Now that the dust has finally settled from the last weeks of your sophomore or junior year, it's time to get back to business with an absolutely critical aspect of your college process: campus visits. I hope that you're ready to focus your energies on this important, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The undergraduate college process can be quite challenging, but doesn't have to be onerous, if you follow some basic guidelines, similar to the ones I've been preaching about here in my blog. All the work that you (and your parents) put into your college candidate selection will pay off when you start to get those exciting “fat" (so to speak) emails with the good news about your acceptances.
You'll no doubt be doing multiple things over the summer. Some of you will be traveling, some of you will be working, some of you will be helping at home, and some of you may be doing a bit of all of that.
Regardless of what your summer plans involve, though, keep in mind my mantra about college research: “You've got to trod the sod!"
That means that no matter how well you can research a college from “afar" (guide books, Internet sources, virtual tours, friends' recommendations, etc.), there's nothing that can compare to actually setting foot on campus. Inside your brain (and stomach) is a little mechanism known as “gut feel." This is without doubt the best barometer you will ever have to tell you how a particular school meshes with your expectations, needs, and general favor. Trust me on this.
Enrolling at a college you haven't visited is rolling the dice on your college experience. It's possible that you could quickly find out that your un-visited college isn't at all what you imagined it to be and thoughts of transferring may begin forming in your head. This can lead to many negatives, such as poor academic performance, unhappiness, lost time, lost credits, and — perhaps most importantly — lost money.
However, let's not get the cart before the horse and think about negatives. Let's assume that you are the proactive type and will be plotting (along with your parents) a reasonable college visit plan.
So how do you do that? Read on …
Take a look at the list of your candidate schools. Have you read the appropriate publications for every target college? There's no point in getting all the way to William and Mary before discovering that there's no journalism major, or trekking to Temple if you want a rural campus. Eliminate the colleges that only sound so-so, then try to see the others. When cost and distance permit, schedule trips to each of your front-runner schools.
The more colleges you visit, the easier it will become to discern differences and to pinpoint priorities. Avoid visiting too many schools in too short a time. If you live in Oklahoma, you're simply unlikely to get to Ohio more than once. Try to limit stops to only two schools per day, and no more than 10 colleges on a single trip. In fact, 10 colleges in an entire year is plenty for any applicant — or applicant's parents — to digest. Also, be sure that notes get written down during or right after every visit to avoid confusion later.
Aim to see schools with students on campus. For many, that means in September through mid-May. 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.
Usually, high school and college spring vacations do not overlap, so if you are well organized, March or April of your 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 in the midst of autumn recess, reading period, or semester break. Web sites often include these schedules too.
Colleges sometimes welcome overnight visits from applicants, or even from those in the earliest stages of exploring, and it is an excellent way to get an inside glimpse at any school. Visitors are sometimes told to bring a sleeping bag and pay for their own meals and are matched with students who share similar academic interests. Appointments should be made at least a couple weeks in advance. Some schools have special guest rooms in the dorms are available to candidates, and each dorm has a host in residence. Meal tickets are provided and weekend stays are possible. Ask each admission office about options and availability when you call.
Applicants who have already received their admission decisions have only several weeks to decide which college they'll actually attend. While campus visits early on do assist in determining where students ultimately apply, it also makes sense to avoid financing cross-country junkets to colleges where your child won't even be accepted. Colleges, too, can be eager to entertain on-the-fence accepted applicants. Most will offer overnight accommodations; some issue invitations to special “open campus" events.
Ideally, candidates would visit colleges before applying in the fall and, again, before making final decisions in the spring. But you may have to decide between pre-acceptance and post-acceptance visits or, perhaps, make no visits at all.
All colleges offer summer tour programs. Because it's sometimes easier to combine visits with summer vacation plans, you may want to do so. If you already have vacation plans in place, see if you can make a detour to the campuses of some candidate schools. Who knows? Your vacation might be in the neighborhood of schools on the list.
If you haven't made vacation plans yet, you have the perfect opportunity to tailor a college-visit trip. A vacation such as this can be more enjoyable and entertaining than you might think. Many colleges are located in very picturesque areas featuring significant tourist attractions.
Consider the advantage of visiting schools over the summer. If you are a senior-to-be and have a list of, say, five or six candidate schools, a summer visit might help you refine the list to three or four before the new school year begins. College campuses are always lovely during the summer. The only time when the they appear more beautiful is in October, when the leaves have changed to their autumn splendor, assuming that they are located in a four-season part of the country. Summertime is a relaxed period because there are far fewer students on campus. There may be some construction going on, but that's normal for the time of year.
What inspires a high school student like you to become interested in a college? Well, you may have seen the avalanche of USPS-mail information (and email spam) flooding your physical mailbox and/or email inbox. One of the more subtle, and sometimes highly misleading, forms of inspiration can come from college marketing materials.
You've no doubt seen them by now — those expensive, glossy, full-color college brochures that tout the institution's image and credentials. Have you ever noticed that a lot of them seem very much alike? If visitors from another solar system came to Earth and found a bunch of these slick marketing pieces, they would no doubt report back to home base that America's higher-education institutions have the following characteristics:
– Students are tall and thin; they dress smartly and smile frequently
– Most colleges and universities are located in “sunbelt" areas where clouds are rare
– Classes are small and seminar-like and held on lush, green lawns
– A beautiful lake is the visual center of most campuses; ducks and geese abound
– The architectural theme is “Gorgeous Gothic" with spires and arches galore
The bottom line: Don't judge a college by its brochure. You must gather first-hand intelligence about the schools on your list.
The two most important sources of information are personal impressions from visiting the campus and comments from students who go there. Personal visits are mandatory. Unless you have “trod the sod" (there's that phrase again) of your candidate schools, you'll never know what it's like to be there. The obvious answer, then, is to schedule a visit. For a detailed look at how to maximize your visit, check out College Confidential's College Visit Tips. You can also see actual descriptions of college visits in CC's CampusVibe section.
Students' opinions can be a little more difficult to gather. The information is available, though. While you're on campus, you can ask students questions directly. College guide books are another way to get student opinions. If you've cruised bookstores, you've seen them: The Insiders Guide to the Colleges, America's XXX Best Colleges, The Fiske Guide, and so forth.
These books compile student comments gathered from questionnaires. Some of the comments about class sizes, food, social life, work loads, and the like will surprise you. In some cases, the brochure image fades quickly.
However — and I don't need to remind you about this, that's for sure — there's no better place to get student insights than College Confidential! So, trod that college sod!
Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.