The trend lately, perhaps over the past 6-10 years, has been for some particularly driven students to apply to as many as 15-20 colleges (yes, you read that correctly — fifteen (15) to twenty (20) colleges!). With a list that extensive, it would take a marathon visit trip to cover all those bases. The reality for applicants in that league, however, is that they many times limit their visits to a handful of their most desired schools, leaving some of the lesser-competitive colleges for a possible last-minute visit, if circumstances dictate.
Believe it or not, many high school students don't fully understand what to look for when they do visit a college. They naturally follow the traditional tour group across campus, many times with their parents in tow, somewhat like sheep being herded, with the tour guide as shepherd. There are some anti-sheep strategies that can bring to light the more “hidden" aspects about colleges. You should be aware of these important ploys so that you're not blinded by the “marketing" approaches colleges use to dazzle you.
One of my favorite approaches for revealing the “truth" about colleges is to investigate dumpsters and bathroom facilities. It's unlikely that your tour guide will ever lead you up to a dumpster and say, “As you can see, our trash is certainly worthy of its Top-20 ranking in U.S. News." Likewise, you'll probably never be led inside a dorm bathroom (“Perish that thought!" some of you may be thinking). However, a lot about a school can be revealed by looking at what's being thrown out and how well important facilities are being maintained.
Thus, Dave's College Tour Tip of The Week: What kinds of trash do you see in those dumpsters near dorms? Are there tons of beer cans, broken furniture, and other remnants that appear to have been victims of a small nuclear bomb? What should that tell you? Party School!
Maybe that's what you're looking for. But keep in mind what goes with a party school: noise, odd, possibly disruptive, behaviors, and the aroma of malt beverages filling the air. If you're into higher education for — well — education, you may want to evaluate the pros and cons of an apparent party school.
Bathroom clues are vital. Break away from your tour group and slip inside a dorm to check out the restroom facilities. Yes, I know that dorm access is controlled by keycards, but you can usually hang out near an entrance door and slip inside when someone arrives or leaves. If queried about your presence there, just explain that you need to use the restroom and can't make it back to the admissions office (or library, or whatever). Oh, one other important issue: Be certain that you're about to enter a dorm that is in sync with your gender. Many dorms are coed, as are their bathrooms, but try to limit the chances that you may be accosted by residents. Just a word to the wise.
Once you've located the bathroom, take a look around and ask yourself, “Do I see myself using a place like this to take showers, brush my teeth, and perform my other ritual ablutions?" If so, great. If not, then you may want to dig deeper into the overall qualities of other physical plant facilities. Remember: You could be living here nine months out of the next four years (or more).
Okay. Now that we've covered dumpster and bathroom intelligence gathering, let's consider some less-specific but equally important aspects of college visits. My College Confidential colleague, Sally Rubenstone has written eloquently about how to approach trodding the sod of college campuses. I thought I would share some of her wisdom with you juniors (and seniors) out there. So, here is a portion of what Sally wrote in Chapter 4 of her book, Panicked Parents Guide to College Admissions.
“Forget those robins and daffodils. For many years, the surest sign of spring in one New England town was counselor Ed Wall loading his 11th-grade advisees into a bus and taking them on a college tour. The junket always included one nearby private college, one smallish public school, and then a huge state university. Never mind that few of his traveling companions would actually end up at the stops on this itinerary. “I simply wanted them to get an idea what a college campus looks like," Wall explains, “and of some of the differences among various types of schools. Many sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds have never really seen a college up-close."
Parents, too, notes Wall, should organize outings to area schools early in the search, even before target colleges are identified. By summer, he suggests, students ought to be planning visits, tours, interviews or information sessions at target schools and, finally, by fall of 12th grade, should arrange to spend the night, whenever possible, on top-choice campuses.
I. Campus Visits
Without a doubt, a visit to campus is the best way to make college matches. Sure, there are bound to be those random and red-herring moments that may make or break a school unfairly. One young woman determined her favorite college before even getting out of the car. “I saw this guy who looked just like Tom Cruise," she told her admissions interviewer later, “and I knew right way that this was the place for me." Conversely, eager applicants have been turned off by rainy weather, campus construction, or the crabby graduate student who gave bad directions at the front gate. Nonetheless, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a morning or afternoon on campus surpasses a million catalogs, viewbooks, and Web pages. Sometimes it doesn't take much more than a snack in the student lounge to determine if a fit seems right.
Where to Visit: Take a look at the long list. Has your child read the appropriate publications for every target college? There's no point in getting all the way to William and Mary before discovering that there's no journalism major, nor in trekking to Temple if you want a rural campus. Eliminate the colleges that only sound so-so, then try to see the others. When cost and distance permit, schedule trips to each front-runner school.
THE GOOD NEWS: The more colleges you visit, the easier it will become to discern differences and to pinpoint priorities. “It wasn't until I had seen seven schools," Leah recounts, “that I realized that some libraries had 'open stacks,' where I could look among the shelves myself for books I needed, while others had 'closed stacks,' which meant that titles had to be first picked from a card catalog or computer, then ordered at a main desk. I didn't want to do research that way. I like to browse."
THE BAD NEWS: If it's Tuesday, this must be Brandeis. And two dozen colleges later, you can't remember where you've been at all. Pragmatism may dictate that you see too many schools in too short a time. If you live in Oklahoma, you're simply unlikely to get to Ohio more than once. Try to limit stops to only two schools per day, and no more than 10 colleges on a single trip. In fact, 10 colleges in an entire year is plenty for any applicant—or applicant's parents—to digest. (And be sure that notes get written down during—or right after—every visit to avoid confusion later. Some far-sighted families even tote camcorders for the express purpose of campus ID films.)
When to Visit: Again, the ideal world and the real world don't always coincide. Aim to see schools with students on campus. For many, that means September through mid-May. Even some colleges with year-round sessions are not in full swing during the summer, but for many families, summer is still the best time to hit the highways. You'll just have to use your imagination if a campus (or an entire town) seems dead (and perhaps visit again at “crunch time"). Commonly, high-school and college spring vacations do not overlap, so if you are well-organized, March or April of your child's junior year can be a good time to see campuses in action. Before finalizing any visit, check with the admission office to see if you'll be arriving in the midst of autumn recess, reading period, or semester break. Web sites often include these schedules too.
The timing of your visit to campus will also depend on what you plan to do once you get there. Many colleges offer group information sessions that usually include a Q&A period and often a video. These may augment or replace an on-campus interview, depending on policy and availability at your target schools. Some colleges schedule interviews six (or even seven) days a week; some have none at all. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, encourages interviews by alumni in applicants' communities but does not hold them on campus.
In addition, you should ask admission offices about other 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.
Q: My 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 she missing the boat?
A: Few families are ready to march off to target colleges prior to spring of 11th grade, and many colleges refuse to interview applicants before then, anyway. (Of course, there are always extenuating circumstances. If you're heading from Hawaii to New Hampshire for Uncle Albert's wedding in your child's sophomore year, a sympathetic admission officer may agree to an interview—even after the receptionist has insisted that only juniors and seniors are granted personal sessions. Be sure to insist yourself—but nicely.) Most students begin the interview circuit in earnest in the summer between 11th and 12th 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.
While you may luck into a last-minute vacancy, interview appointments are best made at least two weeks in advance. Gone is the era when students were instructed to write a polite note to the director of admission in their best handwriting to request a meeting. While interviews can still be scheduled by mail, far more expedient are phone calls to admission receptionists who can tell you immediately if your desired dates and times are open. Again, although Junior 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 (nor will you do damage to admission chances if you have to cancel and reschedule). Some colleges will schedule appointments by e-mail too, which is cheaper—but usually not easier—than a phone call.
Of course, 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 appointment and, if the place passes muster, to return later for a more official visit. “We did a 'reconnaissance mission' in the summer after Kerry's junior year," says a dad named Frank. “We drove up to New England and looked at about a dozen colleges. We took tours at some places and just walked around on our own at others. In October, Kerry had interviews at two of the schools we'd seen, stayed overnight at two more, and claimed that she wouldn't be caught dead at the others."
Other Visitors' Tips
While there are entire books available on college visits alone, even frequent revisions can't keep all information accurate. Better yet are Web sites, which 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-departure phone call to double-check details can help fend off disappointment.
It is 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 grill a real student. If your child will be living there, don't miss a stop at the dorms. (Be sure to check out those bathrooms, too—especially in coed residences.) In fact, it's wise to pay particular attention to every place in which your child is likely to spend lots of time. Such hot spots could include the weight room or the music practice room, the language lab or the chemistry lab.
Check out the bulletin boards along the way. 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 scoop than admission office propaganda is likely to give. (Look for free copies piled near doorways of major buildings.)
Most tours are available without advance notice, but some colleges require appointments even for group tours, so call ahead to check schedules and make reservations, as needed …
Increasingly, applicants find that they like to see schools after they've received admission decisions, during that perplexing period when they have only several weeks to decide which college they'll actually attend. While campus visits early on do assist in determining where students ultimately apply, it also makes sense to avoid financing cross-country junkets to colleges where your child won't even be accepted. “We told Jeffrey that he could look at U.C. Berkeley if he got in," Jeff's mother, Sandy, recounts. “The rest of his choices were all near us in the East. We certainly weren't thrilled when Berkeley rejected him, but we were glad that we hadn't paid for a plane ticket to San Francisco." Likewise, says Dylan, “I was desperate to go to Brown. I knew I couldn't be objective about another school. I applied to four colleges but didn't visit any other campuses in the fall. When Brown denied me, I collected myself and went to the three places that had said yes. As it turned out, I was really impressed with two of them, and I think it was helpful to visit with a mind-set that said, 'This isn't window shopping. These places all want me, and in five months I will live at one of them.'"
Colleges, too, can be eager to entertain on-the-fence accepted applicants. Most will offer overnight accommodations; some issue invitations to special “open campus" events. (See Chapter 8.)
In an ideal world, candidates would visit colleges before applying in the fall and, again, before making final decisions in the spring. Of course, if this were an ideal world, Ed McMahon would come to your house and give you a check for 10 million dollars, which should just about cover four years of tuition and late-night snack attacks. In this world, however, you may have to decide between pre-acceptance and post-acceptance visits—or, perhaps, make no visits at all.
Q: How much time should we expect to spend on every campus we visit?
A: If you're planning on an interview and tour, you'll need a minimum of about two-and-a-half hours. Most tours last an hour or so; interviews range from 30 to 60 minutes. Colleges are pretty good about coordinating the two so that you don't spend all morning in the waiting room reading yesterday's USA Today, but there is usually some lag time in between. Be sure to arrive 10 or 15 minutes before an interview appointment. There will probably be a short form to fill out. Colleges can't normally cater to latecomers, and you might find your child's interview time shortened or juggled if you're not prompt. (If you get lost or stuck in traffic, try to call ahead.)
It's always wise to check on estimated tour, interview, and overall timing when you call for an interview appointment. If you have specific questions about financial aid, you might need to see a financial aid officer (often separate from admission staff). 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. (If campus meals aren't available, the next best thing is the student snack bar or a nearby student hangout.)
Would-be college athletes might want to plan time with a coach. For top recruits, NCAA rules will govern meetings, but for most aficionados at the Division III level, a call from you or your child could make a coach's day. Don't be shy. (It's also effective if you get your child's coach to call ahead and chat with his or her collegiate equivalent in coachly vernacular. See “Athletes" in Chapter 9.)
For some families, the infirmary, counseling services, or special needs coordinator should be on the schedule, too. A few seek out music teachers or—if a child has a strong interest and specific questions in a particular academic area—a professor. Just for the record, typical applicants don'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.
THE GOOD NEWS: 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.
THE BAD NEWS: Planning college visits can be more complicated than taking a family of five to Disney World, especially if you expect to see several schools on the same trip. Don't be timid about changing arrangements if one key person (e.g., the oboe instructor or tennis coach) isn't available." …
Although Sally doesn't emphasize dumpsters and bathrooms the way I do, she does deploy a lot of important tips about visiting colleges. Thus, whatever your college dreams, you should definitely pay close attention to the candidates 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!
Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.