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Written by:  Carol McGarrahan
Date: March 1, 2010

As a high school student I decided I might want to attend St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind. I thought it would be an adventure to live north of the Mason-Dixon Line for once and be near the fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Wisely, my mother arranged a visit to the school and I stayed with my cousin in the dorm there one weekend. That visit, although enjoyable, cured me of my romantic notions of a winter wonderland. It might have been the right school, but it was the wrong location for my southern blood.

Counselors and parents say this kind of experience is why visiting colleges is a key component in the college search. But what should parents and students look for and think about when it comes to a college visit?

"I think the thing we emphasize to students is that it is important when looking for colleges that you look for the best fit," says Scottie Dietz, director of college counseling at St. David's School in Raleigh.

Dietz recommends students consider the following when deciding where to visit:

- Preferences related to both the size of a campus and size of the student body.

- Preferred location, not only distance from home, but urban versus small town, versus rural.

- Programs and majors offered at the school.

Dietz suggests acquainting students with a variety of college atmospheres by visiting a small private school, a large public university a school in an urban setting, a school in a rural setting and a highly selective school as well as a less selective school.

"I also always recommend that students eat on campus," Dietz says. "Not only do they get a sampling of the food but they also see the student body and can think about whether this is a place they would feel at home." She believes it's best to visit at least five or six colleges and more if possible.

Voices of Experience

Neal Myers-Perry is a Chapel Hill native and a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He visited six colleges prior to making a final decision and says those visits were very helpful in making a decision. Most students visit colleges during their junior year in high school.

"College visits are crucial because that is the face the college puts on for the public," he says. "You really need to think about whether you can see yourself going to that university and being comfortable and hanging out and living your life there."

Following his visits, he discovered he liked two colleges, disliked two and was neutral on two.

Like Dietz, he encourages students to visit the cafeteria because "that's where you will be eating for the first two years at least." He also suggests visiting dorms if possible.

Students need to consider the size of the campus, the location, the climate, and last but certainly not least, the cost of the school.

Cost, of course, is often a factor, and during these economic times students are more keenly aware of which college is a better "deal." Myers-Perry says cost was "a huge factor" in his decision. He liked the school and knew that it was substantially less expensive than the other schools he visited yet still had good qualities he liked.

Lisa Rowe of Rocky Mount says her son, now a college freshman, liked many of the colleges they visited. He currently attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For him the decision also hinged largely on finances, since one of his top choices offered him a full scholarship.

Still, Rowe says they were glad to have visited several places to learn more about the schools. "What we were encouraged to do by the college counselor at school was to go during the school year when there are people on campus, which is useful because there is a feel that is different when kids are there," she says. She found the campus tours, which are typically led by current students, particularly helpful. "It was nice to be able to ask the current students questions and it put kids more at ease," she says.

Rowe also says the rigor of the program is something to consider. "A lot of these kids coming out of high school are completely burned out," Rowe says. They may not necessarily want an overly challenging academic program.

Advice for Parents

Parents can play a major role during the college search by arranging the timing of visits and being sure paperwork is turned in on time.

Be sure to go with your student on the visits, but stay in the background during the campus visits so students can ask their own questions and  experience the campus and its students, Dietz says. If needed, also make an appointment with financial aid office on campus during the visit.

Once students have visited several colleges they begin to know and understand more about what they might want.

"It boils down to do you feel comfortable there while your touring because if you don't you probably won't like it while you're there," says Myers-Perry.

Carol McGarrahan is associate editor of Carolina Parent magazine.


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