Visiting colleges before selecting one for yourself or your child makes as much sense as driving several cars befor you buy or attending open houses before you select a home.
College is a significant investment, not only of time, but of your family’s resources. Attending the right one will help you or your child develop talents and skills that will payoff after graduation.
It’s never too early to start making visits with your child. Start by junior year for sure, but it can be useful even for a ninth- or 10th-grader to see a school on a family vacation when you’re in the area. Gan get a sense of different-sized colleges and programs, and different locations.
Another benefit of early visits is getting an understanding of what colleges will expect from students in terms of admissions before your child is into senior year. The last thing you want to hear is, ‘I wish I’d known this.’
Start local and visit a range of schools: Big, small, urban, rural, liberal arts, specialty—get an idea of what’s out there.Compare and contrast and figure out what’s important to you.
Every student will have his or her own decision points. You or your child might have non-negotiable factors—it has to be in a city, or have a business program, for example. Decide for yourself what’s negotiable or not.
The number of schools you visit depends on how you've been able to hone your goals. For example, if you’re looking at engineering programs within a day’s drive of home, you might not look at as many schools than you would if you didn’t know what you want yet.
You might want to make two or three visits to the same campus in the course of choosing a college.
A benefit of early visits is learning what colleges will expect from students in terms of admissions.
Whether it’s your first or your third visit, invest some time—don’t do a drive-by. Unless you’re just window shopping, plan ahead so you can make the most of your time:
Colleges put weight on demonstrated interest in their schools, so show you were there.
The experiences college campuses provide are carefully choreographed. Budget extra time for your visit and after the tour go backstage: Go into the campus buildings where you’re likely to spend time once enrolled, knock on doors, and see what happens.
Introduce yourself to professors and ask if they have time for questions. If they don’t, you’ve learned something about the department’s culture.
If the college offers interviews, schedule one.
As you walk around, take note of the buildings’ condition. If there are signs of deferred maintenance, it could be a sign of financial problems. Construction is an encouraging sign: It means the institution is able to invest in new development.
Ask professors about the learning environment—whether there are large lectures or interactive seminars, and opportunities for students to engage in independent study. If relevant to your plans, ask if you could do research with them and what the department does to help students with opportunities for graduate school or careers.
Eat in a dining hall or spend time in the student center. Ask students for their thoughts on the school.
Take notes about a school’s pros and cons, what’s exciting, and what’s not. Do this within the first 30 minutes of leaving. Otherwise all your visits will run together.
And when it’s decision time, pay attention to your gut feeling. A school might look great on paper, but you’re going to spend four years there, so you want to feel engaged and welcomed.
The information in this article is based on an interview with Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at The Derryfield School, an independent school for grades six through 12 in Manchester, N.H.
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