Admissions

Consider Pluses, Minuses of Summer College Visits

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High school is ending soon. In fact, it may have already ended for some of you who are homeschooling or cyber-schooling. If you are a rising junior or senior, you may want to consider doing some college visits this summer.

Visiting colleges during the summer has always been a mildly controversial topic, so I thought I would mention some positive and less-than-positive aspects about it. I use the phrase “less-than-positive” rather than “negative” because visiting a college can almost never be a waste of time.


As I’ve said here many times over the past 10 years, you’ve got to trod the sod! That means that the only true way to evaluate a college and the way it resonates with your heart, soul and “gut” is actually to be physically on campus. So-called “virtual” tours are nice but what you see on your computer screen has been carefully pre-selected by the college’s marketing staff (or marketing consultants) so that everything looks gorgeous, sparkling and inviting.

When discussing college visits with high schoolers, I always surprise them with some of my visit suggestions and “tactics.” For example, I tell them to do a little independent research that isn’t included on the standard college tour.

Consider These Strategies When on Tour

One activity that can be quite enlightening is what I call “trash trolling.” This event is a kind of first cousin to dumpster diving. Trash trolling differs from dumpster diving because there is no messy diving involved. Your good college-visit clothes will remain unscathed.

To initiate a trash troll maneuver, keep a sharp eye out for dumpsters located behind dorms and -- especially -- Greek organization residences. Of course, you’ll probably know what to expect when you investigate a fraternity house dumpster. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go to YouTube and watch some scenes from Animal House, which is pretty much a training manual for frat life these days. Aside from frat houses, who knows what interesting things you’ll see behind a sorority house?

Trash trolling will usually reveal key aspects of a college’s social life atmosphere. Your olfactory sense will typically outpace your eyes as you approach a dumpster, especially during the warm-to-hot summer months. Stale beer, liquor and spoiled food from not-so-recent parties have a way of grabbing your attention. Depending on the college’s trash pickup schedule, you may be fortunate enough to find a full-to-overflowing dumpster before it has been emptied.

A decent rule of thumb to judge the raucousness ratio, as I call it, would be to correlate partying level with the relative level of trash “odor.” Stinkier = wilder. So, once you’ve gotten a handle on the social atmosphere, you can compare that to your own behavioral profile. Do you party hearty? If so, you may fit in well at certain schools with highly odiferous dumpsters, all other factors being equal.

While I’m mentioning revealing, under-the-radar aspects about a college that you can discover during a summer visit (or even a winter visit, but we're talking summer here), I must mention restrooms. My personal theory about small colleges, and all the way up to huge universities, is that restrooms, wherever they are located, are an excellent litmus test for the overall “wellness” of a school.

Accordingly, to discern your lavatory litmus test results, check out at least six restrooms scattered across campus. Visit the admissions office, student commons, library, a dorm (assuming you can get into one without being arrested), dining hall and the administration building of your choice. What will an investigation like this show you?

Housekeeping and physical plant maintenance are two key indicators in getting the big picture of how well a college operates. I’m willing to bet that most of you come from homes that have clean bathrooms and reasonably well-kept houses. Think about living (at least) for four college years among facilities that are trash-strewn and way less than clean (not to mention sanitary), with broken toilets, sinks and showers that flood floors and possibly lower levels of a building. Yuck.

If you think I’m exaggerating for effect, you’re wrong. As I have conducted my own college visits across the years, I have seen some “unseeable” sights in college restrooms, especially in dorm buildings. And no, these shocking encounters weren’t all at lesser-known public institutions. Perhaps the worst situation I saw was at an Ivy League university. Maybe the housekeeping staff was on strike, I don’t know. But if I had had a son or daughter in attendance there, I would have petitioned the school for a partial refund of room and board fees.

Summarizing, then, before exploring some pros and cons of summertime visits, remember that dumpsters and restrooms are two key, off-the-beaten-path indicators that can reveal the inside scoop about a college. You won’t be seeing any dumpsters or bathrooms on a school’s virtual tour, that’s for sure.

Summer Visits Provide Pluses, Minuses

Now, swerving back to a more traditional approach to summer college visits, let’s take a look at some sensible advice from a reliable, easy to process source: US News. Although I like to hammer US News' annual college rankings, I do like their quick takes on the various aspects of higher education and, in particular, the college admissions process.

One article of theirs that’s quite appropriate here pertains to the pros and cons of summer college visits. Let’s take a quick look at that so you can evaluate for your own situation whether or not a summer visit makes sense for you.

The introduction sets the stage:

Summer tours are an attractive option for busy families ... but there are disadvantages to visiting schools when they're not in session. Consider the following pros and cons of summer tours before you schedule your next visit.

Next, I’ll summarize the pro and con points so you can get the thrust of the article’s contentions. Read the entire article for full details.

Pro: You can make a vacation out of it. "If your family has the financial luxury of taking you around the country or around the world to look at colleges and universities throughout the year that's wonderful, but most families have to really use their vacation time," says Shawn Abbott, dean of admissions at New York University.

Many families visit several universities over the course of a few days, experts say. Big urban schools like NYU tend to have robust summer sessions with a lot of students on campus, so teens and their families can get a good idea of what the campus is like during the fall semester. Families who can visit colleges during the school year may benefit from a little advance planning. Visit colleges and universities in cities during the summer and focus on smaller, rural or suburban liberal arts colleges during the school year, Abbott says.

Con: It can be difficult to get an authentic feel of the campus environment. It's hard to get an accurate picture of how crowded the student union gets or how students and faculty interact with each other if there aren't a lot of people around.

Do a mix of organized campus tours, unscheduled drop-ins, interviews and class trips throughout high school years. During the summer, campuses are quiet, providing more time to roam and explore the universities [for dumpsters and restrooms!]. You may prefer spring tours because it’s easier to determine if the institution is compatible when there are more students on campus.

Pro: There are fewer people on campus: "If they can fall in love with the campus when there are not a lot of people on it, they can come back during our winter for our open houses and see it in full swing and get a more in-depth look at the college," says Lauren McCracken, a spokeswoman for Towson University in Maryland. She encourages families to look at summer tours as an opportunity to narrow their college list before they finalize their top choices.

Families should also make sure they're taking the time to visit the surrounding areas, experts say. "I don't know too many places where students are going to go to college and really confine their experience in college exclusively to the campus," NYU's Abbott says. "You want to walk around the neighborhood, you want to walk around the town so you can get a picture of what your life will be like in that geographic setting."

Pro: There are experts on campus to answer questions. Colleges know that families want to ask questions about admissions and financial aid so those resources are likely available year-round. It may be easier to speak with admissions staff in the summer than certain times in the school year. Admissions officers are usually buried in applications from November to March and may have less flexibility for meetings, Abbott says.

Con: You're only getting the summer viewpoint of a school. Months of harsh winters, hot summers or stormy weather can have significant effects on a student's experience. Students considering schools with distinct weather patterns need to visit the schools at different times. "Winter is a big part of Michigan Tech and who we are," says Jenny Mileski, assistant director of admissions at Michigan Technological University.

Families have the opportunity to chat with faculty from academic specialties, do a thorough tour and sample some of the campus amenities whenever they tour Michigan Tech. But students who visit in the winter get to witness the spirit and culture of Michigan Tech in a way that students who only visit in the summer won't​.

Students who don't have the opportunity to visit schools can look for ways to connect with institutions and students online to get a more complete picture of student life, experts say. For example, students can see if virtual tours are available, connect with schools through social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and follow them on YouTube.

Bottom Line: Visit to Confirm Fit

In addition to these pros and cons, keep in mind my cautions about dealing with online college information from schools. You’ll see only sunny blue skies, glistening green grass, manicured lawns and highly diversified groups of students sitting in a circle by the lake, listening in captivated attention to their animated professor who is dressed just like an older student. Hmm. What could be wrong with this picture?

The message here is: Visit and see if these images are true. You may be surprised. And while you’re there, check out a few dumpsters and restrooms!