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College visits: not just for summer

ColumbiaWalkByFrankBeckIMG_4655While many high school students opt to do their college visits during the summer, there are good reasons to go during the school year. That’s when you’ll find students and professors on campus and get the most accurate picture of college life.

Guidebooks and websites can provide you with descriptions, ratings and photos. But nothing can take the place of being on a campus, talking with people and observing the social, cultural and academic environment.

Be sure to check each school’s website before planning your visit. You’ll want to attend both a tour and an information session, so it’s important to visit when those are scheduled. You may also want to eat in the dining hall, just to soak up the scene.

High school freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors will naturally have different purposes for their college visits. It’s important to consider your own objectives ahead of time.

Freshmen and sophomores just need an overview

Freshmen and sophomores usually just want to see the general lay of the land and absorb the collegiate atmosphere. At this stage, you may have little idea what kind of college you want to attend—big or small; urban, suburban or rural. Early visits will help you start to mull over these issues.

You and your family may be fairly casual about visiting. At this stage, you don’t need to see too many colleges, and you don’t have to travel too far from home. If you discover a college you really like, plan to return in a year or two to look more carefully.

In junior year, it’s time to get serious

By the fall of 11th grade you should be working on your college list—asking yourself questions about your goals and what sort of school you might want to attend. It’s smart to visit a handful of colleges this year. Any clarity you gain now will make things easier when you’re a senior.

Remember you have neither unlimited time nor money. Research the schools carefully before choosing which ones to visit. There is no sense traveling to visit a college you could have ruled out using information from a guidebook or the school’s own website.

Long weekends and high school vacations like spring break can be a good time to visit. Check first to confirm each college is open. If you don’t manage to cover the schools on your list by June, there’s always the summer.

Seniors: off and running

Seniors have so much to do and so little time to do it. Despite that, save space on your calendar for college visits. Are there schools near the top of your list that you haven’t gotten to? You need to visit now.

Since you may have to take a few days off from school to do this, be sure to keep up-to-date with homework and protect your exam schedule. Then consult the websites of the colleges you want to visit, and schedule the visits carefully.

In addition to information sessions and tours, some colleges offer on-campus interviews. Others offer overnights for seniors, so you can sleep in a dorm and attend a class or two. Both can be excellent ways to get a close-up view of a school.

To judge the quality of a college, there’s no substitute for sitting in on classes. Whether or not you’ve signed up for an overnight, most schools will allow you to observe classes, as long as you get permission from the teachers.

It’s wise to observe a class in the area of your intended major. If you can sit in on more than one, so much the better! Listen carefully to what the professor has to say, but also pay attention to the students. Are they attentive in lectures? During discussion sessions, do they participate? Are their questions and comments probing? The intellectual engagement of the student body is the best measure of any school.

Besides visiting the colleges you didn’t get to earlier, there may be some you’ll want to return to. Especially if you toured the campus over a year ago, you’ll have a different perspective and new questions now. Equally important,your return visit shows the admissions office you’re especially interested in their school.

Campus visits are an important part of the admissions process. Plan your visits wisely and early. You’ll be glad you did.

– The College Strategist