Feb 17, 2016

Gearing up for campus visits

It’s getting close to that time of year again—the time of year when college campuses shift gears and formally welcome a whole new crop of prospective applicants coming to check out facilities, tour grounds and otherwise feel the vibe. 

And make no mistake the campus tour is much more than a simple rite of passage for the college-bound—usually high school juniors. It’s an opportunity to do everything from sampling food and enjoying the carefully groomed landscape to sitting in on a lecture and admiring the new climbing wall (which is bound to be the largest and most challenging in the region).  

A campus visit is your chance to get a firsthand view of a college. Websites, catalogs and brochures are marketing tools. They are good for introducing a college but they hardly tell the whole story.  Frankly, it's really difficult to get a feel for a place or envision a future in a particular community without actually being there. And considering the investment involved as well as the impact the next four years will have on your life, a college visit could be well worth your time.

Note that it’s generally a bad plan to save campus visits until after you’ve been admitted. These trips should be fundamental to building your college list on the front end, not eliminating schools on the back end.

And be aware that a side benefit of these trips is the opportunity to develop relationships with college admissions offices. It’s no secret that many schools (whether they admit it or not) capture data on visits and factor it into an estimate of how interested you are in the school as well as how likely you are to attend should you be offered admission.  This information can be very very important to some colleges, and so you always want a school to know when you’re planning to be on campus.

Key elements of a basic college visit should include a stop in the admissions office hopefully including an admissions presentation or information session; a campus tour—conducted by the college or on your own; opportunities to meet staff including professors in fields of interest, coaches or support staff; time to meet and chat with current students; a review of extracurricular, athletic or other special opportunities; a look at residence halls and dining facilities; and an introduction to the surrounding college community or town.  A more in-depth visit might also include sitting in on a class or two or an overnight in a residence hall.

To get a real feel for a college, it’s best to visit when school is in session—not during vacations or final exam weeks. Seeing a campus when classes and activities are in full swing will give you a much fuller picture of what life is like as an undergraduate.  Scheduling a visit during the week will provide you with a sense of the hustle and bustle of an active campus, but extending the visit to the weekend will suggest how lively the campus remains when classes aren’t in session.

Unfortunately, student or parent schedules don’t always mesh with college schedules. You don’t have control over when your spring break or various long weekends will take place, although they are usually posted years in advance. And you certainly don’t have control over college breaks which aren’t even remotely consistent across the universe of postsecondary institutions.

To help with the planning of college tours, several travel agencies (with varying agendas) and others have assembled lists of spring break dates for 2016.  Some like StudentCity are searchable by college name or state.  Others like STS Travel are a little more geographically targeted and organized by date. 

Starting with the University of Chicago, which went on break February 13, and concluding with Kennesaw State University, which ends its break on April 9, 2016, these lists can be valuable tools for scheduling trips. They also provide a feel for regional variations in academic calendars which may be factors in developing your college list.

Another fantastic resource for organizing college visits is Hedberg’s U.S. College and University Reference Map, which locates and indexes more than 1,400 four-year schools in the U.S and Canada.  The map measures approximately 39.5 x 27 inches and not only provides a general idea of proximity—how close colleges are to one another—but also identifies institutions as public or private, single-sex and religiously affiliated.

If spring break doesn’t work because of other obligations, note that visiting campuses during the summer months or other less active times of the year is better than not visiting at all. And if you know you’re going to need an interview, be sure to factor the interview schedule into your plans.  They tend to be available during slower months on campus.

Regardless of when you visit and where you are in the application process, be sure to do your homework first.  Let the college know you are coming by completing whatever registration process they have in place and take the time to thoroughly review the information contained on college webpages. 

Above all, don’t simply go along for the ride. Get the most out of your college visits by being an informed consumer who actively listens and isn’t afraid to ask tough questions.

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