Tips for Hunting for Colleges
With one son enjoying college life at a southern university, a second on the verge of filling out his college applications, and a third teen just beginning the college search, I feel like I'm officially qualified to offer advice to other parents and students.
Visiting colleges before applying to them is recommended by the experts – college admissions staff, college admissions consultants, guidance counselors, and university tour guides. After touring more than 20 diverse college campuses, I agree. There can be a real difference between the college's marketing materials and how the school actually looks and feels.
Experts also advise parents to "look early, but not too early." Your teen's sophomore and junior years in high school are the optimum time to schedule your visits. Let's get started.
Before Your Visit
• Have your student research the schools that you'll be traveling to on the Internet and print out tour and meeting schedules, basic facts about the school, special program information, and maps. Review the materials together so you're on the same page as to how you want to spend your time on campus.
• Set up visits to several universities in the same geographical area. This will not only save you travel time and money, but will also give you a basis for comparing different types of schools. Try not to schedule visits during college breaks or exam weeks as this will probably not give you a realistic idea of what the campus is usually like.
• Have your teen sign up both of you for admissions information sessions and campus tours prior to the visit. This is important because tours and information sessions often fill up, especially on weekends and during school vacation weeks.
• Try not to over-schedule yourselves. One university a day is ideal, but visiting two colleges isn't impossible. More than that will definitely be overwhelming for all of you.
The Big Day
• Leave yourself plenty of time to find parking and chart your course in unfamiliar territory. Bring what you need for a day on campus because you may not have a lot of time in between activities to return to the car if it's parked far away. Carry a small backpack with some money, water bottles, simple snacks like granola bars, a notebook and pens, and a book to read. The backpack can also be used to store all of the admissions department handouts and copies of the college newspaper or city magazines that will give you a better sense of the university and the surrounding community.
• Dress for the weather. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes and, depending on the season, take suntan lotion, a hat, gloves, boots, or an umbrella. Tours can be fairly lengthy and frequently cover a wide variety of terrains so be prepared.
• Don't hover. Stay quiet and let your teen do the talking. If you have a really pressing question, you can always ask afterwards or email when you get home.
• Outline a rough schedule for the day but also be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities that may crop up unexpectedly. We had plans to eat at a restaurant in town until a tour guide happened to mention a popular student lunch place that we never would have found on our own as it was hidden in the basement of a science building. The food was great and we got to listen to the students around us talk about their classes, professors, and social plans.
• Talk to current students as they'll offer insights that aren't available from the more formal sources of information. Go where they go and ask them questions based on what you learned on your official tour.
Review the different colleges with your son or daughter, comparing the pros and cons of each including location, programs, professors, campus life, in relation to your teen's life goals. Have your teen record some impressions of each school before memories fade. Colleges tend to blend together over time and specific memories of them can be really helpful when it's time to write the college essay.
Relax. These visits are just one more step down the road to independence. With this in mind, try to sit back and enjoy the ride together.
Sue Henninger is a frequent contributor to family magazines and the parent of two high school students and a college sophomore. Contact her at www.fingerlakeswriter.com.