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SPRING BREAK: College Visits

By Jackie Burrell
Wednesday, March 5th, 2008 at 8:30 am in College Apps & Angst.

Muhlenberg College Tour (Photo by Max Orenstein, MCT Direct)
Spring break may conjure up thoughts of Cabo, Daytona Beach and other fun-in-the-sun, wet-t-shirt spots for some people. But if you’ve got teens at home, chances are your spring travel plans include a college visit or two.

If this is your first foray, do a little homework first, say the folks at Collegiate Choice, Case Western and Princeton Review. And if you’re still mulling the big questions of large vs. small, private vs. public, etc. check out the Princeton Review web site for a list of issues to ponder, and the ever-helpful Counselor-O-Matic, which matches academic and extra-curricular interests with college possibilities. (It’s slim on the Cal State schools, but will help you find possibilities you might not have considered.) Once you’ve got a preliminary list in hand, it’s time to start visiting, because learning about a campus by browsing the brochure is like learning to surf from a textbook. The pictures are certainly pretty, but it’s kinda hard to grasp the actual experience, you know?

First, get out a map and plot a geographically sensible course. By the way, visiting ten schools on a single trek is a ghastly way to spend time. Don’t do it. A good college visit takes at least half a day, and visiting more than four or five on a trip will leave you curled up and whimpering in your hotel room. Plus, it breeds rebellion in the rest of the family. It’s their spring break too, which is why we recommend – with the expertise that comes from having done this three times already – leaving the fam at home, or building non-college entertainment into your college trek itinerary. If you’re visiting Chapman or UC Irvine, send the sibs and spouse to Disneyland.

Check to make sure the schools you’re visiting aren’t on spring break too. You may enjoy a campus’ architecture when it’s devoid of people, but you won’t get much of a feel for the school itself. Build in travel time, both the getting-to-the-city part and the getting-lost-on-campus-trying-to-find-parking stuff. And you don’t want to arrive for a college interview or tour late. Ever.

Really looking at a school involves more than just walking through the quad. Sit in on a class and meet with a coach or professor (the admissions office can help you set up both those things), and sign up for a student-led tour and any informational sessions. Most colleges keep track of who comes to visit them – it tells them you really are interested, and not just checking off boxes on the Common App. Plus, your perky tour guide will impart not just geographical information but insider stuff too – forget the professor:student ratio in the brochure, how big are your tour guide’s classes? How are the dorms? Does everyone go home on the weekend? (Commuter campuses can get very lonely on weekends.) What do kids do for fun? What was the hardest adjustment? The biggest surprise? One tour guide at an uber-competitive school warbled on at length about the psychiatric help available in the dorms… on every floor … 24/7. Um, yeah. No.

Caveat: Let your son or daughter ask these questions. You can ask a few questions, but shooting a barrage of qs at the tour guide will make you extremely unpopular with the guide, your fellow college tourists and, most important of all, your child. This is his process and his decision. You’re there to gently guide, not seize the steering wheel.

Eat in the dining commons. Chat up other students. Visit the bookstore. Look up high school alums. And, if your child is a prospective music or other arts major, see a concert or show. He’s looking for a college whose arts program is better than his high school’s, after all. Stroll the campus. Explore the surrounding area. And back at the hotel, debrief each other: likes, dislikes, impressions. Can your child visualize himself living and studying here? Is this a good “fit”? Pay attention to first impressions and gut feelings. There are reasons your child didn’t like it here … or fell in love… and you could probably unearth them if you dug enough into his psyche. But you don’t need to. Trust his instincts. Then hope the schools he loves, love him back.

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