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Visiting colleges with your high school student can be a productive and fun part of the college search process...if you plan ahead and pace yourself.
Less is usually more — the biggest rookie mistake is trying to do too much. One campus a day, or a full tour and information session at one school in the morning followed by a more casual drive or walk-through of a second nearby campus in the afternoon, is plenty.
Campus visits are useful for students who want to go to college but are still figuring out what kind of school they're looking for as well as for students who’ve identified a dream school.
For the former, touring can get the juices flowing as they start to get an idea about what might suit them. For the student who’s fallen in love with a college based on its website or ranking, an in-person visit can confirm that it might be a great fit or provide a reality check (“There aren’t enough research opportunities,” “The social scene seems too centered on Greek life,” “I think I want a college closer to home”).
This is your student's responsibility, but you can be part of the conversation. What draws your student to this particular school? How might it help them meet their personal and academic goals? Is it a "reach" school or would your student be a strong applicant?
Use the Net Price Calculator on the college website to see what your family is likely to pay towards the total cost of attendance at this school. Check other statistics; one that deserves special attention is the freshman retention rate (i.e., how many first year students return for second year).
Your student should go online and reserve spots for tours and information sessions ahead of time. This gets them in the system and is an important way to “demonstrate interest” in a school (which helps if/when they decide to apply).
If your student is curious about a particular program or department (engineering, pre-med, theater, etc.), encourage them to call in advance to ask if it's possible to schedule a meeting or mini-tour with someone in the department. (Again, your student should be the one to make this phone call.) A personal connection and behind-the-scene glimpse would be valuable.
Your family’s budget for higher education should be part of the conversations you have with your student about their college dreams and goals. If they’re serious about a school you’re touring, consider making an appointment with the financial aid office.
If there is more than one tour group heading off at the same time, split up. This gives your student a chance to ask questions they might not if you were there. On that note, remember that the prospective students should be up front getting most of the guide’s attention. Hang back a bit. You can always chat with the guide after the tour.
Your teenager (and you!) will be much happier if you schedule in snack and coffee breaks. Carry water and hunt up a fun lunch spot — either in the college town (is this a place your student will be happy spending four years?) or at the campus dining hall (how’s the food?).
Starting with the tour guides, of course. Most guides love their school (that’s why they work with the admissions office) — advise your student to have some questions prepared ahead of time to dig into this a little. If there’s an opportunity to interact with students who aren’t tour guides, that can also be key. Why did the students choose this school? What has been positive (or negative) about their experiences there so far?
Get in touch beforehand with relatives, old friends, or former colleagues who live or work in the area. They may know someone who works at the university — maybe they studied there themselves. Chances are good they'll be happy to give you the inside scoop and share a local's perspective.
The best person for your student to talk to, if at all possible? A recent graduate.
It might take your student a while to process everything. If they’re ready to reflect during the drive/flight home, or as you get a meal or an ice cream after the tour, ask an open-ended question or two and then sit back and listen (resisting the urge to present your own opinion).
Campus visits don’t finalize anything but now your student has a better idea about what they’re looking for. Suggest that they compare the campuses they’ve visited: “Now that you’ve spent some time there, do you like School A better than School B? Why?”