Keys to a Successful College Visit

Advice for parents of high school seniors and juniors

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As the "college visit" season is upon us, keep in mind that the tours are designed to show the campus’ high points, finer points, and best dress. So make sure you dig a little deeper to really find out what student life is like at this prospective new home. The next 4-plus years are going to be spent there and a not-so-small amount of money paid to the institution, so finding out the most you can about a school is the only way to go. You need to look beyond the student tours.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Don’t plan your visit for when the campus is lonely during summers or breaks, instead tour while classes are in session. You’ll get a much better feel for the environment if you visit during regular semesters and your teen will get a better sense of what it will be like to navigate around campus with throngs of other students. She will also see first hand where the students spend time between classes and after a day of classes, and how easy it is to maneuver around campus.

2. The tour is likely to take you through the most beautiful, well-kept areas of campus. After the tour, take another stroll around and really look. Are the buildings is good shape? Is the library well stocked and welcoming? Does the campus look safe and well lit?

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3. If the tour doesn’t include a stop at a typical freshman dorm, either ask to see one or, if allowed, make sure to pop in one during your post tour walk-about. Hopefully you’ll stroll past a few open doors in the hallway and take a glance as you make your way down the hallway so you can see what freshman dorm life is really like, not just see the “show” room that is presented on the tour. Also, note how far it is from the dorms to the classrooms.

4. It probably will be tempting to celebrate this adventure with a meal out at a nice local restaurant, but it would be a good idea to visit the campus cafeteria and have a meal there as well. What are the other dining options on campus? Is the food pleasing and the eating area clean? Is it busy with students or do you suspect that many are eating off campus? Are the hours suitable for early birds and night owls? Pick up a copy of the weekly menu if you can, just to see the options. Are there a lot of choices and if your teen is on a restricted diet, will they be able to provide the appropriate food?

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5. Ask the college admissions office if you can sit in on a typical freshman class, or if your teen already has a major in mind, then a class within that department. If that’s not possible, then take a walk through a few hallways, tarry a bit, and discreetly listen to what is going on inside. If possible, stop a professor, particularly in your teen's preferred area of study, and ask a few questions. If he's not racing to class, he'’ll likely take the time to visit with you.

6. While walking around the campus, politely stop other faculty and students. Explain that you’re visiting the school, trying to get a feel for what it’s like, and in the process of deciding if the school is right for your child. Ask pointed questions, but ask for their opinions as well. Do they enjoy going to school there? Do they like living in the dorms? What should an incoming freshman know? Be sure to ask open ended questions so you don’t just get yes/no answers. If they’re not racing to class, they’ll probably be happy to talk to you or can refer you to someone who can answer your questions.

7. Then there’s the all-important social life. Look at the posters, fliers, and calendars around campus and in town too. Do the events look appealing and peek your child’s interest? Are there a variety of events and programming available? Are there events on the weekends as well? You’ll want to see if there are activities to do on the weekends, if not, it may be an indication that the school you’re visiting is a “suitcase” school, where students don’t stick around. Does the school itself offer social programming? As much as you may want your teen to love her classes and spend a lot of time studying, if she doesn't like the social life on and around campus, then she's not likely to be happy at the school. 

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This is an exciting time in the life of your family. By doing a bit of research before heading out on your college tour, by taking the tour and then doing your behind-the-scenes tour as well, you’re bound to help your child pick a school where she can be happy and thrive.