The what and why of college visits

It is critical for any student considering college to actually visit the campus before finalizing his decision. Photo: The University of Virginia

WASHINGTON, April 15, 2013 - It is critical for any student considering college to actually visit the campus before finalizing his decision.

Visiting campuses is a springtime tradition.  It is a time when the weather is most likely to cooperate and the campus itself will look its best. 

High school seniors visit colleges one last time in the spring before they make their final college decision, and high school juniors take the opportunity to get their first look at college life.

This student is going to spent at least the next four years of his life and tens of thousands of your dollars at the college he chooses, so it is vital that the fit is perfect.

No matter how many books or on line reviews a student reads, they will need to step onto the campus and try the school on for size to really understand what it is all about. Every school has its own personality, quirks and foibles, and the only true way to assess a college is to visit.

Sometimes, the on-paper perception and the in-person “feel” are very different. One top student in the area who was accepted everywhere he applied had planned to attend the coveted top university in his state.  As he and his mother pulled into the parking lot of the campus for their spring tour, he told her there was no reason to even get out of the car; he was not going to go to school here.  Having just driven 2 ½ hours to visit to college, the mother asked why not.  The student said these were not “his kind of people” and he would not have a single friend if he attended that school.  Although his mother did insist they tour the campus, he never changed his mind.  The feeling never left him. 

The student would never have made that decision if he had not visited the campus.

When planning a college visit, first understand what you want out of the experience.  If your child is a junior getting his first look into college life, check the school’s web site and make sure you are not visiting on an accepted student weekend, which are abundant right now. These days are tailored for seniors making their final decisions, and tour guides cater to that group. Your  junior will find herself bored by the questions about printing prices and laundry that dominate these tours.

On the other hand if you have a senior, the nitty gritty is what you are looking for.  Hopefully your student has already been on the “wow, aren’t we great tour” and are now looking for the “can I have a microwave in my dorm” tour.

No matter what age your student is, one thing every parent and student must remember when visiting a college is that these schools are businesses. This is not a one way relationship.  It is not only that they have something you want, but also that you have something they need: a student and tuition.  Yes, they want the best qualified student that they can get in their seats, but if they do not have students, they do not survive.

As you take your tour, remember the university is trying to make a sale. Don’t expect them to be honest to a fault.  They want your student to apply no matter how qualified they are. They might turn them down, but they want them to apply.

During a recent question and answer forum for admitted students and parents at a large Big 10 school, a parent stood up three different times to ask whether the school is too big to give individual attention. Not surprisingly, the school demurred on providing a straight answer. No big school is ever going to say it is too big, nor is a small school ever going to say that it does not have enough activities available on campus for the students.  These are decisions each family will need to come to themselves.

Once you establish what you hope to get out of the visit, there are certain activities to try to participate in. 

Go on an organized tour. The admission offices keep track of this information and will give an applicant a few additional points on the application if he has visited the campus to show strong interest. It is not enough to get an unqualified student in, but a few points won’t hurt.  Organized tours also jnow what students want to see and will provide a good overview of the campus. Unescorted visitors often wander around with no idea what they are looking at, and an unescorted visitor will never get into a dorm room to see where a student will be living for the next few years.

After the tour, explore on your own. Find students and talk to them. These students have not been told the sales pitch and are much more likely to tell you how they really feel about the school. Ask them about what they like, why they came here and what they wish they could change. Also talk to them about the social life of the school.  The students aren’t going to want to talk to an adult about the number of parties on a given night but they are usually comfortable with the code word “social life.”

Eat in a dining hall and then go visit the other ones on campus. Many schools have more than one option. Your child will be eating here three meals a day, every day, for the next four years. Is there much variety? You are going to pay thousands of dollars for this food, would you eat it?

If a student wants to sit in on a class or participate in an overnight, let them, but understand these are highly coordinated events that are part of the sales pitch. Rarely are these experiences objectively helpful. Usually the overnight hosts are screened by the school and the experience makes the prospective student feel “big” and fall in love with the school. 

Do not ignore how your student feels when on campus. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that 1 out of every 5 students will transfer colleges at least 1 time.  Don’t set up your student to be the 1.


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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.


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