9 minute read
Summer vacation is just around the corner, and for many high school students, that means college visits are drawing near. Whether the potential college is 30 minutes or 300 miles away, The Answer Class has tips to make college visits informative and enjoyable experiences. (And for folks who would rather virtually explore schools, we have tips for you too!)
Most blogs about college visits focus solely on campus hotspots, but the entire trip experience should be carefully considered. Just like a picture-perfect vacation can be ruined by a difficult traveling partner or a sour mindset, even the most impressive college can look drab in the wrong situation. The tips below are split into two sections that cover both the important points of an itinerary and how to approach the trip to ensure success.
Make the Most of Your Time On-Campus
If possible, attend a guided tour set up by the admissions office
Although shuffling around campus being led by an enthusiastic, backward-walking guide may feel a bit awkward and touristy, it’s the best way to see all of the important places on campus and learn a lot about the school between stops. Campus tours are usually led by students who are specially trained to know the answers to all of the common first-year questions. Even better – they were once incoming students themselves, so they can give their real-life perspective. And although it is part of the student guides’ jobs to make the college sound exciting, they’re not paid commissions for students committing to the school (like a car salesman making a sale), so there’s no reason for them to stretch the truth. Students should feel free to ask direct questions about serious topics like campus safety and the student body’s relationship with the school’s administration.
Extra Credit: Note the first-year dorms and go inside one or more if possible. Students should be sure that the housing meets all of their needs.
Online Option: Many colleges offer virtual tours. Check out YouVisit to explore campuses across the country.
Stop by the departments or offices that relate to the student’s intended major(s)
First – students should not worry about choosing a major before even starting college; most colleges don’t ask students to select one until their sophomore year. But visiting the departments that, as Marie Kondo would say, spark joy, can help students read the mood of the department staff and students. For instance, if a department is being run out of a large storage closet without signage, it might suggest that the program isn’t well-staffed or well-funded. If every student who walks out of a department is crying, it might not be the most welcoming environment. Of course, each student will have their own relationship with their major and advisors, but taking a peek provides information to consider.
Extra Credit: When visiting an academic department, students can ask where its classes are usually located to estimate walking time between classes and proximity to first-year housing.
Online Option: Each department likely has a website with information about related majors. Check out lists of past courses, the faculty’s academic biographies, and notable alumni. Sometimes syllabi are even posted online.
Eat in or walk through a dining hall
At the most basic level, food is the fuel that keeps us moving and thinking. But food is also a source of comfort, a connection to memories, and a bonding activity, among many other things.
A tour guide can answer questions about the student dining plan, but a visit to the dining hall will provide answers to more personalized questions. For example, are healthy options offered throughout the day? Is nutrition information readily available for students with dietary restrictions? How does the campus handle and minimize food waste? For students who have specific dietary needs or simply have a great love of food, the dining experience may be a major factor in their school selection.
Extra Credit: Re-consider the unhelpful term, “the freshman fifteen” (suggesting that freshmen gain 15 pounds of weight during their first year in college) a forbidden phrase. It’s unrealistic to expect that students will remain the exact same size in college as they were in high school when college brings different dining habits, stressors, activity levels, etc.
Online Option: Students can find sample dining hall menus online and read about meal offerings in different locations on campus.
Walk through the gym and other mental health-restoring spaces
Student tour guides aim to portray their schools as fun and exciting, and academic staff try to convey the school’s prestige and impressive learning opportunities. What gets lost in these messages is that college is a totally new home for students, which can sometimes be a major adjustment. In the insular world of a new college, it makes sense that students may feel lonely and stressed, which is why being prepared with self-soothing and coping strategies is so important. While touring the campus, students should identify locations where they can unwind and recharge. These locations will look different for each student and could include the campus gym, a reflection garden, a quiet library, a local cafe, or an outdoor study area. Every student should be aware of the mental health resources offered on campus, whether they will use the resources themselves or they can suggest them to a friend.
Online Option: Some colleges are more in-tune with the mental health needs of their students than others. If a student has to dig through a college’s website to find resources, that college may still be growing in its understanding of the impact of mental health. Students can decide how heavily they value openness about mental health from their potential college.
Leave time for unstructured wandering and exploring
The focus of college is of course to earn a degree, but there’s plenty of time for fun after homework is completed. Walking around just outside of campus will give a good idea of what students do in their free time. Check for buses that take students to nearby malls, theaters, or parks. Note any businesses that advertise a student discount. Look at the walkability of the area – is a car necessary to get around or is there low-cost transportation available? Students should weigh the availability of activities against their usual more introverted or extroverted personality.
Online Option: It’s even easier to explore the area around a college on Google Maps. Students can look at the websites of businesses to see if college students are specifically welcomed and if prices are affordable for students, who usually don’t have much income.
Improving the Trip Experience
If possible, maximize colleges visited per trip
Like any trip out of town, the most helpful college visits require coordination and logistics, so it makes sense to group together colleges that are in close vicinity. However, it also may be helpful to visit other types of colleges in the area, even if those colleges themselves are not on a student’s list. Visiting other types of colleges will give students a clearer picture of what they both do and do not want from their college experience.
Perhaps a student is interested in a large public institution, and within a thirty-minute radius are both a liberal arts college and a single-gender college. Even if a student is absolutely against attending, for example, a single-gender school, there is little harm to doing an informal walk around campus. Many students transfer schools after a semester or two, when they find that their chosen school isn’t quite what they imagined. Experiencing other school options can help students make the best choice initially and if they think about transferring.
Extra Credit: A great way to save a bit of money on a trip is to call the admissions office of any colleges on the itinerary and ask if they have any discount agreements with hotels in the area. Also be sure to check if the admissions office can offer free parking on campus.
Online Option: Virtual campus tours bring lots of colleges straight to a student’s computer – no parking fees there!
Prioritize expressing gratitude to everyone in your traveling party
Unlike a family vacation, where (ideally) everyone benefits from a little rest and relaxation, college visits are primarily for the student’s benefit. Parents and younger siblings may also enjoy seeing potential colleges, but regardless, the trip is part of their valuable free time. Students should express thanks to family members for coming on the trip and making the travel possible. Older siblings may even be able to help out with younger siblings’ college visits in the future.
Extra Credit: For students who may feel a little awkward announcing their gratitude to their family can write short letters or cards instead and pass them out on the trip.
Online Option: Even if no one leaves the house, students should try to show gratitude for time their family spends helping out with college research. Hulu is usually more fun than flipping through course lists.
Agree on a code word or phrase to ease tensions
It’s no secret that the college preparation and application period is a stressful time, which stems from many tasks that need to be completed, as well as the transition prompting lots of strong emotions. Students may feel nervous about leaving home, excited about new opportunities, and intimidated by college-level academics. Parents may feel anxious about college expenses, proud of their student’s achievements, and frustrated at confusing financial aid packages. Humans are complex beings, and those emotions only scratch the surface of possible situations! Combining that amalgam of feelings with the small irritations of travel, and a fun college trip could get tense quickly. Families should agree on a code word or phrase, preferably something silly, that everyone can use when it feels like emotions are getting too strong. The phrase will be a cue for everyone to take a deep breath and remember that it’s a very emotional time and everyone wants it to be as successful as possible.
Online Option: Developing a de-escalation code word or phrase could also be helpful in regular college-related conversations at home. Emotions don’t just flare up on the road!
We at The Answer Class wish students and their families bon voyage, no matter if they’re trekking across campus virtually or on the main green. If SAT or ACT scores need boosting, be sure to take a prep class before falling in love with a campus!