Visiting college campuses can be anything from exciting to shocking. But unless the schools that are of most interest are within very easy commuting distance to allow your student the option to live at home, campus visits are a necessity. Not every college campus is the same. Campus visits help you to get to know a community as well as the services it offers. Its better to take campus visits before committing the time and money to apply to schools. And keep in mind that your family has only so much time, and probably only so much money to travel.

The experience that you get from campus visits depends on the effort that you put into them. The campus tour and information session will tell you very little about a college. The comments that you will get from admissions officers and tour guides will largely be positive. That’s to be expected. They are a marketing arm of the school.

It is strongly suggested that families take two tours: one through the admissions office to become familiar with the school, the second on their own, preferably parents and prospective student touring separately. The admissions office will almost always help you plan your own tour after their tour. They, too want you to spend more time on campus to learn your way around.

As you plan campus visits, do it with the goal of getting these six questions answered:

Could your student earn a degree from this school? The best way to get this impression is to sit in on an introductory course. It’s doubtful that most high school students have ever had a large lecture class at a large school. The largest and most similar gathering has probably been a school assembly that took place a handful of times during a school year. It’s also doubtful that most high school students have taken a small, rigorous writing-intensive freshman seminar course where the professor expects class participation.

Does your student feel comfortable and safe within the community? She will get some impression by walking through the student center or the dining hall to get lunch. I have been to schools where the students are very polite, will help when you are lost, and openly answer questions about likes and dislikes. If clubs have set up tables, stop and chat with the students manning them, and ask about their club and how they like the school.

Where do students at this school live and will you and your student be comfortable with those living and dining arrangements? Outside of academics, this should be the most important consideration for a prospective freshman who has not lived away from home for much time. College residence halls, especially for first-year students, will not always be fancy. But some are cleaner and feel safer to students than others. Colleges also offer living/learning and honors housing options that help to offer a more personal educational and living experience during the first year. And every college student must eat. If your student hated the food in a dining hall on the day you came, it’s going to significantly impact their college choice.

Where do students live after their freshman year? Housing policies and practices vary from school to school. Some try to move their students into less-supervising living arrangements as they advance in their education; others cannot guarantee housing after the first year and offer few on-campus living options after that. College admissions and student affairs professionals hope that new students will find new friends; some will do more than others to help them stay together. Some schools are more supportive of fraternities and sororities as a living option; others have none of these organizations on campus.

Will your student have a network to support them in their academic and career exploration? The career center will help with information, as long as you contact the office in advance, and so will the alumni relations office. You should go home with information on how the school helps its students to find jobs while they are in school, then after they graduate. You should also go home with the names of some alumni contacts close to home.

If costs are a concern, do you and your student feel that you will be able to afford the school? There are online tools, including Net Price Calculators on the college Web sites, that can help you get a sense of costs before you visit. However, these rely on averages and estimates that are not always realistic, especially if the school is located in a community that is likely to tempt your student to spend money or one that has a high-cost housing market.

While the appearance of a campus and the pace and personalities of the students you meet are likely to lure your student to apply to a college, your family must get all six of these questions answered, hopefully with help from the admissions team.

For more tips to help you build your college list through visits and research, contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com or call me at 609-406-0062

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