The long weekend for President’s day is fast approaching, and with it the beginning of the season for visiting colleges for juniors. Starting this weekend, and continuing on through spring break and into the summer, juniors and their parents will be heading off to take college tours around the country. Here are some tips for juniors, and all other high school students, to keep in mind when making all those campus visits.
1. Do some research before you go. I know it sounds obvious, but make sure you spend a little time on the college’s website, even if it is the night before. You want to have an idea of the strengths of the school, and as you listen to the admissions officer in the information session and the tour guide, you want to know what they are talking about and have an intelligent question or two in mind. You don’t want to be the kid in the information session asking about the chemical engineering program that the college doesn’t have!
2. Pay attention to your first impression. Human beings, especially teenaged ones, are not particularly rational decision makers, and your first impression will be very important to your overall feelings about the college. If you are hit with a strong first impression, either positive or negative, make sure to make a note of it on your phone or on your notes about the school.
3. Have a standard list of questions to answer. By standard, I don’t mean the same list that every other student has. Make a list of the questions that are important to you, and make sure that you get the answers during your visit. The list can cover all sorts of things, such as the typical living arrangement in the dorms, the strength of the biology department, the percentage of students who go abroad, or how many students do internships. If you answer the same set of questions at each college, you will better be able to compare them once the tours are through.
4. Ask your guide a question that makes her draw on her personal experience at the school. Guides at colleges give memorized speeches that all start to sound the same after a while. They show you a dorm, a dining hall, the sports center, the library and a science building. One way to start to get a feel for what students are really like at the college is to ask the guide about her personal experiences. One of my favorite questions is “What was your favorite class?” I also like to ask if she’s gone abroad and if so, how she fit back into campus life after her return. You could also ask if she’s had an internship, ever even visited the career center, or if she’s in a sorority (or fraternity for a male guide).
5. Get off the beaten path. Everyone tells you to do this, and it’s really not that easy to do, especially on a tightly scheduled college tour, but if you can, spend a little extra time at the campus. See if you can eat a meal in the dining hall, or at least walk through it. If you are particularly interested in a particular department, see if you can walk through it or arrange a tour of it. The ease with which you can do these things will vary greatly depending on the college, but at the very least you should be able to walk around the campus, getting a feel for the atmosphere and the students who attend the school.
6. Revisit your first impression. Now that you’ve seen a little more of the school and hopefully talked to a few students there, go back to your first impression. Has what you seen confirmed it, or has it changed it? While people do tend to rely heavily on first impressions, they can be overcome. Take a look at the factors that may have played in to your first impression, and see how you feel about those things now.
7. Write it down! I know it’s a drag, but after visiting a college, take a few notes. If you have a list of questions, just put them in a spreadsheet or on a piece of paper before your visit and jot down the answers at the end. You don’t need to write pages about each school, but you need to write down enough so that you can remember the visit. Later, when you apply to the school, you will need to answer the question “Why us?” and having notes to refer to will be very helpful.
Finally, a quick note to the parents taking their kids on the tours – let your student take the lead. I know it’s hard, and you won’t always be able to do it, but let them ask the questions. As you drive away from the school, don’t leap right in to a conversation about their impressions – give them some time to process the visit. After you’ve been in the car for a while, they’ll loosen up and share their feelings, but not if you try to drag it out of them. This is a very stressful time, especially for juniors, and they need time to wrap their heads around what they’ve seen.
Most importantly, have fun! This is a very exciting time for everyone, so try to relax and enjoy it. Colleges are beautiful places – take the time to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the time you spend as a family.