Regarding College Visits

As we head past mid-August, many high school seniors are involved in a couple of important activities. First, they are preparing to return to school for the final chapter in their long run from K-12. Second, a good number of them are visiting colleges.

Many family vacations happen in August, so it makes sense, if possible, to plan a route that intersects a college or two (or maybe even three) for a visit. Granted, taking a college tour and inspecting dorm rooms isn’t as exciting as hitting the beach or seeing the Grand Canyon, but it can provide a crucial glimpse into the realities of prospective colleges.

I’m inundated with college-related press releases. Every now and then, one lands in my inbox that I feel is worth sharing with my readers. One that landed yesterday focuses on college visits and has some reasonable thoughts. I thought I would share some of that information today.

college tours

Among other things, this press release from Sallie Mae offers the “Top Five Tips for a Successful College Visit.” We have discussed how to optimize college visits a number of times here, but it’s always good to consider as many options as possible. So, I thought I would post those five tips and add some comments of my own. Here goes:

1. Start with a Game Plan

A little planning goes a long way. Before hopping in the car or booking flights, take time to prioritize your college search and your interests. Many colleges and universities offer virtual tours to help you get a feel for the campus experience before arriving. You can also get a head start with Sallie Mae’s free, online College Planning Toolbox. Families can research costs with the College Planning Calculator to estimate the current and future cost of any school.

Dave says: Virtual tours are cool, but highly controlled and scripted. There may be quite a gulf between what you see on a virtual tour and the reality of actually being there. I guarantee you that in a virtual tour you won’t be seeing buildings or dorms that are in obvious need of repair. Plus, you won’t be able to inhale the lingering aroma of stale beer in the dumpsters containing the not-yet-picked-up trash from last weekend’s party activity. Colleges like to downplay their party atmosphere and less-than-dazzling physical plant, so don’t be too overwhelmed with what you see on a virtual tour. Better yet, when on campus, be sure to …

 2. Step off the Campus Trail

Once you arrive on a campus tour, do your best to get off the beaten trail. Explore parts of the school that aren’t on the tour, talk to current students who aren’t tour guides, and get a sense for the campus. Is it urban, rural, eclectic, or vibrant? Can you picture yourself there on weekends? Are grocery stores and pharmacies conveniently located?

Dave says: Good advice. I have always maintained that the very best source of information about a college can be had from the students who actually go there. Don’t be afraid to approach a student, or even a group of students, to ask a few questions. Don’t do an inquisition, though, rattling off a long list of things you want to know. Stick to the basics, perhaps along the lines of, “If you had it to do all over again, would you enroll here?” Or, “What do you like best about being a student here?” Or, “What do you like least about being a student here?” Or, “How is the [social life, faculty accessibility, school spirit, food, etc.] here?” You get the idea.

3. Get to Class!

Once enrolled, a large chunk of time will be dedicated to your coursework. [Isn’t that the pits?!] During your campus visit, ask to attend a class in an area of interest. Make an effort to talk to professors and current students to learn firsthand about interesting courses and campus culture. And while you’re doing that, think about extra expenses: tuition will not be your only classroom expense. Visit the campus bookstore to get an idea of what additional supplies might cost.

Dave says: As long as you’re going to be “off the campus trail,” as noted above, you have a great opportunity to get an inside view of academics. Of course, if you’re visiting in the summer, before the academic year begins, you’ll likely have a tough time finding classes in session. But if you’re on campus when the students are also there, you might be able to just carefully slip into a larger classroom, such as a lecture hall, and observe how a particular faculty member conducts his or her class. It may be something completely different than you were expecting. College is not high school, so be prepared to adjust your thinking about higher education methodologies.

4. Keep Your Options Open

Keep an open mind. When you combine estimated expenses with other factors like school size, degree programs, and location, the end results may be intimidating. Remember, though, the sticker price isn’t necessarily what you’ll end up paying. Plus, there are many free tools and resources to help meet college costs. For example, Scholarship Search by Sallie Mae provides free access to 3 million scholarships worth more than $18 billion.

Dave says: Indeed. You have to consider the financial impact of attending any specific college on both your family and your own long-range debt. Student loan debt is raging out of control these days. You do not want to become a victim of that. The more research you do upfront about the real-world cost of a college, as it applies to your and your family, the better able you’ll be to make objective decisions about the true affordability of any school. Check a college’s financial aid Web pages and look for their Net Price Calculator. Using this tool will get you into a much better ballpark for making a decision about being able to attend a college, based on their ability to provide you with need-based financial aid. Again, though, beware student loans.

5. Keep Track of Your Progress

After visiting several schools, it’s easy to end up overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. Take notes while touring and be sure to keep track of likes and dislikes. Then, regroup using Sallie Mae’s College Ahead App, which features a College Scorecard that lets you compare and rank colleges you visited; a calendar to keep track of important milestones and application deadlines; and a road map to help families file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Dave says: Good advice about taking notes. If you’re going to be visiting more than just a few colleges, don’t depend on your memory alone. If you do, your visits may tend to blend together, since certain issues may seem to blur, such as dorm rooms, libraries, and maybe even food. Take a small notebook with you and, at the end of the day, after you’ve completed your visit to a school, write down your impressions, your likes and dislikes, and even the pros and cons of attending. Your parents may be able to help you do this, if they are along for your visit. Then, once you get back home, you can do some deeper research about the items you noted to get the answers to any questions you have. When it comes to making a decision about such an important milestone as college, there’s no substitute for documentation. Write it down before you forget it!

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Parents: If your son or daughter can fine-tune his or her candidate list by the beginning of senior year, your plans can include follow-up visits to the finalist schools. Fall is the time to arrange for the overnight stay. Have your senior contact the admissions offices and inquire about hosting programs. The overnighter should confirm any perceptions about a particular school, the ones noted in that little notebook I mentioned.

As your child heads toward college, take the time to plan college visits. A small investment in time now can save significant time, money, and hassles during the college application period that’s coming sooner than you think!

Rising seniors: One more time: You’ve got to trod the sod! Send yourself a text message so you wont forget!

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.