College visits

Our Epic College Quest: One Parent’s Perspective on Making the Most of College Visits

Hi! You may or may not know me. My name is Vanessa Hamilton, and I am part of the At The Core marketing team. I write material for all of you all the time; however, this piece is more personal. I wanted to speak right to you and share my personal experience with college visits.

My rising senior daughter and I just returned from what we called our “Epic College Quest.” We visited four out-of-state colleges and traveled almost 1,900 miles in a week’s time. Our list was created based on research about majors, locations, and costs as you’ll see below. Here are some of my nuggets of wisdom that I wanted to share.

Select your campuses carefully.

The purpose of our trip was to hit some out-of-state campuses. We were able to visit in-state campuses here and there earlier in the year. School and activities limited travel beyond a couple of hours, so we knew that we’d make a focused effort over the summer for a few select ones that would require overnight stays.

Summer college visits don’t have quite the same feel as a fall or spring visit since things are under construction and students are absent. However, you can still learn a lot at a summer visit.

With so many colleges in the US, it is easy to find yourself visiting campuses that look very similar or that offer very similar academic programs. For example, visiting several Big 10 campuses won’t be super productive. They will all feel pretty much the same.

Instead, we chose to visit a variety of types of campuses—suburban setting, large research campus, large urban school, and a mid-size campus. In addition to size and location, we were careful to choose schools with slightly different approaches to the major.

We also did not visit any college which priced itself out of consideration. Our family has had several conversations about what we can afford to pay for college. My daughter knows how student loans could impact her life after graduation. With each college we visited, we read about their merit aid process and checked out their Net Price Calculators. We can’t be sure exactly what the final price tag will be if she is accepted, but we know that the colleges we picked might be in the ballpark.

The major is super important!

My daughter recently completed her Guided Self Assessment and is working through her career thinking (informational interviewing, career research, etc.). She is connecting what she has learned about herself to the careers she’d like to explore and the majors she’d like to study.

We purposefully selected colleges where the majors were not identical. No two colleges were the same. Each approached her field of study differently which will allow her to think about the courses each offers and how that aligns with what she’d like her college experience to be.

With each campus visit, we registered for a general information session and a specific department session where we would hear the details about the majors offered by that department. Typically, one would be in the morning and the other in the afternoon. We’d grab lunch somewhere on or near campus in between. This strategy allowed us to get the most from every campus visit, and it gave us the deeper understanding of what she could experience in each major program.

College visits are fun, but it is also a lot!

We called it an “epic quest” for a reason! Lots of planning was involved. Each visit required advanced scheduling, and we did our homework. Where are we staying? Where do we park? Where is the building for session? What questions do we have for each?

You are on the receiving end of TONS of information when you sit in two different sessions each day! It can be mentally overwhelming at the end of the week, so my daughter jotted down some notes each day about things she wanted to remember later.

Some of the information will be repetitive but with slightly different tweaks.

For example, each college accepts the Common App; however, one asks for an official transcript, one asks you to fill in the Courses and Grades section of the Common App, one has a portal where you’ll self-report your grades, and the other uses a third-party software called SRAR. It was funny to see how four different colleges approached the reporting of grades in four different ways.

Also helpful was hearing how different colleges approach ACT and SAT test scores. One college required a test score. One has been test optional for 13 years and focuses on the essay (although they will accept a score if provided). One has become test optional more recently and would like to see your score if it improves your application package. A couple require the score report provided by ACT or the College Board. Others allow you to self-report the score with your application. What a mixture of approaches?! It can be hard to keep track of it all. I found myself jotting down some quick notes on my phone.

Make sure to build in fun time.

Find out what people (and students) do for fun in the area. We visited bookstores, shops, and restaurants. We explored each area and what things it had to offer. Check out the stuff they don’t show you on the tour. How do students get around town? We built in lots of fun time to break up the scheduled informational sessions. Those moments are the memories we’ll take with us and remember when it comes time to decide next May.

Did she decide anything? Nope.

And I didn’t want her to make any final decisions. College visits are simply for information gathering. I want my daughter to soak it all up. What specifically will you study? What’s the campus like? How did the visit make you feel? What did you like or not like? Will the education they offer match what she aims for on her journey?

Later after the applications have been submitted, the college offers have been received, the potential experience has been compared, and the costs have been evaluated, she can look in her heart and use what she has learned about herself to decide which will be the lucky college to win her attendance.

I hope this blog provided some ideas to consider as you plan your own family’s “epic college quest.” Enjoy this time!

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