College Visits Whys & Hows

I received so many questions and comments on my last article about college visits that I wanted to follow up on a couple of items: Why should you make visits a priority and how can you visit a number of schools. The first point I’d make is this: It doesn’t matter which schools you visit. You will learn something that will inform your college selection process at every school you visit, even if it’s just “I don’t want to go to a school that _____.”

Most students seem to start from the point of majors offered, geography, small vs large, and (hopefully) affordability and then impute the general awesomeness of a large community of people their age and no parents. But that won’t narrow the field enough, or expand it either. (One of my favorite comments from our tour was from a Tufts admissions director: “We talk a lot about finding a school that’s a fit for you, but you should also remember that the purpose of college is to get outside your comfort zone.”)

Here are some comments and learnings that stuck with us from our college tours, none of which was anything we necessarily would have come up with on our own:

  • Asked about what they didn’t like about their school, one student mentioned that it’s not in a “college town” so although there is a lot going on on campus and in the surrounding community, there isn’t a local off-campus student-oriented gathering place.
  • At schools with D1 sports teams, a significant amount of the social life tends to be oriented around sports.
  • Whatever your sport, whatever your level at that sport, most schools will have a place for you to participate with others at the same level. That may or may not be the case for other activities like performing arts.
  • At a liberal arts college that is working hard to attract a more diverse student body, one of our tour guides who is from a working class family said she struggled initially to fit in because most of her classmates’ families were considerably wealthier than hers and they were accustomed to doing a lot of things in their free time that weren’t affordable to her.
  • A premed student said he chose his school because at all the others he considered, they took great pride in their premed courseload being “weeder” classes, whereas the faculty at the school he chose talked more about helping students to succeed in these difficult courses.
  • Schools have a range of very different retention tools, based on the priorities they see for their student bodies. I was pleasantly surprised to see that even elite schools like MIT and Yale care about student success and tailor their programs to what they see as their own institutional challenges. For example, MIT has a number of initiatives addressed at suicide prevention that seem to start from the point of identifying root causes. Other schools focused more on student-run activities or community-building.
  • Different schools place different value on engagement with their surrounding communities. (And as a Berkeley alum, I’d say that different communities place different value on their local university and its students being in the community.)
  • Some schools see housing as a tool for community building; others use it as a pathway to independence; still others see it primarily as living choices. Some do not permit students to have cars, or limit cars to upperclasspersons.
  • Schools have vastly differing policies on alcohol and drug use by students, ranging from “Good Samaritan” policies where students will never be punished for calling for help regardless of their age or state of intoxication, to zero-tolerance zones or policies.
  • What role does the school see for organizations like fraternities and sororities or other social groups? We’ve seen very small schools with large and active Greek communities and others that shun them.

None of these is right or wrong in and of itself, but most of them are things we probably would not have come up with on our own. The best part is, you don’t have to travel cross-country to find out about things like this– chances are you have a few schools in your immediate area that you can visit to see more of the nuances of student life. And much of the above info came from schools neither of my kids are interested in but that we’re grateful to for providing a lens for more thorough evaluation.

The next piece is, how do you visit schools? I know that not everyone can take a week and travel all over. We were fortunate to have people willing to open up their guest rooms for us most places, but it was still an expensive trip. Here’s a dirty secret: my daughter has a twin brother and I have not taken him on a single college visit. Here’s the better part of that: He’s visited at least as many colleges as she has. Between the two of them, they’ve done upwards of 30 college visits. Here’s how:

  • Luck. When they were in middle school and the financial crisis hit, our district added 5 furlough days to the school year. A group of parents in their class decided to organize academic outings for them. One mom was a professor at a local college, so she arranged a day for them to visit the campus. The kids enjoyed that so much that the class did a college visit each year in middle school. We saw two (very different) small private schools and one big public school– a great intro to the concept of different campus communities.
  • Dual-credit courses. Both of my kids took dual-credit math classes and in those classes, they spent a day at the university granting the credit including attending the “college” version of their class.
  • Traveling. Our families live in different parts of the country, so we’ve tried to stop in at some colleges when we visit them. And we’ve occasionally gone to a college while on a vacation.
  • Club sports. My son’s soccer team was very focused on getting the boys to play in college, so everywhere outside of Portland that they played games or tournaments, they toured the local colleges with the school’s soccer coach and usually met some student athletes. They did this whether they were going to southern Oregon or out of state. (The upshot for my son was, he liked the feel of a big school and would rather go to a big school than play soccer in college.)

There are lots of other options too. Groups of schools in a single geographical area often offer joint programs during a week of the summer where they’ll do more than just tours for prospective students. Most schools offer some form of summer or after-school program.

The bottom line is, you have opportunities to visit colleges even if you aren’t in a position to travel to see them. And it’s worth visiting some schools you’re not interested in– at a minimum you may learn what it is you’re not interested in so that you can apply that to your college screening.

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