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10 Tips for Families Planning College Visits This Fall

By Meg, IvyWise Premier College Admissions Counselor

As a college counselor, one of the aspects of my job that I especially enjoy is touring college campuses. Whether traveling alone or with my family, I’m always game to explore institutions of higher education. Over the past few years, as my firstborn made his way through high school and navigated his own college search odyssey, I discovered much to my delight that visiting colleges with him brought many rewards I hadn’t anticipated. Beyond learning about and seeing a diverse range of campuses as he reflected on and sorted through his own goals, interests and talents, I now appreciate the value of carving out some quality, one-on-one time with your teen during this critical phase in his or her life.

The first leg of my own college tour in the 1980s entailed a meandering summer road trip from Colorado to the East Coast, with stops at Northwestern, the University of Michigan, McGill, Middlebury, Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale and Columbia. The fact that I ended up applying early action to (and later choosing to attend) a college that I didn’t visit on that journey is, I think, worth noting. Sometimes you can’t visit all the schools you’d like to! The key with college visits I’ve discovered, as with most things, is to make the most of the opportunities and time that you do have.

Like most families we know, our ‘typical daily existence’ is usually described as busy, if not over-scheduled. The demands of work, school, sports, and more leave us with very little free time. As it turned out, some of the most meaningful conversations I had with my son about his educational and personal aspirations and dreams were talks we had on airplanes en route to soccer camps! I quickly realized how rare—and wonderful— it was for us to be together without distractions and interruptions.

In our case, a good number of my son’s early college visits were organized around soccer tournaments and camps. These events took us to a variety of locations, including Baltimore during an early spring ice storm, Southern California in December, and rural Ohio in July where everyone sweltered in the extreme heat and humidity. Scheduling and squeezing in these intense visits can be a challenge during the academic year, but if one aspires to play a sport in college, this can be a critical part of the process, and often begins well before one’s junior year, depending on the sport.

Over the past few years, we also discovered the benefit of weaving college visits into family vacations. Visiting Tulane served as a good excuse to spend New Years in New Orleans. On another occasion, we combined a visit to Vanderbilt with a trip to Nashville and an evening at the Grand Ol’ Opry. We checked out both William and Mary and the University of Richmond on a road trip to Colonial Williamsburg. Over this past winter, while following my son and his school orchestra as they toured and performed throughout France, my husband and son managed to slip away for a morning to visit the campus of Sciences Po in Reims. The leading social sciences university in France, Sciences Po offers several dual-degree programs with American institutions including Columbia University and The University of California at Berkeley.

While “demonstrating interest” in a college by visiting its campus and meeting with members of the admissions office staff matters more at certain institutions than others, for a prospective student, nothing quite compares to physically seeing and exploring a campus, especially when presented with the opportunity to talk with students, administrators and faculty members. Websites and online virtual tours are an excellent place to begin researching colleges and universities, but stepping foot onto the main quad, sitting at a seminar table or getting an up-close peek at state of the art laboratory equipment often greatly impacts the way a high school students envisions the future.

Here are a few tips for families embarking on college tours this year:

1. Enjoy it! If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford visiting colleges, acknowledge that these visits can be both productive and fun! Appreciate having this opportunity! Explore some historical sites, try some local cuisine, check out some great museums or exhibits or natural wonders. A friend and her son squeezed in a half-day bike tour of Los Angeles while they were checking out USC and Harvey Mudd. Treat yourselves to a special meal. Depending on where you are, make time for an afternoon hike, evening concert, movie or sporting event.

2. Do your research. Be sure to consult each college’s admissions website to find out when tours and info sessions are held. If you have flexibility in your schedule, you probably want to avoid showing up on graduation day or moving in day, though I’ve heard from some of my students that these were, in fact, fun occasions to observe.

3. Schedule wisely. Don’t try to see eight or more colleges in four days! Pace yourself. While it’s possible to see two schools in a single day, it requires a lot of planning. If you’re not careful with your schedule you can get overwhelmed and miss out on some great experience. Again, do some research up front.

4. Embrace some spontaneity. Don’t underestimate the power of making a spur-of-the-moment pit stop, even if it means asking your Uber driver to take a quick detour to USC on your way to LAX. I’ve known students who saw just enough from such a visit to want to explore an institution further.

5. If possible, contact people you know who know the colleges you’re considering ahead of time. This could include current students, employees, recent grads or loyal alumni. Ask them for recommendations – where to have a meal, find the best artisanal ice cream, or grab a quick cup of coffee. Once you’re there, don’t be afraid to chat with people in line at the local bakery. Pick up a copy of the campus newspaper and local newspapers to get a sense of local color.

6. Consider fit. Hopefully you’ve already done your research on whether the colleges you’re visiting are good academic fits, but don’t forget about financial needs. If you’re the parent, you can investigate the cost of attendance on the institution’s website. Consider hidden/additional costs such as transportation, books, cost of living, etc. Better to contemplate all of this sooner rather than later.

7. Avoid visiting over holidays. Realize that you have spring break, maybe some long weekends (MLK weekend or Columbus Day weekend) as well as other teacher in-service days. Visiting over a school vacation such as Thanksgiving, winter, or summer breaks is better than not visiting at all, but seeing a campus in action is much better than seeing it empty.

8. Make sure you have a plan for parking before you arrive. Most schools offer very detailed instructions for visitors concerning where to park. Allow enough time to park and walk to the admissions office. This is a small detail that is often overlooked and will save you some stress later.

9. Look up the name of the admissions representative who oversees applications from your region or school. If possible, say hello to him or her when you’re on campus. This is a good way to introduce yourself, put your face to a name, demonstrate interest, and possibly get some questions answered.

10. If you’re the parent, remember that your job is to listen. You can offer your impressions, if asked, but try to let your son or daughter process his or her reactions to a campus first. Parents can take pictures and gently remind students to write down some notes about their impressions after each visit. Enjoy the journey but let your student take the lead.

Visiting college campuses is a critical part of the college admissions journey, and we can help you make the most of your trips with our College Visit Planning services. Fall is a popular time for high school juniors to visit colleges, so start planning today! Contact us today for more information.