April 21, 2020
Last time, in part one of this series, we started to take a look at what high school juniors should be thinking about in regards to using campus visits as a crucial part of their college process. I intoned my evergreen imperative: “You've got to trod the sod!"
Campus visits are the key to finding the right match. Once you make sure that your overall profile is in sync with a school's requirements for admission, trodding the sod should be able to give you a strong indication of “Good match!" or “Not so good match."
What kinds of answers should you be searching for about your candidate schools? For example, you should ask admission offices about special programs, like the University of Iowa's “Hawkeye Visit Days" or The U. of Texas' “Rise and Shine," which offer full days of tours, presentations, class visits and campus cafeteria meals to prospective students and their parents. Some colleges may invite you to attend open houses sponsored by specific programs or departments.
Moms and Dads, here's a typical parental concern: Say that your son or daughter, a high school junior, hasn't done a thing about planning campus interviews, and it's almost April. When should these be scheduled? Is s/he missing the boat on visits?
Well, few families are ready to march off to target colleges prior to spring of eleventh grade, and many colleges refuse to interview applicants before then. Of course, there are always extenuating circumstances. If you're heading from Hawaii to Maine for a wedding during your child's sophomore year, a sympathetic admission officer may agree to an interview, even after a staff member told you that only juniors and seniors are granted personal sessions.
Most students begin the interview circuit in earnest in the summer between eleventh and twelfth grades and then continue in the fall. Colleges are generally willing to interview students until it's time to make admission decisions in the winter of the senior year. Although you may luck into a last-minute vacancy, interview appointments are best made at least two weeks in advance.
While interviews can still be scheduled by snail mail, phone calls to admission receptionists are better. They can tell you immediately if your desired dates and times are open. Again, although students may learn from the experience of making the calls, it is usually mom or dad who has a better grasp of what will best fit in the travel plans, and colleges certainly don't care one way or another. Plus, you won't damage your admission chances if you have to cancel and reschedule. Some colleges will schedule appointments by email too, which is quicker than a phone call. While an interview can be an important aspect of the college selection process and a key part of a trip to campus, it can also be worthwhile to see a school without an interview, then return later for a more official visit.
Even though there are entire books about college visits, even frequent revisions can't keep all information accurate. Websites are better. They typically include visit options and schedules. There are usually driving directions, too, and sometimes lists of other area attractions. But even web pages aren't always up-to-date. A pre-trip phone call to double-check details can help avoid disappointments.
It's usually not necessary to submit an application before having an interview, and the visit can be an excellent time to decide if a student even wants to apply at all. Guided campus tours are not only a good way to see a school but also an opportunity to question a real student. Don't miss a stop at the dorms. (See my advice in part one about dorm bathrooms.) Pay particular attention to every place in which you're likely to spend lots of time, such as the athletic complex, music practice rooms, language/chemistry labs, etc..
Check out the bulletin boards, too. They often say a lot about an institution's opportunities, ambiance and attitude. Likewise, pick up student publications, especially the college newspaper, to get more of an inside feel than admissions staffers are likely to give.
Applicants usually prefer to see schools after they've received admission decisions, during the period when they have only several weeks to decide which college they'll actually attend. While early campus visits do assist in determining where students ultimately apply, it also makes sense to avoid financing cross-country junkets to colleges where you may not be accepted. Colleges are usually eager to entertain on-the-fence accepted applicants. Most will offer overnight accommodations and some may even issue invitations to special campus events as part of their courtship.
How much time should you expect to spend on campus visits? Well, if you're planning on an interview and tour, you'll need a minimum of about two or three hours. Most tours last an hour or so and interviews range from 30 to 60 minutes. Colleges can usually coordinate the two so you don't have to waste a lot of time, but there is usually some lagtime in between. Be sure to arrive 10 or 15 minutes before an interview appointment. There will probably be a short form to fill out. If you know that you're going to be late, getting lost or stuck in traffic, for example, call ahead and explain.
If you have specific questions about financial aid, you might need to see a financial aid officer. Schedule these sessions in advance, when possible, and add extra time. You may also wish to inquire about sitting in on a class or eating a meal on campus.
Prospective college athletes might want to plan time with a coach. For top recruits, NCAA rules will govern meetings, but for most at the Division III level, calling ahead might make a coach's day. You may want to meet music teachers, or if you have a strong interest and specific questions in a particular academic area, find and chat with a professor.
Keep in mind, though, that a typical applicant doesn't run around meeting half of the campus personnel. Most stick with the standard interview and tour routine. If you do wish to see someone special, the admission office can give you names and phone numbers, but it's usually up to you to schedule the meetings.
Faculty -- and especially coaches -- are generally happy to meet prospective students and their families. Don't feel as if you're harassing them. They're glad to encourage a promising candidate to attend their school, and may even put in a good word with the admission office. Yes, planning college visits can be more complicated than coordinating a major vacation, especially if you expect to see several schools on the same trip. Don't hesitate to modify your arrangements if a key person (the oboe instructor or tennis coach) isn't available.
The two keywords here are planning and flexibility. Most plans never come off perfectly, though, so be ready to roll with circumstances, both good and bad. Thus, whatever your college dreams, you should definitely pay close attention to the schools on your list for what may well be the most important four years (or more) of your young life.
Don't be a clod. Trod the sod!
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