College Visits: How To Make The Best of Them

It has been said that college is a “four-year honeymoon followed by a lifetime of marriage.”  This means that your college experience will affect you, follow you, and be a part of your identity the rest of your life.  It is probably a good idea to go on a “date” before you commit.  There are probably 1 million gigabytes of recommendations for college visits on the internet, so I’ll condense it for you.

Selection Criteria

Before we start talking about on-campus visits, I want to address the College Selection process because if you use the process properly, you will reduce the time, effort, and expense of on-campus visits.  I use the acronym FLASH to help us step through the Selection process:

Financial – This should be first on the list.  You have to determine if an individual college is financially feasible.  I have written volumes on this, so I’ll cut to the chase… there is no college in the country worth more than you can afford.  If you have to take loans, if the total is above the cost of a full-sized car (about $40,000), it is not worth it.  People will debate me on this, so send your emails to the address at the end of the article.

Location – A lot of factors go into location – part of the country, distance from home, proximity to family, etc., but there is no single criterion.  You have to figure this out for yourself and as a family, but it is the second highest priority to consider.

Academics – This has two parts: 1) Your Academics – i.e., your qualifications for admissions and scholarships based on courses you have in high school, your grades, and your test scores, 2) College Academics – does the college offer the major or opportunities you are seeking, and does the college offer enough different fields that you can change your major without changing your college.  Also, if you want to go to medical school, you probably shouldn’t seek a Bible college.

Social – There will be a mixed stew of people from different backgrounds and perspectives on the college campus.  The range will be narrower if you are attending a Christian or Bible college and broader as you look at larger private colleges and state colleges.  I could go into detail, but that’s another article.

History – This encompasses reputation, traditions, legacy, and foundation for the future.  I place this last – though many places this first – because 5 years after you start working, the college you went to only has an impact at social gatherings and alumni events.  If you went to a high profile college and you meet someone new, you might get a raised eyebrow, but you won’t get a pay raise because of the college you attended.

Three Phases of the Campus Visit

There are things you need to do BEFORE the visit, things you need to address DURING the visit, and things you need to follow up AFTER the visit.

BEFORE the Visit

Start a College Journal – Set up a document for notes, questions, links, and information on specific colleges and for college overall (like the Common App, FAFSA, etc.).  Take lots of notes, pose lots of questions, and capture a lot of links.  I recommend a three-ring binder so you can add flyers, letters, and other items to your notes.  Get document protectors with ring holes so you can keep these together in your binder.

Scour the College Website – Take notes, copy links and URLs.  Print out a copy of the campus map and mark places you want to visit.  Put it in a document protector and post it to your binder.

Make Contact with the College – Email the Admissions office, get the name, email, and phone number of the admissions person who will be assigned to you, and create a dialog.  Do this your junior year – before you consider starting an application.  The first time a college finds out about you shouldn’t be when you send in your application.

Take a Virtual Tour First – Many colleges have a video or virtual tour on their website.  Also, there are several sites that provide virtual tours of major colleges:

  • com
  • com
  • com
  • com
  • com/college search
  • com

As you go through, take notes on where you would like to visit and add any questions.

Scheduling – Although there is nothing wrong with dropping by a campus and looking around, if you want the formal treatment, you need to schedule the college visits.  The college may have specific tour dates they do with groups, or they may set you up with an individual or small group tour.  Find out about any specific event dates and coordinate with parents on vacation time.  Unless you are uber-independent and paying for college yourself, parents need to be on board if they are writing the checks.

Don’t try to “dog pile” colleges.  Unless you are just doing “drive-by” visits, two a day tops if you expect a formal tour, and if the campuses are close enough together – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Colleges that are on the “serious” list may require an overnight stay or an orientation weekend.  Schedule time to visit your prospective department and sit in on a class.  Some colleges require an interview (usually after you have applied), so it might be a good idea to visit the department and the staff who may be doing your interview later or if you have already applied, schedule your interview during your visit.

If possible, schedule appointments with the Admissions office, Financial aid office, and your prospective department.  You also want to go when school is in session so you can visit some classes.

Local Meetings – Many colleges host local meetings in major cities to “meet and greet” prospective students and parents.  Local alumni usually attend these functions, and it will give you an opportunity to meet someone who may provide you a reference or recommendation if you need it.  Current students are often at these functions, too, so get to know them.

Questions to Ask BEFORE You Visit – As you review your questions (do this every week), many of these don’t need to wait until your visit, so after you have made contact and have a point person in the Admissions office, send questions in ahead of your college visits.  This does two things: first, of course, you get answers, and second, you are showing serious interest, which gets you an ally in the Admissions office.

As you go through your list of questions, pick out those that can be answered in an email before your visit.  Most can be answered before.  You will have more knowledge and be more attentive when you visit.  Here is a general list I have my students ask early in the process:

  1. Application Deadlines (Early Action & Regular)
  2. Scholarship Requirements
  3. Scholarship & Financial Aid Deadlines
  4. Last SAT/ACT date for Admissions
  5. Last SAT/ACT date for Scholarship Consideration
  6. Super Score Policy
  7. SAT/ACT Essay/Writing Requirement
  8. Decision/Acceptance Deadline
  9. SAT Subject Exam Requirement
  10. Dual Credit Policies and Eligibility for Freshman Scholarships
  11. CLEP/DSST Policies
  12. Homeschool Admissions

Pull other questions from your list like:

  • Recreation activities for students
  • Campus and Student Organizations
  • Local Churches
  • Student Demographics – Ethnic, Origin, etc.

Put your questions in an email and expect an email answer.  You want the responses in writing because things – like facts and answers – get lost in translation.  Also, send no more than 15 at a time if you have a lot.  Send them in batches with a week in-between.

Itinerary/Agenda – Make sure you have a written itinerary/agenda before you go.  It should include appointment times and locations, and a list of places you want to visit.

Places You Need to Visit – I’ve already mentioned visiting Admissions, Financial Aid, the Major Department, and sitting in on a class.  In addition, make sure you have the following on your agenda:

During the Visit

If you have prepared properly, you are ready to go, but first…

Parent “No-Nos” – You need to keep in mind WHO is going to college.  Just like your student, start a binder, take notes, ask questions, and share these with your student.  During the visit, take notes, take pictures, and collect handouts and flyers.

Parents, here is the “Thou Shalt Not” list of things NOT to do:

  1. Do not treat your student like a child in front of others during the college visits. College is an adult business regardless of how childish college students may act.
  2. Do not be directive and do not correct them within the voice of others. None of the: “Mary you should…,”  “Billy, I think that you…,” or “Johnny, stand up straight…” in front of the group or any staff or faculty.  Nothing wrong with a little huddle during a break, but “Soccer Mom” needs to stay home.
  3. When addressing questions or discussing issues about that particular college, refrain from using the editorial “we.” Mark Twain stated that “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we.’”  “We” are not going to college.  “We” maybe going to lunch, but “We” have no business speaking for the student when it is the student’s place to speak.  Parents are free to express their individual opinion, “I am really impressed with the Engineering Department,” is fine, but “I think Billy wants to see the Engineering Department,” isn’t.  “Billy” needs to speak and do for himself.
  4. College is a “No Fly Zone” for Helicopter Parents. Some straight talk here: If a parent feels the need to be a Helicopter Parent during the campus visit, the parent is demonstrating in front of a member of the Admissions staff (and the other parents) that the parent does not believe the student can act independently without the umbilical cord still attached… and thus, not college material for that college.
  5. No Sales Pitch. You are not there to solicit your student or try to convince the tour guide your student is a prime candidate.  An Admissions tour guide shared with me about a soliciting parent, “The mom spent almost the entire stick[1] telling me how qualified her daughter was and how she thought this was the best college for her.  I just had the mom’s first name on her nametag and never connected her with her daughter because there was nobody standing near her, so I didn’t know who she was talking about.”

Parent “To-Do” List – These visits can be overwhelming to some students, particularly homeschool students not prepared for the magnitude of a college campus.

  1. Emotions of the Moment – This happens a lot on overnight visits. Away from home, among strange and different people, in a dorm, possibly rooming with a stranger, can be emotionally challenging.  Even though parents are there, they are usually lodged separately from their students.  You should make it a point to check on them and give them room to share any emotions they have at the end of the day.
  2. Emotional Blindness – On the flip side, the student may become so emotionally affected by the experience that they want to make their decision on the spot, casting all thought to the side. You may need to tether their balloon to keep them from floating away.  Also, don’t get sucked into this emotional vortex with them, which is easy to do.  After all, the campus tour is a scheduled formal sales pitch full of emotional triggers.
  3. The “Ah Ha” Moment – Very often, the stars will align and everything falls into place for the perfect match: Money (scholarships), Major, Mindset, and Motivation (of the student). Be prepared to set your baskets out if the heavens open up.  It’s happened hundreds of times to people I have worked with.  The Red Sea parts.  Have your lamps full of oil.

Starting Campus Checklist – You should add to this, but this is a good start:

  1. Eat at a dining hall. Not going to be mom’s cooking, but you’ll figure out how to survive.  Many colleges have expanded into gourmet, vegetarian, vegan, keto, gluten-free, kosher, etc. menus.
  2. Pick up a copy of the college newspaper. The articles tell you what interests the students and the ads tell you what students do or buy.
  3. Sit in on a class. Observe how the students act and how the professor engages the student.  Now, professors are different, so don’t think one professor represents everyone, so check out several.
  4. Talk with a professor from a department you may want to pursue. Get names, email address, and even sit in on the prof’s class.
  5. Walk through the library. Check out technology, quiet spaces, and group study rooms.
  6. Visit a computer lab. Check out technology, access to help – technical and academic.
  7. Walk through a freshman residence hall. It’s going to be “home,” so see if you want to live there.
  8. Check out the gym/recreational facilities.
  9. Spend some time in the school’s main student center. Watch students.  What are they doing?  Are they walking and talking or have their nose buried in their smartphone?
  10. Read bulletin boards as you walk around campus. These tell you what’s important on campus.
  11. Tour the city/town around the campus. You’re not in prison, so you can get off campus, and should.
  12. Visit the career services center. See what jobs students are getting while they are in college and when they graduate.
  13. Get names and contact information of people you meet for future reference. These can be people who may help you later for admissions and scholarships.

Things to Ask the Guide – Add to this list before and during the visit:

  1. Where do students tend to hang out on/off campus?
  2. What types of free events/activities does the school offer?
  3. What do most students think about the housing/dorm situation?
  4. Where are the best places to study on campus?
  5. What kinds of extracurricular activities and clubs are offered around campus?
  6. Can students park on campus?
  7. What do students typically do on weekends?
  8. How long do students have to live on campus?
  9. What do students typically do over the summer?
  10. What kinds of students would feel out of place at this school?
  11. What traditions/events happen each year?
  12. Are the students politically aware? Are they predominantly left, right, or center?
  13. Where are most students at this school from?

Things to Ask Students – Add to this list:

  1. What is the best part of this college?
  2. What do students complain about the most?
  3. Why did you choose this college?
  4. What is your living situation like?
  5. Is there a lot of school pride?
  6. Do professors know your name?
  7. Do you ever spend time with professors outside of class?

Admissions Office – If you are a junior and just visiting, review admission requirements and deadlines (see list above).  If you have already applied, check on your status and see if you need to send anything in.

Financial Aid Office – If you are junior, check on scholarship opportunities and requirements.  If you have already applied, also find out about scholarships, and if there are more you can look into.  Also, check the status of your FAFSA and any other forms.

After the Visit

Students and parents need to consolidate notes and discuss how this college compares to others.  Send “Thank You” notes to everyone who made an impression (snail mail, not email – you can’t tack up an email on the cubicle wall).

The first visit is important because you will set up your baseline binder.  You’ll get better each visit.

Reload for the next campus.

Dr. Beasley

[1] FYI – this tour was done in “sticks,” where a guide took them from the initial briefing room to the second guide who took them through a specific area or department, then handed them off to another guide who took the group to another part of the tour, and so on.  The college did this so each section or “stick” of the tour was handled by a member of that department or an expert in the area instead of one generalist for the whole tour.”

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