These thumbnail experiences of college life are valuable for many reasons; they allow for a brief window into your child's possible future and expose them to the many criteria ultimately involved in the final school selection. These visits allow them to feel the campus culture and interact with potential peers, professors and administrators. For both you and your student to get the most out of these visits, be sure to plan ahead and build an itinerary that touches on the key aspects of college life. What this really means is be sure your student is engaged and is the one responsible for making all the arrangements and phone calls.
"No. 1 rule – don't visit a college you can't afford!"
Do your homework
This is ultimately about finding where your student feels comfortable and can see themselves socially, as well as which institution offers the academic challenge they need. In addition, it helps you discover what kind of environment they want to call home for the next four years. Taking the college video tour ahead of time can lead to some inquisitive questions and a general knowledge of the campus. Be sure to gather and review all the information you can about admissions standards, degree programs and academic rigor beforehand. An important element in the best-fit college search is also tuition costs: No. 1 rule – don't visit a college you can't afford! Often, college consulting companies have the expertise to inform you what a college will cost you, BEFORE you head out the door!
Have your student research non-academic variables at the college along with the local area. Does your student see themselves leaving campus for musical entertainment or do they want the excitement of on-campus Division 1 sports teams? The regional culture and surroundings of small towns vs. city campuses appeal to different kids. Urban, Northeastern universities with their ivy-laden facades, rolling hills and boxy skylines stand apart from the expertly-manicures, Romanesque institutions that dot the south or the sunny, ocean-side campuses along the coasts. These details will lend insight as you start to narrow the vast array of college choices.
Urban, Northeastern universities with their ivy-laden facades, rolling hills and boxy skylines stand apart from the expertly-manicured, Romanesque institutions that dot the south or the sunny, ocean-side campuses on the west coast.
Visit when school is in session
Most experts agree that the best time to visit is when class is in session and students fill the campus. If you've taken a summer college tour, consider circling back for another trip during the academic year – chances are with a new tour guide, a different season and the 'feel' of the campus with bustling students, it will help move that college up or down the top 10.
As you navigate campus, stay plugged into your surroundings. Observe the students and watch how they interact with each other, faculty and guests. Look at what they are wearing. Often, wardrobe choices can tell you a lot about the culture. For instance, if you see an overwhelming number of students wearing handmade fraternity and sorority tees, you'll know Greek life is important.
Keep an open mind
During your visit, everyone from tour guides to faculty will offer their perspectives on the institution. As you go through the day, jot down these thoughts and always take photos. It will help your student remember the positive and negative. Plus, the photos of the dorm rooms and the Friday afternoon Ultimate Frisbee game might help sway your student one way or another.
When you feel the doubt rising, check in with your child to see how they feel: Again, you must remember that it's about where they are most comfortable. To give yourself peace of mind, be sure to check the security provisions in place for the student body and safety records of the school.
Once you've got a strong grasp on the student culture, try to envision your child mixed in amongst the masses. Will they fit in? Does this school offer opportunities for their hobbies, such as drama club, swimming pool, soccer, dancing, robotics, religious clubs? Finding peers that your student can immediately relate to will make the transition better for both of you.
Eat a meal on campus
Encourage your child to blend in and experience the spaces as students do. Try the dining hall to test out on-campus food options, follow the crowds as they file through common areas, hang out in the student union, peruse the library stacks and – if possible – the dorms. Remember you are making a $100,000-plus decision. Gather information and visit everywhere you can.
If this is your second visit or a high contender, plan ahead to get permission to attend a relevant class. Check if the school has any on-campus events the evening of your visit. If interested in becoming a college athlete, be sure you get a tour of the athletic facilities and meet the coach.
Use this same immersive strategy to explore off-campus areas as well. Dine downtown, check out the local shops and attend some community events. This is a good chance to find out how to get to and from mass transit areas. For example, will you be taking a taxi to the bus station at Christmas, or a subway to the train station? Is there a rental car office nearby for emergencies? Understanding these factors will give you a much clearer picture of your student's lifestyle at college.
Meet with the department head
Speaking with a faculty member of your student's major or possible major might help pinpoint your child's interests. Perusing the science lab, auditioning in the theatre and playing lacrosse on the stadium turf will all add to the criteria needed to make an educated college selection. Plus, displaying some well-informed curiosity never hurts.
"Schedule some time to meet with the appropriate department head."
Of course, make sure your student prepares questions and arrives poised to make a positive impression – this includes a tucked-in shirt and no baseball caps or leggings. Allow your child to show their prospective program instructor that they're an independent person and prepared to take on the college experience – but you will probably need to remind them to send that thank-you note!
Understand the reason
These college visit strategies are an outline of ideas as you and your child begin the college search. It is a roller-coaster process as your student struggles with trying to define themselves and their future. Have patience and offer (sometimes quiet) support.
And, remember, there are college consulting services that decrease the time, stress and cost of college when the college conversations at dinner-time have stalled.