We all know that one of the best ways to figure out whether a college or university is a good match is to visit the campus.
“It is the only way prospective students will ever get a sense of what a campus community is about and whether they can envision themselves there,” said Kelly Walter, vice president and senior director of admissions at Boston University.
Most schools pride themselves on hosting student-led campus tours, chock-full information sessions and one-on-one interviews with prospective students. But all that might not be enough to really get a feel for what it would be like to spend four years living and studying at a particular institution.
“When possible, prospective students should certainly go beyond the offerings of the admissions office,” Walter said.
Walk, talk and get a bite to eat
At the least, visiting students should walk around the campus for 30 or 40 minutes after the tour ends, Walter said. Head to the student union. See what’s playing on the TVs, what’s posted on the message boards and what’s splashed across the front page of the student newspaper. Better yet, pick up the newspaper and read it.
And there’s nothing better for getting a sense of a school than talking to the students. Many schools offer overnight visits during which prospective students shadow current students for a regular school day and then stay overnight in a dorm room.
If that’s not possible, prospective students should at least take the time to grab lunch in the dining hall, said Vince Cuseo, vice president for admission and financial aid at Occidental College.
“Just sit down and say, ‘Do you mind if I sit and eat with you?’” Cuseo advised. Simple as that.
Randomly walking up to a college student and asking questions can sound pretty intimidating to a high school senior, but Taylor Arion, a 2013 graduate of Boston University, said there’s no need to worry.
“I don’t see most people saying ‘no,’” Arion said. “If they love their school, people want you to come to that school. I don’t think prospective students should be intimidated.”
Arion, who now lives in Los Angeles and works as a story assistant for a production company, said the one thing she wished she’d known before she started school was how difficult it would be to get into classes in her popular Film and Television major. That’s not the kind of thing they tell you on a tour, Arion noted. She thinks it’s important to remember what you need out of a school while visiting.
“They try to sell you on the awesome stuff,” Arion said. “But unless you’re an English major and you’re going to be there the whole time, a big beautiful library doesn’t matter.”
Go when school’s in session, and let your kid strike out on her own
Prospective students get the most out of a campus visit if they go when school’s in session. “We invite anyone interested in MI's programs to participate in our Free Pass Classes, where they can get a taste of our Hollywood campus before they officially become a part of it,” said Jessica R. Sullivan, director of marketing at Musicians Institute.
Regardless of which way a prospective student heads after the tour, one bit of advice applies to all: Ditch the parents. According to admissions officers, time spent exploring a campus alone makes it easier for students to consider their own reaction to the place without being overly influenced by family input.
“Ultimately, students need to make the decision,” Cuseo said.
Walter and Cuseo both recognize the critical role parents play in decisions regarding college, especially when it comes to how to pay for it, but insist that now is the time to trust college-bound young people to make their own way.
“It’s a fine line for parents to walk between leaving their children alone and offering them support,” Cuseo said. “My advice to parents is to listen carefully to your child and try not to have your own biases.”
Work together to strategize
All of this doesn’t mean parents can’t help.
Jinx Faulkner, a mother of three from Portland, Ore., gave each of her children a mini-questionnaire to encourage them to reflect on what they wanted out of their college experience before deciding what schools to visit. She asked each child to think about preferences regarding course of study; school size and location; urban or rural campus; level of academic rigor; and school selectivity and reputation.
“Two of our kids were very clear on most of their answers,” Faulkner said. “The third was all over the place and kept changing her mind. Her tour was more difficult. But we did a mini-tour and planned a second one, and the first tour informed the second.”
All three kids ended up at schools they loved.
If visiting a whole slew of out-of-town college campuses isn’t an option, a visit to a local small liberal arts college and another to a nearby state university could give prospective students a general idea of the different types of campuses available to them. And between a college’s website and sites like CollegeConfidential.com, where students can leave unfiltered comments, much can be discovered online. In fact, Cuseo recommends students spend some time online in addition to real-life visits.
“The point,” he said, “is not to rush to judgment on any single source of information.”
—Lillian Mongeau, Brand Publishing Writer