Ah, the college visit! The college visit is probably the one constant in the process that is the same for every family with college-bound students. Every campus has packs of teens and parents being guided by a backwards-walking college student. With over 4,000 postsecondary institutions in the US, the number of college choices can be overwhelming.
Finding a college is not rocket science. It may seem like it to you when you have absolutely no (recent!) previous experience doing it. A whole industry has developed around the belief that there is some secret sauce to the process—that there is only one perfect school for child, and you need help finding it. The truth is, armed with just a little bit of knowledge, every family can be successful at this.
Take advantage of outside help and support when you need it. There are lots of free resources out there including your school counselors and our programming, newsletter, and social media. Ask questions when in doubt. (We’re always here!)
But don’t panic and think you can’t do it. Let’s break this “picking a college” thing down into more manageable chunks.
Some basic considerations
With all of the following considerations, the student must decide the kind of atmosphere they are looking for. What sounds good to them? Students will want to feel comfortable in their setting. We suggest you visit a variety of colleges to get a feeling for what each is like. Size can be a great first factor for students to grasp – where do I really feel at home?
- Size – Generally, colleges can be small (less than 5,000 students), medium (5,000 to 15,000), and large (more than 15,000). Does your student want to be a big fish in a small pond? Or do they prefer to blend more into the background? (Consider the size of the major program, too.) This blog goes deeper into how size plays a big part in your college selection.
- Location – Rural, Suburban, Urban – Students will know what setting they prefer when they explore the campus and its surroundings.
- In-state vs out-of-state – Sometimes, students will start out thinking they want to be far away from home. Others are more homebodies. The decision about which is a better fit may evolve over time and settle in as they get closer to graduation.
- Selectivity – Colleges can range from extremely selective where less than 25% of applicants are admitted to “open” where most all students can attend. The key with selectivity is to include a range of schools in your college list—a few safe, some match, and a couple reach schools. By comparing a student’s GPA and test scores to those of other admitted students at any particular college, you can get a good sense of how a student could fit.
- Housing – On campus vs off campus options, how many commuting students, co-ed vs single gender, fraternities/sororities, etc.
Go for a little finer detail
These considerations are unique to each student and what they’d like to experience during college. Does the college offer the major you want to study? (We’ll come back to this one.) Are sports important? What about Greek life? How important is research, co-op/internship, and study abroad opportunities?
Think about the services provided: honors program, career center, disability support, tutoring, veteran services, etc. Are you searching for colleges that accept AP or dual enrollment (College Credit Plus here in Ohio) credits? Will community college or online options be part of the plan? You can even keep track of needs that might be very specific to your family, like if the college allows freshmen to have a car on campus.
The list of questions to ask can be quite extensive. You’ll want to single out the topics most important to you. Here are a few resources to explore:
- 60 Questions to Ask on Your College Tour
- Questions to Ask When Considering Potential Colleges
- 36 Questions to Ask on a College Visit
Cost – We split this one out on its own.
Please do not ignore this consideration when going on college visits. Too often, we have heard parents say, “If they can get into ABC University, we’ll figure out a way to pay for it.” Or “they just fell in love with the campus – it’s so pretty!” After their child gets into a college that will cost $50,000 per year out of pocket, they are scrambling to find a way to pay for it.
A good starting place is to have the college money talk with the whole family. With everyone on the same page, the college search and the family plan are aligned and part of the discussion.
Research each college and know what the projected cost of attendance is for your family (use the college’s net price calculator found on their website) and how they award aid (need-based, merit) to match those criteria up with your family’s needs, expectations, and fit.
When should you visit?
Don’t worry. There is no perfectly right or wrong answer to this. Some families like to start taking little visits to sort out some of the big considerations like size or location in the sophomore year. But that doesn’t mean you are behind if you haven’t done that by now, and you have a sophomore!! Junior year is a good (and extremely normal) time to get started. Visits will continue through senior year as the list is refined and final decisions are made. (Yes, you can visit even after submitting an application.)
As we mentioned above, visiting a campus when classes are in session is ideal to get a true feeling of what the college is like. Of course, that is not always possible. Popular times to visit include over school holidays like fall break, winter holidays, or Spring Break. Summer vacation is also a popular time although remember the student body will be sparse.
Colleges host official visit dates. Take advantage of these to get their full marketing blitz and show your interest. They are helpful, although the message will get repetitious. (From personal experience, we have found each college follows a pretty similar story — right down to mentioning their unusual clubs—especially food-related clubs, for some reason. See if you find that to be true, too.)
Circling back around to that college major thing.
We have talked before about the importance of not putting off the career and college major thinking until after the college search. You don’t want to get too far along in the process and realize a first-choice school doesn’t offer your major. Plus, some clarity about a desired career allows for a more informed search and identifying the best match.
Truthfully all the other stuff (size, location, housing, etc.) isn’t as important as what you want to study. You can visit colleges, see what they are like, and hear their marketing presentation, but they will tend to all sound the same. The real reason you are there is to gain the knowledge and experiences to start that first job. The “fluffier” things aren’t as important. You want to know about the program you will study.
With clarity surrounding what you want to study, you can take the extra step of meeting with someone from your anticipated academic program. It is a bonus and well worth the effort – we hesitate to even do a general visit without this second meeting with someone from the major program! You can learn first-hand what the majors are like, what types of classes are offered, and what special opportunities exist. Having some concrete direction can result in cost savings—not paying for extra semesters and entering the work force in four years instead of five or six.
We feel strongly that Guided Self Assessment can be an important tool in your college search. During our unique process, students come to understand their strongest traits and preferences and that knowledge makes everything else (choices, interviews, essays) easier. Their self knowledge helps them develop the criteria for building the college list. They’ll be able to seek out those career opportunities in college that appeal to them.
One last important tip…take notes immediately after a college visit! Families quickly find that they forget the details of a visit as they continue to make more visits, and everything can start to blend together. In the car on the way home, have a discussion with your student about all you saw and felt about your day. Have the student write down notes about your talk. You’ll be grateful later. (Want to earn extra credit? Grab a single notebook that you use for all visits. Jot the questions to ask before the visit, note the names of people you meet, and document the post-visit notes – all in one place.)
How did you feel walking around campus on your college visit? Did it feel comfortable? What did you love and what did you wish you could change?
As we said before, you can do this. Seek out a foundational knowledge, chart your plan, and tackle the tasks one at a time. College visits can be a wonderful time of bonding for you and your child—valuable time spent together before they leave the nest. Explore! Enjoy!
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