With spring approaching, it is the time when 11th graders start to explore their own aspirations and dreams beyond high school. Let the junior spring migration commence! This is the time-honored ritual when juniors (and parents) formally launch their college search by visiting colleges. Though it takes logistical planning and coordination, nothing provides you with as complete a sense of what a college is like as does a visit to their campus. For this reason, I promote college visits, when financially possible, and offer the following thoughts and advice for your consideration. (Note: you may not be able to visit any of the colleges to which you apply or maybe only a portion of them. This is totally okay. Some students wait to see a college for the first time after s/he has been accepted and before s/he matriculates.)
Be a Cultural Anthropologist: Similar to exploring a new country and its culture, be an astute observer of a college’s environment and how that environment positively (and negatively) affects the norms and behaviors there. Take field notes on how the landscape, school history and mission, values, academic programs and structures, extracurricular activities, dress, etc. all play a role in the experience of the students. Reflect on what you are seeing, test your assumptions, and find something new that you did not know about the school. The purpose of your college tour is not just to make a list of colleges you like and the ones that you don’t. Be more open-minded and analytical. Which of your preconceptions have been altered? Why? What are you learning about yourself?
Browse your list of colleges’ websites: Re-familiarize yourself with the schools before you go. Arm yourself with questions on each college; find out what opportunities they offer prospective students on campus when you are there (lectures, sporting events, concerts, etc). Try to attend some of those activities if time allows.
Check the admissions schedule: Under the Admissions tab look up and register for information sessions, campus tours, and other informative sessions. Plan your days accordingly trying to get to two schools a day if possible or if needed. When the day is over, move to your next pair of colleges, so you are ready to go the next day.
Admissions Representative: Remember to ask for the card of your state’s admission representative (each state has one assigned on the website) and see if s/he is available for a quick hello. If not, because it is decision making season for seniors, you can follow up with an email after your visit and introduce yourself.
Lunch Pass: If you are visiting a college in the morning, ask for a lunch voucher that allows you to get some food in the cafeteria. It is a great place to assess the vibe; seat with some students and talk to them (yes, you will have to reveal – but they already know – that you are only a junior and you are visiting, but they will be more than hospitable. Be brave.)
Interviews: Unless you are quite clear that you like (and know why you like) a particular college and are willing to engage in a conversation with an admission representative, I recommend you not interview “cold” (i.e., having not seen the school and done your homework). There will be other opportunities in the fall and winter.
Department/School of… Visits: If you are clear on a field of study, be sure to visit that department/school’s building(s) and see if there is a professor or receptionist who you might be able to talk to: gather information and make contacts.
Dress: I recommend that you dress cleanly and “play up a bit”; leave the hat in the car and the gum in your pocket for the hour or two that you are in the admissions office.
Buying College Apparel: It is up to you, but being a frugal Yankee and a bit superstitious (about wearing a particular college sweatshirt before the fact), I do not recommend buying college apparel before you attend that college. Rather, I would suggest you save that money for the college application, which will be about the same price. But the allure will be strong….so, get a bumper sticker and save it.
SAT/ACT Prep Exercises: College visits are a perfect time to bring along xeroxed sections of the SAT/ACT prep book (with answers) and do some of the practice drills while on the plane or in the car. You are a “captive audience”; there is no excuse not to do this. So do some copying from the reading, writing/language, and math sections before you set off on your trip.
Finally, have fun and thank your parents. This is an adventure! Like any travel, there are logistics, you will get tired, it will not be without its problem-solving. But this is a gigantic (college) shopping trip. You are in a rare place to explore the schools you are seeing. Put some energy and excitement into the journey. And be sure to not only enjoy the time with your parents (after all, you will be leaving home before you know it), but to thank them for the financial support and effort they put into making the trip possible.
PS: Some of our most relevant and revealing conversations take place after one returns to school from a college trip and reports out on their fieldnotes and findings. I cannot wait to hear your stories and impressions.