Make your College Visits Count!

College visits have become somewhat of a rite of passage for many high schoolers.  Every year students and their families wander miles of campus land looking at buildings and buying t-shirts in hopes of determining the best schools at which to apply.  While the college visit can be a vital step in the college selection process, such visits are of little value unless well planned and organized to answer specific family/student questions.  This requires self-awareness, knowledge of the basic standard of admission to the colleges visited and some idea of what it is that the student is looking for in a university or college besides the brand name of the school.  It should not come as a surprise that visiting the likes of Harvard, Brown and MIT are of little value beyond tourism for the vast majority of visitors.  Yet, so often families book tours of the top 10 schools, regardless of whether or not the student has the grades, SAT scores, passion or character necessary for admission.  The second most frequently made mistake in organizing college visits is the timing.  A great number of visits take place during the summer, as that is when high school students are only holiday.  Unfortunately, college students are also on holiday, thus prospective students miss the opportunity to get a realistic feeling for the school, its size or the sense of activity on campus.

Such a trips provide little of the information needed to find the colleges that actually fit the student.  So how can students and their families make the most out of college visits?

First consider the age of the student.  The right time to begin college visits is from the time a student enters Y10. Before this, students are generally not seriously thinking of college admissions and much of what they might learn is lost on them. Second, consider the time of year.  Your child will best be able to see what actually goes on at the college and get a real feel for its size if students are in classes when they visit. It is worthwhile to note that a campus visited during the summer can appear to be quite spacious and peaceful, but feel very different when its 40,000 students return in full force in the fall.

Distinguishing one ‘amazing’ university from another by reading on-line information is really tough.  Taking the opportunity to actually walk on campus, sit through classes, see how students interact, meet professors and “feel” the atmosphere is the best way to determine which types of universities might best fit a student.   After all, the atmosphere at a large West Coast public institution such as U.C Berkeley for instance is worlds away from that of a small private college like Amherst on the East Coast of the US.  Similarly the feeling in South West England’s Bath or Bristol Universities are completely different to those universities in the Midlands such as Leeds or Scotland’s, Edinburgh and Strathclyde.  Students often don’t know what suits them until they are surrounded by it on campus, it is often only then that they realize the meaning of the words read on the website.

Taking the time to try on different sizes and types of colleges is a great way to choose which environment fits your child. Most majors are offered by several colleges, so choosing the type of school that best suits the student can make all the difference to his or her success once on campus. Additionally, each college has its special virtues, on campus tutoring, gaming centers, jazz clubs, career advising, overseas study programs, campus traditions, etc., that can only be discovered by a campus visit.

Because there is so much to learn during a college visit, prospective students would be wise to spend some time thinking about what qualities he or she seeks in a college before the visit. In this way the student can set some criteria against which colleges can be evaluated.  Academic courses offered, access to professors, social environment, and the access to desired activities are just some of the attributes of a colleges that students should consider when deciding where they will apply. Prospectives should plan to talk to students at the colleges in addition to attending any information sessions and taking campus tours in order to gather all the information they can about each college.

A final word, it is an excellent idea for junior and senior year students, years 11 and 12, to do their college interviews during campus visits. These should be arranged ahead of time and the student should put serious thought into the answers to key questions that are likely to be asked. Such interviews give students the opportunity to learn about the colleges first hand and with a little preparation can have a positive impact on admissions results. Most colleges and university admissions boards are most familiar with the high schools in their own countries. It can be hard to assess how well a student from a far away country will fit an institution thus making the interview a perfect time to help admissions see what a great fit the student might be.

When choosing a tour, or putting one together yourself, be careful to visit universities/colleges that fit the academic profile of the student.  It is a good idea to see a range of colleges, big and small, private and public, national universities and liberal arts and sciences colleges to get an idea of what the benefits of different types of schools can be. Going into the local town to see what is going on is also recommended. Taking notes on what you hear, see and do is very useful. Colleges begin to blur together after a few visits, so it will important to make notes on points that were especially distinguishing about the individual institutions.

When college tours are well planned they can be fun, allow you meet like-minded students and help you understand exactly what specific colleges are really all about. They can also greatly reduce your anxiety about choosing colleges and even boost your profile in the admissions office, so plan your time well!

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Tess Robinson