What should we look for during college campus visits?

Question:

I’m starting my senior year in high school this fall. My family and I are planning to visit some colleges when we go on vacation later this summer. What kind of things should we do or look for while we are on each campus?

Answer:

Summer vacations and spring break are not the best time to visit colleges, as classes might not be in session and there may be very few students on campus. Touring a bunch of empty campus buildings will not help the student (or parents) make an informed decision about which college is the best academic and social fit.

The major differences between colleges are not in the faculty or the facilities, but in the students. Students spend more time learning from their peers than they spend sitting in classrooms listening to lectures. Having an opportunity to speak with current students matters more than the color of the brick underneath all the ivy.

Ideally, prospective college students should stay overnight in the dorms to get a good feel for the campus culture. Contact the college admissions office or campus visitors center at least two weeks before the visit to ask about the availability of an overnight stay. If staying overnight is not an option, the student and parents should split up after they arrive on the college campus. This will give the student an opportunity to ask questions without being intimidated or embarrassed by his or her parents. The answers will also be more candid. Splitting up also provides an opportunity to cover more ground and, perhaps, form different impressions of each college.

The parents should spend some time in the college’s financial aid office getting answers to important questions, such as whether the college meets full demonstrated financial need, how much the student and parents will need to borrow, whether the college practices front-loading of grants and what happens to the financial aid package when the student wins a private scholarship. They should also ask about any anticipated changes to the college’s financial aid or awarding policies. Parents should not expect a commitment as to the amounts and sources of any aid their student may be eligible to receive.

While the parents are exploring the campus on their own, they should pick a random college student and offer to buy him or her lunch if the student tells them what he or she likes and dislikes about the college. Ask the student to talk about what’s wrong with the place, the kind of information that doesn’t appear in the glossy brochures prepared by the college admissions office. Parents should try to spend more time listening than talking.

Before the college visit, the student and parents should do some research about the college, such as reading the information available on the college’s web site. The student should be prepared to answer the question, “What attracts you to our college?”

After the college visit, the student and parents should each send a thank you note to the people who helped them during their visit. College admissions staff, in particular, take note of the depth of the student’s interest in the college. To ensure the correct spelling and titles of the individuals met, be sure to ask for the person’s business card. This will also help with future possible contacts.