The Tour Is the Cure

Olivia Winslow

October 19, 2003

To judge a school, don’t just Web surf – visit the campus

It was a picture-perfect, crisp October afternoon: The sun shone brightly, a brisk breeze swayed the branches on a myriad of trees, some 8,000 altogether, that abound on the academic campus of Hofstra University in Hempstead that also has accreditation as an arboretum, a point noted in an information session for visitors.

It was perfect walking weather for these nearly two dozen newcomers to campus, several sets of parents with their high school seniors in tow, who were getting a first-hand look at the university.

And all, save for the lone Long Island teenager there with her dad, were setting foot on the campus for the first time.

Such visits to colleges by high school juniors and seniors – and increasingly sophomores – experts say, are essential in a world where the cost of a college education is skyrocketing, as well as becoming increasingly necessary in the 21st century.

“It’s just like the old adage, they say you wouldn’t buy a car without giving it a test drive. You wouldn’t want to go to a college you haven’t visited,” said Bill Rubin, director of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based The College Authority, which takes students from all over the country on college tours concentrated on the East Coast. “You can’t turn or walk three steps in the Northeast without bumping into a college campus,” he joked.

Bonnie Eissner, a spokeswoman for Adelphi University in Garden City, turned to a car analogy as well, likening prospective students and their parents to “consumers” who “want to kick the tires. And that’s what we want to enable them to do.”

Christine Murphy, Adelphi’s director of university admissions, added that college is a place a student is “going to live, play, study, learn, meet friends and have all sorts of collegiate experiences” over four years. In light of that investment, she said, “It’s really about finding the right match, the right fit.”

On a recent afternoon, Jaclyn Whalen, 21, of Deer Park, got her first glimpse of Adelphi’s campus. Because rain threatened but never materialized, other guests canceled on that day, leaving her the sole visitor on that tour. This underscored the personal touch that Murphy said Adelphi likes to provide by keeping tour groups small, with Whalen’s getting all the attention from her guide, junior Suzanne Winkler, 21, and from student greeters Jillian Wolfson, 17, and Chantal Hamlin, 18.

“I think it’s a very nice campus,” said Whalen, who should graduate from Suffolk County Community College in December with an associate’s degree and plans to continue college for a bachelor’s degree. “Everyone seems very nice. I like the fact that you can dorm here and feel the whole college life but still not be too far from home if you wanted to go home.” Whalen said she already had heard positive things about the university from a relative and a few friends. “Adelphi is my first choice because I heard a lot of good things about it.”

Part of finding the right college fit, experts say, involves in large measure the campus visit. Student visitors are encouraged to ask college students questions about the campus to get a feel for the environment. Have a meal in the cafeteria and strike up a conversation with some of the students, counselors advise.

Typically, colleges offer twice-daily tours, with morning and afternoon sessions. Visitors often can hear a presentation from admissions officials about the college, then go on a student-led tour of campus. Many conduct tours on Saturday as well. Arrangements can be made at many institutions, if students call in advance, to visit a classroom and stay overnight with “student ambassadors” to get a more in-depth experience. Also, students may request individual interview sessions with admissions officers at many institutions.

Students are advised to go prepared.

“They need to know as much as possible” about the colleges they visit, said Barbara Hall, New York University’s associate provost for admissions and financial aid. She and others said that is easy to do, since “information is now virtually on everyone’s Web site. They need to know about the school so the questions they ask supplement that information rather than just [be] something they could’ve read,” Hall said.

Gigi Lamens, Hofstra’s vice president for enrollment management, said, “Come prepared to one of those one-on-one [interview] sessions with questions and with a little background about the college [you’re] visiting. That shows an interest and level of motivation.”

Chris Carson, founder and “tour director” of CampusTours, which helps colleges design “virtual tours” of their campuses for their Web sites, called such tours a starting point for students to learn about an institution. Through its Web site, www.Campus Tours.com, the company provides links to about 750 college Web sites. He said CampusTours’ offerings demonstrate that the first place many students will go to find out about a college is online. He added, though, “there is really no substitute to actually getting there. You’ll find out at some institutions, it just doesn’t rub you the right way. At others, you’ll find it’s exactly what you’re looking for.”

Ben Jones, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bennington College in Vermont, suggested students should also research themselves as they shop around. He said they should have a sense of how they learn. “Do they respond to having close attention with a teacher? Or do they want more of a lecture environment? … They should know that.”

Bob Musiker, owner and director of Summer Discovery Pre-College Program, based in Roslyn, said, “The campus visit is taking on greater importance” as the admissions process has become “much more competitive.”

Musiker said his program, which he said has been around for about 30 years, seeks to address that by providing high school students with opportunities to take college courses during the summer at various campuses across the country. Recently, he has joined forces with The Princeton Review to provide a two-week program for high school students that involves not only college visits, but also SAT and college essay preparation. Choosing a college, Musiker said, “has become one of the most important decisions you will make in your lifetime.”

To Bev Taylor, an independent college counselor from Roslyn Heights, the college visit is a must – “a no-brainer” in fact.

Taylor said some highly selective colleges are even rating students’ interest in their campuses. “It’s called an IQ, for interest quotient,” she said. But beyond showing one’s interest, Taylor said a campus visit can help a student prepare for the essay many colleges require. “You cannot write that essay unless you go on a tour or overnight,” Taylor said. If a student has visited a class, which admissions officers and counselors encourage, Taylor said, “you can put the professor’s name in that essay. You can write about discussions that happened in that class … It means so much to the college admissions person reading that application. Besides their interest, it shows they’re not only doing what’s necessary but going beyond.”

For Leslie Ziegler of Rochester, “It’s a little overwhelming because there’s so much out there.” She and her husband, Carl, were accompanying their son Rob, 18, on the Hofstra tour.

“It’s so very different from when I went through this,” Ziegler said as the group wandered up California Avenue, passing Hofstra’s Law School. “I never visited … The first time I saw the campus [at the University of Connecticut] was the day I moved into the dorm room. Things are very different now.”

How Students Decide
Last year, The Art and Science Group, a consulting firm specialzing in higher education and the nonprofit sector, asked 500 students bound for 4-year colleges which factors were most influential in their choice of school:

  • Visit to schools 65%
  • Parents or other family members 39%
  • Current students or graduates of school 33%
  • College Web sties 26%
  • School catalog or other printed matter 25%
  • High school guidance counselors 24%
  • Admissions staff 24%
  • College research sites on Internet 20%
  • Friends 17%
  • High school teachers 17%
  • Published rankings 12%
  • Guidebooks (Peterson’s, Barrons, etc._ 7%
  • Independent college counselors 7%
  • CD-ROMS sent by the colleges 4%