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Articles / Applying to College / Thoughts on Visiting Colleges

Thoughts on Visiting Colleges

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Feb. 27, 2014
Attention Moms, Dads, and high school juniors. Have you thought about visiting colleges yet? Depending on which section of the United States you're in, college visits may be the last thing on your mind right now (late February). In your neighborhood this morning, it may be eight degrees, as it is in mine. The snow may be piled up to (or above) your mailbox. These relentless winter days have forced me to modify my oft-repeated admonition about visiting colleges — “You've got to trod the sod!" — into “Watch out you don't slip and fall on the ice!"

Well, as I've mentioned before, those of us in the grips of Old Man Winter (is that sexist?), or for the sake of gender obfuscation, or in the grips of Old Person Winter, may not be thinking about walking across lush, green campuses right now, but the importance of such a task is ongoing. So, I thought I would share some thoughts with those of you who need to be planning your college visits.

When is the best time to visit colleges? That's an easy one to answer: When the students are there! There's nothing like getting the big picture of what a certain college's student body looks like. Just standing on the “quad" and watching the students pass by on their way to class, toss a football or kick a soccer ball around, or just recline under a well-pruned tree can tell you a lot about the “vibe" of a school. A friend of mine just returned from taking her son on a tour of several southern colleges (where there was no snow and ice) and she reported some of the differences between the way students looked at two of the colleges on her son's list. At one, everyone seemed to be wearing shorts and flip-flops … in early February, no less!

She said that the students there seemed very friendly and laid back, walking in groups, smiling and laughing. That was in high contrast to another school they visited in another state, where the students seemed much more uptight, walking not in groups but alone, with their heads down, unsmiling. The atmosphere on this campus was much more intense and less friendly than the first school they visited. Obviously, it's not wise to make major generalizations based on such a brief sampling, but I believe that there's more than a grain of truth to observations like this. You, as a parent who knows your child better than anyone, can make some sound judgments and eventually recommendations about which school(s) might make better matches than other ones when it comes to creating that final application list or enrollment decision.

Since visiting a college when the students are there is the best time to trod the sod, what if your family's plans require a summer visit? What should you be aware of about that?

All colleges offer summer tour programs. Because it's sometimes easier to combine visits with summer vacation plans, you may want to do so. If you already have vacation plans in place, see if you can make a detour to the campuses of some candidate schools. Who knows? Your vacation might be in the neighborhood of schools on the list.

If you haven't made vacation plans yet, you have the perfect opportunity to tailor a college-visit trip. A vacation such as this can be more enjoyable and entertaining than you might think. Many colleges are located in very picturesque areas featuring significant tourist attractions.

Consider the advantage of visiting schools over the summer. If your senior-to-be has a list of, say, five or six candidate schools, a summer visit might help him or her refine the list to three or four before the new school year begins. College campuses are always lovely during the summer. The only time when the they appear more beautiful is in October, when the leaves have changed to their autumn splendor, assuming that they are located in a four-season part of the country. Summertime is a relaxed period because there are far fewer students on campus. There may be some construction going on, but that's normal for the time of year.

One concern parents often have about college visits is how to remember the unique aspects, advantages, and seeming shortfalls of all the colleges visited on a summer swing. One creative solution that was posted recently on the College Confidential's discussion forum provides an elegant solution. Go to each college's bookstore and buy a postcard that pictures the college being visited. Write all your (and your son's or daughter's) pertinent thoughts and questions on it and mail it home. When you return, you'll have a neat collection of all your thoughts posted to a memento of each college you visited. Very clever, and it works. You'll then recall what school had what program or special accommodations.

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 son or daughter contact the admissions offices and inquire about hosting programs. The overnighter should confirm any perceptions about a particular school.

You may also be wondering what kinds of stimuli inspire a high school student to become interested in a college. Well, you may have seen the avalanche of USPS-mail information (and email spam) flooding your collegian-to-be. One of the more subtle, and sometimes highly misleading, forms of inspiration can come from college marketing materials.

You've no doubt seen them by now: those expensive, glossy, full-color college brochures that tout the institution's image and credentials. Have you ever noticed that a lot of them seem very much alike? If visitors from another solar system came to Earth and found a bunch of these slick marketing pieces, they would no doubt report back to home base that America's higher-education institutions have the following characteristics:

– Students are tall and thin; they dress smartly and smile frequently

– Most colleges and universities are located in “sunbelt" areas where clouds are rare

– Classes are small and seminar-like and held on lush, green lawns

– A beautiful lake is the visual center of most campuses; ducks and geese abound

– The architectural theme is “Gorgeous Gothic" with spires and arches galore

– Etc.

See where this is headed? The bottom line: Don't judge a college by its brochure. You must gather first-hand intelligence about the schools on your list.

The two most important sources of information are personal impressions from visiting the campus and comments from students who go there. Personal visits are mandatory. Unless you have trod the sod (there's that phrase again) of your candidate schools, you'll never know what it's like to be there. The obvious answer, then, is to schedule a visit. For a detailed look at how to maximize your visit, check out College Confidential's College Visit Tips. You can also see actual descriptions of college visits in CC's CampusVibe section.

Students' opinions can be a little more difficult to gather. The information is available, though. While you're on campus, you can ask students questions directly. College guide books are another way to get student opinions. If you've cruised bookstores, you've seen them: The Insiders Guide to the Colleges, America's [whatever the number is thisyear] Best Colleges, The Fiske Guide, and so forth. These books compile student comments gathered from questionnaires. Some of the comments about class sizes, food, social life, work loads, and the like will surprise you. In some cases, the brochure image fades quickly. However, there's no better place to get student insights than College Confidential.

If you're looking for a book about college visits to prime your college-visit pump, one that may be of interest is Visiting College Campuses(5th Edition), by Janet Spencer, Sandra Maleson, et al.

This handy collection of information about visiting college campuses can be your copilot on a college-visit tour. It's packed with useful information that will keep you focused on the point of such a trip: visiting colleges. Many times families become diverted in their college travels because they spend more time worrying about the practical details of how to get there, where to stay, school tour schedules, and on and on. The good news here, however, is that Visiting College Campusestakes care of those issues for you.

You'll find detailed profiles of 250 of the most frequently visited college campuses from around the country. There are maps of each state showing all the campuses listed from that state plus neat little mileage matrices illustrating how far each college is from the other. There is up-to-date information on transportation, if you're going to be flying, and driving instructions that tie into the maps, showing main and secondary highways leading to the various colleges. If you're planning to stay overnight, you can get a quick survey of local hotel and motel accommodations from the listings that also include addresses and phone numbers.

As if this weren't enough, you'll also get information on local attractions (assuming you have any energy left over after a day of hiking through quadrangles) and a concise summary box that lays out each school's policies regarding tours, faculty and coaches visits, dorm stays, and more. The appendices include regional mileage matrices, college calendars (arranged by state), and an alphabetical listing of schools covered in the book. If you're someone who likes to plan, this book can give you the information you need to put together one heck of an efficient college-tour agenda. Used properly, this guide will easily pay for itself by the end of your first trip.

Bottom line: Plan your college visits, then visit your college plans. And watch out for falling icicles!


Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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