It's that time of year! School holidays are coming up: Presidents Weekend, Spring Breaks, Easter Break. Time for high school juniors to explore college campuses. In my work as a college consultant, I am frequently asked by parents how to plan and optimize college visits. So here are some suggestions that I hope will be helpful to our families as they plan college trips.
1. Decide which schools to visit. Develop a college list, with the help of your guidance counselor. The criteria for selection should include: type of institution, academic and extracurricular programs offered, affordability, size, setting, distance from home, as well as diversity and academic, political, cultural and social atmosphere.
Resources to generate the list can include: Steven Antonoff's "The College Finder," Loren Pope's "Colleges That Change Lives," Greenes Guides' "The Hidden Ivies," and the Yale Daily News Staff's "The Insider's Guide to Colleges 2012."
Do Internet research to whittle down the list to a manageable number of schools to visit. Besides perusing each school's own web site, you can obtain visual impressions of the campus from YouUniversityTV.com and CampusTours.com. College Board College Search offers free standardized facts and figures, such as size, costs, programs, deadlines and selectivity. Your high school's Naviance Family Connection will give insights into their students' historical acceptance rates at each school.
2. Set up trips that are not too overwhelming. Your teen needs to digest each campus visit. Cramming in too many schools for the sake of efficiency can sometimes backfire. The schools might blend together too much, or the student, burning out by the end, may totally tune out the last school on the itinerary. Prioritize by making sure you hit the colleges that are at the top of your student's "must see" list. You might also try to show your student a real contrast, such as an urban versus a rural school, early on in the spring, to help your student clarify what he or she truly wants and consequently narrow down the list.
3. Register for an information session and campus tour. Register in advance by going to the school's web site under its "admission" or "prospective students" section and find "visits." They usually have calendars indicating availability of information sessions, tours, open houses, opportunities to sit in on a class, and special programs. Sign up for special programs, such as a tour of performing arts facilities if your student is a musician, actor or dancer. Get tickets to college events the weekend you plan to visit, such as sports or theatre performances. What better way to get a "feel" of the college community, its talent, facilities and school spirit?
4. What to do about campus interviews? The interview is not a key factor in college admissions decisions, according to the 2011 State of College Admission by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Many colleges, however, will arrange a non-evaluative interview if you request it when you are visiting. Interviewing is a great way to show "demonstrated interest," as well as getting answers to questions about the college's programs.
If your student is early in the visiting process, anxious about not being ready to make a great impression, postpone it. It is more important for your student to be focused on observing and absorbing, not on performing. Later on, if the school makes your teen's short list, he or she may be able to interview, on a second campus visit, or with regional alumni. If the school requires an eventual visit for an audition or portfolio review, there is definitely no need to stress out about interviewing early on.
5. Tips for the visit itself. The focus of the college visit needs to be your teen's attempt to answer the key question: "Can I picture myself here for four years?"
Encourage your son or daughter to practice the art of observation. Grab a meal on campus. Look, listen, and get a feel for the atmosphere. How are students dressed, what are they talking about? How diverse is the student body? Do they seem like the kind of students your teen would enjoy "hanging out with"? Check out bulletin boards and the student newspaper. What seems to be important here? Activism? Local community? Sports? Greek life? Parties? Grad school? Careers? Your teen needs to take on the role of an anthropologist, keenly observing this particular college's "culture" and trying to assess his or her fit within it.
Wait for your adolescent to absorb the experience and express an opinion before you give yours. If you speak first, you will either inhibit your teen from forming an impression or expressing himself or herself authentically. Your student may emulate your point of view or rebel, depending on your relationship dynamics. One key benefit of this experience is your teen's discovery of how to combine subjective emotional impressions with rational data and make his or her own decisions. Don't deprive your student of that experience by "jumping the gun" and expressing yours first.
If your teen gives the school a "thumbs down," accept the verdict and ask if he or she can describe the reasons. It is essential for a young person to be able to articulate why a specific college is not appealing, not just why he or she may like a school. This helps the student form decision-making standards, against which future choices can be measured.
Remember, it's an evolving process.The college process is center stage in your family's life for about a year. Your teen's feelings will change over the course of that year. It's a moving target, and it should be.
For that reason, college visits should also be spread out, so that each set of visits can be absorbed within the context of your student's evolving sense of what he or she is looking for in a college. If your teen has had enough, take a break for a while. The next time you visit a school, your student will be able to observe with fresh eyes and more maturity.