas prices so high, is the trip going to be worthwhile?

"The Dean" is delighted to encounter a student who is sensitive to the high price of gasoline these days. Of course, this may also be your way of trying to wheedle out of a family junket to deserted campuses when you'd rather chill on the beach after seven weeks of box-stitched key chains and capture-the-flag.

In a perfect world, summer is not the best season for campus visits. Ideally, you should see schools at the same time of year when you might be there yourself. But, realistically, June, July, or August may be the only practical months to hit the road. Remember, once September rolls around, most seniors are flat-out with school work, soccer games, or debate-team tournaments, and it may be hard to squeeze in so much as a weekend for college visits, especially for those heading more than a few hours from home. Moreover, Sundays--especially the mornings--can seem so quiet on many campuses, that it can feel like the middle of summer---even if there's a foot of snow on the ground.

So, in your case, father may indeed know best, and your August plan may be the wisest despite the drawbacks. Even though you won't get a true sense of a school when the students are missing, at least you will get to see what the buildings look like and where the school is situated in relation to the surrounding community.

So here are some tips to getting the most from your summer visits:

-Colleges can start earlier than many high schools. So, while the last week of August might still scream "summer" to you, classes may have already started at some of your target schools. Check academic calendars online to find out. Do try to avoid the move-in days when you''re likely to be mowed down by overloaded minivans as you navigate the campus paths.

-Find out if any colleges on your list have summer sessions (and, if so, when they end). Even though enrollment may be smaller than in the fall and winter terms, at least you'll avoid seeing the campus when it's dead. When selecting schools that you will--or won't--visit during your summer trip, give priority to those with summer terms.

-If there is a summer term, is it for "real" students--i.e., those who are bona fide undergrads there during other terms as well? If the campus you're seeing is populated with octogenarians from the Elderhostel course on The Making of My Fair Lady, then you might be better off seeing the place when it's empty.

-If you're concerned that a college on your list may be too stereotypically something (liberal, preppy, jocky, nerdy, tattoo-infested, etc.) then this is a campus that warrants a term-time visit.

-Confirm tour and info-session hours by telephone. Web sites are usually accurate, but staff vacation schedules can mean last-minute changes, so call ahead.

-Plan "parallel visits." Whenever possible, try to do the same things on each campus you see. In other words, don't opt for the tour and info session at one school and then do just a quick drive-through at another.

-Schedule interviews, if offered. Summer can be a good time to connect with a real staff member or even a student interviewer. The pathologically shy may choose to skip this plan, but for the majority of students, an interview can be a good way to show interest in a college, to get more information that is specific to one's own needs, and to highlight achievements that the application may not fully reveal.

-Don't go crazy and try to visit more than a couple colleges each day. Hot weather can leave you asleep on your feet during all those similar-seeming tours.

-Check out the neighborhood off-campus. Allow enough time to get a sense of where each college is located. Visit local shops, cafes, restaurants, etc., to get a better feel for the area.

-Dress appropriately. Leave the flip flops and cut-offs at home, but do dress to beat the heat. Wear comfortable walking shoes (an imperative at ANY time of year).

If I had to pick the best time to see campuses, I'd vote for April of 11th grade when many high schools are on spring break but colleges aren't. Typically, it's not quite the crazy time of year as the fall of senior year can be. Of course, many high school juniors haven't honed in on target colleges by then or may want to see more colleges than can fit in a week's vacation.

So, often summer ends up being the most pragmatic time to "trod the sod," as my College Confidential partner Dave Berry says. Bring your imagination (along with a sweater for uber-air-conditioned info sessions and an umbrella for summer showers) and picture what each campus might be like when it's rife with bicycles and backpacks or with 1,000 cell phones ringing all at once and a couple dozen Frisbees in the air.