As I meet with high school students and their parents this summer, the subject of college visits inevitably comes up. I tell them what a close friend told me when my son was a rising sophomore: there will always be one school visit that won’t materialize because the student refuses to get out of the car!
Less than a year after hearing that, I found out what my friend meant firsthand. As we drove back home from New England, I just happened to turn off the interstate. My son thought I was making a pit stop but soon realized that Mom had something else in mind: another college visit! He looked at the town as we navigated the city, next saw the outskirts of the campus, and then absolutely refused to get out of the car. So, it was true! A year later, as we drove through bucolic Vermont and Massachusetts, we made another “drive by.” This time, he told me, the college looked like an office park! Again, he would not get out of the car.
I tell these stories to my wonderful families so that they are prepared for the unexpected during the college visit. Indeed, it is usually the case that no amount of market research can prepare a student for the vibe he or she gets when pulling up to a campus – or walking inside of it.
Here are some pointers for those who visit:
• Take notes during the information session (or appoint a designated note-taker).
• Pay close attention to tour guides and matriculated students, and ask them questions. I had one student last year who crossed a college off her list after the feedback she received from matriculated students she stopped at random.
• Take steps to avoid tension; if necessary reduce the number of family members permitted on the visit.
• If building interiors are not part of your tour, sneak into lecture halls and dorms.
• By all means, if your student is familiar with a professor or wants to sit through a class, contact the admissions office in advance of your trip.
• Try to see the campus while school is in session. (This is understandably difficult with our packed schedules and break times.)
• Check to see if on-campus interviews are available before you visit; just be sure your student is prepared and practiced for that interview.
• Jot down reactions while they are fresh in your mind. You’ll be glad you did.
A note to parents: Do not hesitate to use incentives if starting the process early. When my son was a sophomore, I would link a pleasure trip to a college visit. Wasn’t the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour a worthy prize for seeing an elite Vermont college? How about Busch Gardens as an ample reward for a trip to Charlottesville?
Remember, you will grow increasingly confident and knowledgeable with each college visit. When we became veterans of the process, my son and I actually looked forward to our trips. We found out that visits could be full of pleasant surprises (like the tour guide who explained that students could take finals in bed at midnight), bad first impressions (such as the admissions officer who forgot about his information session) or natural occurrences (like snow in late April). We learned to break away from the tour if necessary and explore on our own, sometimes stopping for a light meal or snack on campus or in the college town – yet another way to assess fit.
If possible, enjoy the college visits and the precious family time you have when away from your everyday routines. In a year or two, your student may be the one conducting the tours!