Think about when you purchased your first home. It was a new experience so I’m guessing you did some prep work first: researched online, talked to people who had “been there, done that” and came up with a list of a few “must-haves” and “definitely do not wants” before you ventured out to look at your first few homes.
It’s no different when it comes to visiting colleges. Maximizing a college visit is as much about the preparation before and discussion after, as it is the actual on-campus experience.
So how do you best prepare? I’m SO glad you asked! Here are five things you can do to maximize the college visit for you and your teen:
1. Begin with the end in mind - have a purpose for going
I usually ask students “what are 5 things you want to accomplish from visiting this college?”. It can be general like “I just want to see what a campus looks like” or specific, such as “I want to see how it feels to be this far away from home”. Whatever the 5 things are, establishing that up front makes the experience more intentional and purposeful for them and for you. I’ve visited NYU several times over the last few years and each time my purpose was different. This last time, it was specifically to visit during winter and to really listen to how the college describes themselves, which is a window into what they’re looking for in their prospective students.
2. Establish your criteria - know what you’re looking and listening for
It doesn’t have to be a long list of criteria, but the more you know what you want (or even what you don’t want), the more meaningful the information will be. If it’s your first college visit, and you’re just not sure, start with 5 or 6 things that you really like about high school that you want to make sure you have in college. Or, if you aren’t in love with high school, pick 1 or 2 things you definitely don’t want to repeat and translate that into specific criteria. Is your high school all about sports and you’re interested in the arts, then including on your list something like “must have opportunities to play or listen to music” will help you notice the posters throughout the campus for music and arts events and pay special attention when your tour guide talks about their dorm room jam sessions.
3. Create a list of questions - so you’re sure to get the info that is important to you
From your list of criteria, come up with a list of questions. Most students aren’t keen on asking questions of the tour guide and that’s ok. But having a list helps make sure you get the information from your visit that you most want to know. It ties right back in with your purpose for going and your list of criteria. For example, if your purpose for going is to see how welcoming the students are or if the academics are super challenging, you can ask a student how many hours a week they study or if they feel they have a balance between their academic and social life. I was on a tour of Harvey Mudd a few years ago and all the tour guide talked about was how many hours everyone studied. I then asked several students what they felt the balance was between hours spent studying and opportunities for social activities and they said that their late nights spent studying and working on projects were social for them. That helped me get a much stronger feel of the culture on campus then just hearing how many hours the tour guide spent studying.
4. Experience the tour and the information session - the look and the feel
What? Isn’t that what we are here for? Well, yes, but you’d be surprised how many students get there and decide just to sit in on the information session without taking the tour and to that I say - just say NO! The info session is important for sure, because it emphasizes what the college wants you to know about them, but the tour is so much more than just the tour itself. It’s not just about what the tour guide says, it’s also their overall attitude and enthusiasm and warmth (or lack thereof). It’s noticing the other students walking around and how they appear (friendly, hurried, stressed), and if they interact with the tour. One of my students described taking the tour at Syracuse with students yelling at her “you have to come here, it’s great!”. It’s noticing the campus and what’s being promoted in posters and flyers, it’s eating the food, spending time in the surrounding city and on and on! And the “on and on” brings me to….
5. Debrief after the tour - give yourself time to take in the area and the experience
There are several reasons for this. First, it gives you an opportunity to spend time in the area, observe the students, ask more questions if you want and get a better feel for the college. Second, the information is fresh in your mind and it’s important to process it all while it is swirling around in your head, especially if you are planning to visit additional colleges on your trip. Asking each family member what their takeaways or highlights of the tour were or having the student think about for themselves and then ask “can you see me here” is a great way to evaluate how well the campus measured up to the initial goals and criteria and what you want to add to your list for next time.
These five steps will provide the platform to really maximize the overall experience and “build on that foundation” (house pun intended) to help your teen begin to define and ultimately find the college that is the best match for them.