School Daze

Julie Halpert

August 15, 2009

Overwhelmed by the daunting task of finding the perfect college? A little homework will save your sanity.

KELSY TRUMBLE, an 18-year-old from Centreville, Virginia, will be the first in her family to attend college, so choosing a school was monumental for both her and her parents. “The whole process can be so daunting if you haven’t gone through it,” says her mother, Lex Trumble. Lex thought the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, would be the perfect school for Kelsy. But it wasn’t until Kelsy stepped foot on the campus that she agreed with her mom. “It’s like I fit in as soon as I got there,” Kelsy says. “It was just so perfect. Everything clicked.” She was admitted last December and plans to start there this fall. “She’s been 10 feet off the ground ever since,” says Lex.

This fall, a whole new class of high school seniors will embark on a journey filled with angst, excitement, and anticipation: trying to find a college that is not only a perfect fit but is likely to admit them as well. As they plow through college guides and surf the Internet to check out one website after another, there’s a central element that goes a long way toward helping a student discover which school is their best destination, and it’s called the college visit. “No student should enroll in a school that they have not visited,” says Lisa Sohmer, a member of the board of directors for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “The way to touch it and feel it is not from a brochure,” adds John Boshoven, a counselor for continuing education at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and author of the book College Admissions: From Chaos to Control. A college visit can cue students in on everything from classes to the campus buildings to the surrounding town to the type of food served in the cafeteria.

College visits carry their own stresses, though, and can be overwhelming experiences for those who are embarking on them for the first time. Here’s how to make the most of your visits:

When should I start visiting colleges? Patrick O’Connor, director of college counseling for the Roeper School in Birmingham, Michigan, and author of College Is Yours in 600 Words or Less, suggests that students head to campuses that are an hour or two away as early as their sophomore year of high school in order to get a sense of what they are like and to witness the differences between small and large schools. Most visits take place throughout a student’s junior year.

How many colleges should I visit? “You can make yourself crazy by trying to visit every campus on the planet,” says Judith Hingle, a career connections specialist at Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Virginia. She says it’s fine to visit only a few schools, but make sure they represent a variety — small and large, urban and rural — so the student understands the general differences. Work with a high school admissions counselor to narrow your list down to the number of schools you feel you can manage to visit, which may be anywhere from five to 10. You can search for campuses to visit by developing a list of top-priority qualities you’re looking for in a school; then, determine which colleges best satisfy those criteria and go to those. It’s also worthwhile to consider colleges that you stand the best chance of gaining admission to. Setting your heart on an incredibly selective school that’s unlikely to accept you doesn’t make sense. It’s okay to visit schools that are located relatively close together at the same time, though you shouldn’t see more than two a day, Sohmer says. She also suggests taking photos when you’re on campus, including of the college’s name, which will later help you distinguish the schools when they begin to blur together. If it’s too expensive to visit a school you think might be the perfect one, speak with the college’s admissions office about the school.

How much time should I spend at each college? Experts say that ideally, it’s important to spend a day at each school in order to get a true sense of what the campus is like.

How should I prepare in advance? Students should take the lead and contact the admissions office of each university to set up meetings such as an informational session and a campus tour. Admissions offices can also arrange for you to sit in on a class in a subject that interests you. Sabena Moretz, associate director of admission of the University of Richmond in Virginia, says students should do their homework before heading out, including spending time on the school’s website and taking advantage of social networks so that they will be prepared to ask the right questions.

What happens once I get there? First, you’ll start with the official engagements. The college tour “sets the tone,” O’Connor says. It’s the college showing you what they care about. Then, take some time to see the campus on your own. “The tour guides will give you the script, but the students are going to tell it like it is,” says Bev Taylor, director of Ivy Coach, a New York–based college-consulting company. Visit the buildings, including the dorms. And don’t hesitate to knock on someone’s door and ask to see his or her room. David Hawkins, director of public policy for NACAC, says it’s helpful to seek out someone from your hometown who’s attending the school so that you can get more than just an official perspective. Eat your meals in the cafeteria so you can check out the student scene. Shawn Abbott, director of admissions for Stanford University in California, says talking to students informally is a good idea. And Boshoven goes a step further and suggests you seek out those who look unhappy or are alone in order to get the unofficial take on the school. Stop in at local hangouts like coffee shops to get a sense of what the surrounding town is like. Hingle also suggests looking at more informal channels of information like bulletin boards on campus, student newspapers, and student gathering places such as the student union and the bookstore.

What role should parents have on these visits? The parents should be quiet advisers. “This is the child’s next home, so they should take the lead in trying to find out if this is the right home for them,” O’Connor says. He asks that parents lag behind on the campus tour in order to give their child the opportunity to ask questions of the tour guide. Or parents could attend a separate tour so they can ask their own questions. Either way, students should do the talking and be in control of what they see, hear, and ask.

What’s the best way to wrap up a visit? Parents should give their child an empty notebook in which to write down impressions of each school. At the end of every college visit, when everyone gets in the car, parents should wait until after the child has finished recording those impressions to talk together about the experience. This will ensure that parents don’t unduly influence the process, Moretz says. Through it all, remember to try to have fun, and enjoy each other as a family. “Look what they’re ready for and celebrate that, because the child is about to move away. The march is on toward that, so just try to soak it up,” Moretz says.