Planning to “Trod the Sod”

Deciding which colleges to visit requires students and their families to make tough choices about how to allocate their time and money.  Summer is when many students have the most time to visit colleges.

What better time, then, to offer a guide to college visits, or, as they put it in the trade, a guide on planning to “trod the sod”?

Consider your objectives

Students should visit a college to help them determine whether they want to live in that community.  No amount of research can prepare for living through a New England or Midwest winter, or the vaporous heated atmosphere which settles on Washington D.C. from May through October, or the gloom that besieges the Northwest for weeks at a time.

Similarly, each college is a community with its own population and values.  Students should sample a community, even for only a few hours, before choosing whether to join it for the next four years.

The problem is that many students apply to a dozen colleges or more.  For most families, visiting that many colleges would cost too much time and money.  How should students and their families narrow the field?

One strategy is to wait until after the student has been accepted to a school before visiting it.  This saves time and expense, but comes with its own costs.  Students may apply to colleges which they could have ruled out with a visit.  Further, students may only have a month after the April 1 deadline for colleges to make admissions decisions and their own May 1 deadline to accept; arranging for last minute visits can be an expensive hassle.  Finally, as mentioned in my previous post (“You’ve Got Mail!”), many colleges are factoring into their admissions process whether students have “demonstrated interest” in the school.  Visiting is the best way to “demonstrate interest”.

Consider the odds of admission to get the best “bang for the buck”

Most college counselors encourage students to divide colleges into three categories:  “reach”, “match”, and “safety”.  If a student’s credentials are much stronger than the typical applicant to a potential college, that college is a “safety” school – it is a “safe” bet that the student will get in.  “Match” colleges are those where the student’s credentials “match” the average applicant.  “Reach” colleges are those where the student’s credentials are not as good as the average applicant, but are not so inferior as to make applying a complete waste of time.  (Luck does play a part in college admissions, and the student may offer some quality – perhaps geographic diversity or interest in a particular major that the college wishes to expand – that may result in admission.)

This classification is also helpful in deciding which colleges to visit.

Visit “safeties” first.  They are more likely to be located closer to home, requiring less time and money to visit.  Even if they are located out of state, spending time and money to verify that the student will be happy if the worst happens in the admissions process is a sound investment in your family’s emotional well being.

“Match” schools are next because of the importance of “demonstrated interest”.  While grades and test scores are still the most important part of the application process, in close cases a student’s “demonstrated interest” may tip the balance.

What if you cannot visit all of your “match” schools?  Of course, you will decide which “match” schools are the most desirable and the least expensive to visit.  Next, check the “Common Data Set” for each college by Googling the college’s name and the words “common data set”.  Colleges provide certain information to the College Board and guidebook publishers based on information they provide to the U.S. Department of Education.

Find Paragraph C7, a table where colleges state the importance of certain variables in their admissions decision process.  One item is “Level of applicant’s interest”.  Any college which states that it considers such interest is signaling that visiting will pay dividends.  Unfortunately, many colleges falsely claim not to consider an applicant’s interest; do not cross a college off your visiting list based on a “negative” answer.

Finally, students are tempted to visit their “reach” schools because those colleges best represent their hopes and aspirations.  Be aware that such a visit may further increase the student’s emotional investment in a school which he or she is unlikely to attend.  Although it is never easy to decline to visit such schools, families with limited time and resources should do just that; plan to visit if and when the student is admitted.

Taking it on the road

The first step is to decide when to visit.  As noted above, climate matters.  Ideally, you will visit each college during its “worst” season.  If possible, visit while classes are in session; an empty campus is not representative of the college environment.

Use the student’s name and e-mail account (see “You’ve Got Mail!”) to book your visit on each college’s web site.  You want colleges to “register” the demonstrated interest involved in booking a visit.  Sign for information sessions and college tours.  If the college offers special sessions for your student’s intended major, think about planning your trip to take advantage of them.  Students with specialized majors, such as fine arts, should try to meet a professor or even arrange an audition (or review of their portfolio).  At the extreme, a few colleges offer sleepovers, usually for admitted students.  These can be a very good way of helping students get a feel for the college while demonstrating interest.

If visiting multiple colleges, allot one day for each college.  Squeezing in two colleges in a day is possible (and necessary for some families), but can be tiring.  Fatigued students and families are more likely to forget or confuse important details about each visit.  Wondering what to do after a half-day touring the college and attending an information session?  Have lunch on campus or at a nearby student hangout.  Go back to your hotel and compare notes.  (Speaking of hotels, some colleges partner with local hotels to offer discounts for visitors).  See a museum or other tourist attraction – after all, this may be your only visit to the area.

Once you are on campus, spend an hour or so before any tours or information sessions walking around and visiting the student union to get a feel for the place.  Eating lunch on campus is also a great way to sample its wares, literally.

By the way, make sure that you know how to find the college and parking lots which you are allowed to use.  Nothing ruins a college visit like a parking ticket.

When you arrive at the admissions department, sign the guest book.  You only get points for demonstrating interest if the college knows that you actually visited.

College interviews are a separate topic not covered here, but at a minimum, be aware that any private conversation with an admissions officer is potentially an interview.

Take the campus tour and ask questions of the guide.  Of course, the guide is a student paid by the college to “sell it”, and will have a pre-packaged spiel.  However, asking a few questions that go off script may yield insights.

You might ask guides why they enrolled, where do they live (dorm or off campus), and what do they like or dislike about the college and their living arrangements.  Ask about their favorite study spots, and where students gather for movie night or other social activities.  If your guide has similar career interests, you can ask what they plan to do after graduation.  You might even discover careers that interest you.

Parents, to avoid embarrassing your student, do not ask more than two questions.  Silence is often golden, and students will learn more if they are not worrying about your presence.  Your place is at the back of the touring pack, exchanging information (i.e., gossiping) with other parents about their college visits.

Finally, students should heed their gut feelings during visits.  It is not unusual for a student to decide within minutes or hours that the campus “just doesn’t feel right”.  Perhaps this is the moment that the student realizes that he or she does not like an urban campus, or, as one student put it, “I don’t want to cross a four lane street to go to class.”  Parents and students should heed such feelings and simply leave.  Go have some fun and do not linger on the experience.  The whole point of the visit is to allow the student to make choices.  Celebrate them, even if you are disappointed.  Remember that it is a lot better to spend one uncomfortable morning at an unsuitable college than the next four years there.

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