It's the summer before your senior year of high school, a period that lends itself perfectly to visiting colleges. Road trip! Hop in the car, roll down the windows, smell the fresh air, and let your mind wander about the freedom that lies ahead when you finally leave home for college.
Of course, the reality is that you'll probably be yelling at your dad for being GPS-challenged, arguing with your mom over her choice of music, and punching your little brother because, even though he’s technically not touching you, he won't stop holding his finger a few millimeters from your face. But, no mind — you’re on your way, and college is right around the corner.
Before I start, I want to stress how important choosing the right-fit college is. For most families, college will be one of the most expensive investments they will make in a lifetime. And just as I would never recommend buying a pre-owned car without an exhaustive inspection, you shouldn't choose your college without giving it a thorough going-over as well. Common sense and anecdotes tell us that, if the college is the right fit for you, you’re much more likely to apply yourself to your studies and graduate on time, quite possibly saving you — or your parents — tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. That should be reason enough.
Four wrong turns, three bathroom stops, and what seemed like countless hours of ’80s music later, you've finally arrived. Before you step out of the car, remind yourself of these two facts:
Admissions tours are carefully designed to show you the very best face of the university. The route you follow on campus will intentionally skip less desirable scenery. The exact language used by your tour guide has been meticulously crafted to make you feel like this school will be fun and academically rewarding. Even the dorm room you see is likely to be vacant, clean, and decorated with just the right “college feel" — many thanks to Bed, Bath and Beyond. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but assume you’re walking through a carefully orchestrated set rather than hearing a frank conversation in the suite of a bunch of third-years.
College admissions is a numbers game, driven by institutions’ ever-increasing wish to be able to describe themselves as selective; part of this effort involves attracting the interest of the strongest candidates possible. To that end, admissions offices pull out all the stops for their tours, knowing that if they get you on campus, they’ll probably get you as an applicant. And, statistically speaking, those who visit a campus and are accepted enroll at a much higher rate than those who don't.
It’s true that you're at a slight disadvantage by visiting the school over the summer when things aren't in full swing — you won't get to see the dorms after a Friday night of partying, and some buildings may be under renovation while others are uncharacteristically clean. Still, you can get valuable insights to guide your choices as you put together your final list of schools.
Don't rush through the tour and head on to the next school quickly. You'll be doing yourself a great disservice if you hurry. After the formal tour ends, spend some time getting lost on campus. A typical admissions tour lasts about 60 minutes. Spend the next couple of hours wandering until you feel like you’ve gained your sense of direction around the campus. Go into buildings you didn't enter with your guide. If anyone asks, simply tell them you're a prospective student on tour, and more than likely, they'll leave you alone.
Is this a freshman dorm? What are the hours of the dining halls? How far are the dining halls from the dorms? From classroom buildings? What's the rule on friends visiting me in my dorm? Is the Wi-Fi free? What about cable? Where are the laundry facilities? Where do students hang out? No, where do students really hang out? Can you show me a freshman lecture hall? Are there any classes in session we can peek into? Or better yet, sit in on? When can first-years take upper level courses? Who gets priority for classes that are oversubscribed?
Remember the used car analogy, and cast yourself as the mechanic doing a detailed inspection. You can't ask enough questions. Don't worry about being bothersome. Trust me, the other people on the tour will appreciate it — teens can be shy, and they certainly don’t want their own parents to be the ones asking all the questions.
Most tours are conducted by work-study students who, after their first few rounds, forget it's your first time hearing the information. They also have no say (and frankly don't care) whether you're admitted. They're limited by what they've been told to say about the college and by their personal experiences. Don’t let these guides be your primary contact with the college; rather, before you go to campus, set up a time to meet with an admissions officer during your visit (if the school offers this option).
The admissions office has a vested interest in making sure you're "sold" on the school. Interestingly, one of the most common statements I hear in my practice from admissions folks is that they take a holistic approach to admissions. That is, they look at the totality of the person, and not just test scores and GPA. This is your chance to make them prove it. Show them you're a person who knows their college well and has a lot to offer the community. This meeting will also establish a personal contact that you can turn to if you have questions or concerns once you’ve applied.
If you're considering enrolling at Florida State University, for example, you'll be moving to Tallahassee. Tour Tallahassee. Tour the towns next to Tallahassee. Look for a Wal-Mart or Target. Look for the mall, the movie theater, and the restaurants. Are there areas students should avoid? Are there places to get a part-time job? Do you need a car to get around, or is there good mass transit? Where's the airport? Where are the closest hotels? How far is it to the beach, a park, or other recreational areas?
Get a feel for the community and ask yourself whether it’s a place you can imagine living. Remember, this may be your home for the next four years. Don't skip the details.
At the end of the day (yes, a full day), you should feel informed and tired. But don't forget to stop at the campus bookstore and buy a nice college cap — you'll need it to keep yourself from pulling your hair out on the ride home.
_Follow this link to read additional articles about college admissions from Ron Reis. You can also find further guidance from other Noodle Experts about visiting colleges, with articles like Take Charge of Your College Tour with These Expert Hacks and 8 Questions That Will Stump Your College Tour Guide._