Are you a high school freshman or sophomore, or the parent of someone who is? If so, you’re probably wondering about college visits. When’s the best time to start? And where to begin?
On the one hand, you don’t need to hit the road just yet. On the other, it is time to start planning. Time you invest now will save you lots of time and stress later. If you don’t plan ahead, it won’t be a pretty picture. I’ve seen it many times.
Every fall, I hear from panicky seniors, scrambling to complete their college applications. Just as they’re writing their essays, many are still trying to firm up their college lists. Some add and drop colleges on a daily basis. By the time December rolls around, the colleges they end up applying to are often ones they haven’t visited, while colleges they did visit have been scratched from the list.
This leaves the students, as well as the moms and dads, playing a frantic game of catch-up, as they try to figure out how to schedule last-minute college visits and interviews during late-fall weekends and winter breaks. At this point, there is never enough time to get it all done. Sometimes, even favored schools fall by the wayside amidst the chaos.
Don’t jump the gun
How and why does this happen? Often it happens because eager, well-meaning parents jump the gun. They start planning college visits before the student has taken the time to do research or serious thinking.
It may start during the summer before junior year, when Aunt Mollie, in Durham, North Carolina, is celebrating her 50th birthday and it seems, to Mom and Dad, like the perfect excuse to plan a family road trip to see southern colleges. Or it may begin with Dad, who wants to see his buddy in New Hampshire, right near Dartmouth College. Wouldn’t that college be a neat place to apply to, don’t you think, David?
There’s nothing wrong with family road trips that incorporate college visits. Especially when they involve picturesque locations, they can be lots of fun. But life is short, high school goes fast, and we only have so much time. The long weekends you spend driving to Duke or Dartmouth will inevitably eclipse other visits you could have, and probably should have, made to colleges that may be a better fit for you.
Come senior year, you may rue the week you spent doing the southern circuit, the ten days visiting California schools, and the weekends flying into Chicago, Portland, Dallas and other cities, when you finally realize you want to stick to colleges in New York and New England.
Read before you go
This brings me to the first, most important rule of college visits. Start with the book. Yes, the book. Although some folks skip over the paper step and simply start researching on the internet, I strongly believe an actual book is the first and best place to begin. Books are faster to use and better organized.
Buy the Fiske Guide to Colleges, or an equivalent college guide. Spend the necessary hours, weeks or even months browsing through its pages, reading about various schools. From time to time, close the book and simply think about what you want out of college. This will mostly depend, of course, on what you want out of life.
Your freshman and sophomore years of high school are exactly the right time to start asking yourself these big questions. If you start pondering now, you’ll be better able to deal with college a few years down the line.
Let your questions gestate, as you flip through the college guide. What do you like to do? What are you especially good at? Can you imagine spending four years at a school in a city? What about a quiet campus in the country? Would you prefer a big research university that includes grad students? Or would you be happier at a small, liberal arts college with just a couple thousand people your age? These are hard questions to answer. But the sooner you start asking them, the more likely you’ll know by senior year.
How can you know until you go?
Many people ask that question. This is based on the cliché, “You’ll know it when you see it,” which claims that teenagers need to visit dozens of schools in many locations. When they do so, they will come upon the perfect college just right for them, and they’ll fall in love with it. This will result in happiness.
That’s a myth. Every year, thousands of teens and their families are misled by slick tours of beautiful campuses and think they’ve found love. It’s so easy to be swayed by ephemeral experiences—the way the sun slants through red maple leaves on an October day, the crackling logs in the fireplace of an admissions office or the friendly student who leads your tour.
These are all moments that may happen once and never again during your four years at the school. They may put you in a good mood that day. But they are not the stuff to base important decisions on. I don’t mean that visits aren’t important. You may learn things on a visit that you’ll never get from a book: whether a campus feels sleepy or bustling, whether student housing looks appealing or overcrowded, for example.
But there are also things you can learn in five minutes from a book, or the internet, that you might not glean after traipsing around a campus for hours: the special programs in your areas of interest and the quantities of financial aid available, are two important ones.
Make a little list
Do the serious book research first. Supplement it with internet research: visit each college’s website and click around. Also, look for recent articles about the school. You want to get as complete a picture as possible. When evaluating colleges, don’t forget to consider geography and cost, as well as the academic requirements.
Using your research as a base, start a list of colleges that sound like they’d meet your needs and interests. This is just a preliminary list, of course. You’ll probably change your thinking, as well as your list, before you get to senior year. But that list is a good place to start, and it beats planning your college visits around Aunt Molly’s birthday trip.
Now you’re ready to start planning your visits. Be sure to consult with your parents. If possible, first plan one or two short trips to schools near where you live. This will give you the chance to “get your feet wet” without spending too much time or money. As time goes on, you can travel to the colleges further afield.
Visits: the rules of the game
It’s important to know the rules and regulations of each college before you visit. This may include visiting hours and parking regulations. Check out the school’s website for information.
Most colleges offer campus tours and information sessions on certain days. Sometimes you will be asked to register on-line ahead of time. Whenever possible, you should attend both the tour and the information session, because both offer valuable information. They also provide the opportunity for you to ask questions.
Every college has its own academic calendar, which you’ll find posted on-line. Be sure to check the calendar before planning your visit. You wouldn’t want to arrive, only to find all the students and professors away on vacation.
On arrival, be sure to check in with the Admissions Office, before joining the next information session or tour. If you have enough time, you might want to sit in on a class (ask permission first) or dine in the cafeteria. The more time you allow, the more you’ll be able to see.
Timing is everything
If you can create a college list and plan your first visits during sophomore year, you’ll be ahead of the game. But all students should begin this project no later than the summer before junior year. No matter when you begin your college visits, don’t make any until you’re ready:
- Read the book.
- Surf the net.
- Make the list.
- Plan the trip.
- Make the visit.
Things will be smoother this way. You won’t spend as much time and money. And, best of all, you’ll get to senior year feeling so much calmer.
For more information, contact The College Strategist