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How to Choose "The One" (With or Without a Final Campus Visit)

Shari Bender

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The results are in!

Your high school senior has heard back from the schools they applied to. Rejections may have left a sting, but now it's time to focus on the "Yesses" and get ready for the College Commitment.

Good news: although the pandemic continues, many schools are once again offering in-person admitted students events this spring. Your options will vary from school to school and region to region. On some campuses, COVID-19 protocols may limit visitor access to campus buildings; proof of vaccination or a negative test may be required to register for in-person programs. Know before you go, and be sure to pre-register for all events.

Of course, every year a fair number of students don't get to visit the college they choose prior to depositing and attending. For a variety of reasons, from lack of resources to unexpected obligations, these students aren't able to visit a campus in person yet they still, ultimately, choose a college.

Online resources are a huge help, allowing students to visit colleges virtually, feel as though they are experiencing the campus, and get a sense of lay-out and community.

I'm a Fan of Visiting Days!

My kids and I loved attending admitted student days. The tables are turned, and the college is now courting you and your child. Swag and fanfare are the norm. If you can take advantage of these open houses, I recommend it. Stay safe as you travel and protect public health by adhering to the school's Covid protocols.

Cynics will tell you that a lot of what goes on at admitted student days is glorified sales pitch, but in my experience there's no question that attending can fuel your student's excitement about and understanding of an institution. Your student also gets a chance to absorb the energy of a school. There's no question in my mind that visiting days can be an important part of a student’s decision-making process.

My oldest child narrowed her choices down to two and ended up selecting her college in the final hour. In the end it came down to a “feeling” from her time at admitted student days, and the school (from which she graduated a few years ago) was a perfect fit. My younger child and I traveled by car to a handful of admitted student days. Drives were long but bonding time was precious and admitted student days were key in his decision-making process.

Even if a school is not offering in-person admitted student days, you may still be able to arrange for a campus visit on your own. Go to the Admissions website or call the office to see if any spring campus information sessions and tours are being offered. Even a self-guided tour of campus will help your child experience connection to the school.

Virtual Admitted Student Experiences

If visiting in person isn't possible or practical, there are other ways to get a “feel” remotely.

First, register for and participate in any and all virtual admitted student and family programming offered by the school. Explore the college's website and any available videos as well as their social media. Sites like CollegeReel are another fun way to explore a campus remotely.

If you have a connection to a student at the school (even a friend of a friend of a friend), have your child shoot them a text telling them they're considering attending the school, and ask if they have a few minutes to talk about their experience. Most college kids I know are happy to give a prospective student a glimpse into life on campus and answer any questions.

If you don't have a connection to the school, reach out to the Admissions office and see if they can arrange for your teen to speak with a current student who shares some of their academic and/or extracurricular interests. They should also be able to help your student get in touch with a faculty member in the major or program they're considering.

Here are some tips for making the most of virtual tours from Amy Romm Lockard, Founder of Dovetail College Consulting:

Treat these virtual visits with the same enthusiasm you would have applied to a traditional campus tour. Dress up! Set out some snacks! Gather your family around a laptop or smart TV. Websites like YouVisit, Campus Tours and eCampus Tours allow you to search for the colleges you’re interested in and take free, virtual campus tours — some of which include a tour guide who tells you all about the college and community. Take your time on tour, pausing to appreciate the scenery and making notes of anything that stands out to you. When your tour is over, discuss your impressions together as a family.

Compare and Contrast

Whether your child is choosing among just a few colleges or six (or more), there are ways to help cull their list. I highly recommend gathering pen and paper to make a Pro and Con list for each school. There's something about actually writing things down that helps foster a connection to the topic at hand. Put your phones away — no texts or social media notifications to distract your teen (or you).

Some general things to consider:

Cost: Compile financial aid packages and any scholarships given. Include the approximate costs of flying to and from school, if applicable, as this can add considerable costs. Cost Pros and Cons are something you will have sizable input in, since you are the one most likely footing the bill.

Location: Proximity to home, regional weather and environment (rural, suburban, city) are all things to evaluate. It’s super easy to insert our own feelings here, but tread lightly. Even if scary large city statistics make you scream "Con!", if your teen thinks the big city life is for them, it’s a Pro.

Intended Major: Delve deeper into the core curriculum and explore other facets of the school. If your student isn’t sure of their path, or if they change their mind, it’s good to pick a school with matched interests across the board.

Size of School: Small, medium or large. Is your teenager gravitating towards the large ra-ra Division 1 school or do they feel they are a better fit for small liberal arts college?

Also to consider: waitlist status. There are inherent Pros and Cons to remaining on the waitlist. If the waitlist choice is your child’s “dream school,” it makes sense to opt in to the waitlist if they are still committed to going there. But statistics are often not in the students favor, and staying on a waitlist complicates the college commitment.

Hopefully after a focused Pro/Con session, the list is down to 2–4 finalists. The formula for the winners is simple: Select the final choices based on which has more Pros than Cons. Then you’re ready for those virtual or in-person visits.

Deciding Between the Final Two

Sometimes after this exercise, it's obvious to your student which college is “the One.” Often, though, they'll be deciding between the Final Two.

A useful trick for the Final Two is this: For a full 24 hours, your child puts themselves at School #1. From imagining the Instagram post, telling an inquiring neighbor about their selection, and seeing themselves on campus, 24 hours of thoughts are committed to be a student at School #1. The next 24-hour period is all about School #2. Likely after this experiment your child will know which simply felt better, so in the end, after the carefully calculated Pros and Cons, they can select “the One” with their heart.

When and if your student gets too stressed about all this ("What if I pick the wrong school?"), you can assure them that this commitment is momentous but not necessarily final. They're making the best choice they can based on what they know of the college, and their perceived fit within that institution. Statistics vary, but it appears that up to 25% of students transfer schools. Kids need to be reminded (they are still kids after all) that they can be happy and thrive at any of the schools that have offered them admission. Keep that in mind if your child’s final choice is not the one you would have picked for them.

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Shari earned her BA in Communication from Stanford University and freelances all things Communication and Marketing. She is a cat-loving spiritual vegan and former admissions interviewer. With two grown children, Shari is happily and sentimentally embracing her Empty Nest along with her husband of more than 30 years. Her musings delight parents in numerous publications and online platforms, including CollegiateParent and Grown & Flown.
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