Spring marks the official start of the “season” for juniors planning to attend college immediately after high school. First semester grades are in and PSAT scores are back.
With a current GPA and at least some sense of how they are likely to score on the SAT’s/ACT’s, students have a general idea of the academic level of the school that might be a good fit for them.
And spring break or April weekends are a good time to visit schools before the students start final exams in early May and leave campus for the summer soon after.
For starters, I recommend setting up a family meeting to talk about college in general and to share expectations of both you and your child. This meeting should include a frank financial discussion and any hopes and expectations on either side (such as distance from home).
Next it’s time to start planning some visits. Tours will often be crowded over vacation weeks so reserving a spot in advance is a must. If you are just starting out, it’s good to show your child a wide variety of schools – kind of like window shopping. This will allow them to form some opinions of where they see themselves feeling comfortable. Some things to check out include:
- Big or small?
- City, rural or suburban?
- Small classes or big lectures?
- Career-oriented or liberal arts focus?
- Level of academic rigor?
- Level of school spirit? Greek life?
- Importance of academic support offered?
Ideally, your child will start to form opinions of the type of schools that feel like a good fit. If you are traveling a distance from home, it may be necessary to be more thorough on your first visit as it won’t be as easy to get back. (A note about school’s that are further away – they often welcome geographic diversity and, for that reason, your child may be more likely to receive some merit aid.)
When you are ready for a more comprehensive college visit and/or for seniors who are making final decisions, consider these additional points:
Touring campuses involves more than it once did.
Make sure your child takes advantage of opportunities to sit in on a class, have lunch with a student and sit down with a faculty member in their particular area of interest (make an appointment beforehand).
Have them spend some unstructured time on campus as well, in the dining hall, the student center and out on the quad (weather permitting).
Get off the beaten path
It’s so important to get beyond the canned presentations offered by the student tour guides who work for the admissions department. These are helpful, certainly, but they only represent “the official” point of view.
That’s why I always suggest that students try to engage in conversation withother kids. I find kids around campus are eager to talk and they are happy to speak honestly and answer questions.
Ask them: Do you like it here? Why? Would you apply again if you were starting over? What things would you like to change? Do your professors know your name? What is life like on the weekends? Is Greek Life big here? Are there enough things to do here socially if I don’t drink? Are kids here serious about their education? How are your classes different than your high school classes? What other schools were you considering and why did you choose here? Have you done an internship, had a chance to study abroad or do any undergrad research? Have you worked with the career services department? Was there enough support to help you make a smooth transition as a freshman? And the list goes on!
Get the facts
One of my goals in assessing a particular school is to get answers to the information below. Often, it requires piecing together data from admissions or faculty conversations, searching websites, or making follow-up phone calls.
It is the rare student who will be able to gather all this information on their own,so plan on stepping in as the parent. Be aware, however, of firing off too many questions during your visit, as this may make your child uncomfortable and detract from their campus experience. (Your student tour guide will not know the answers to many of these questions and some are best saved for staff or follow-up research.)
- Class Sizes: What is the average? How large are the freshman introductory classes?
- Housing: What percent of student live on campus? Is housing guaranteed? Are there issues with overcrowding that necessitate forced triples or living off campus as a freshman or sophomore?
- Faculty: What percent are full time? What percent have their terminal degree? (There are some instances though where it is a plus to have some faculty that are currently working in the field and teaching – especially in the fields of arts and entertainment, etc.)
- Cost: What is the cost of attendance? What percentage of students receive need-based and merit-based awards? What is an average package? What is the average student debt at graduation?
- Academic Support: What services are available for all students and for students with a documented disability? Are services offered by peers, graduate students or staff? What is the training of the staff?
- Freshman Transition: What is offered to help new students adjust to the academic and social demands of college life?
- Internships: What percentage of students do one or more? Are they paid or for credit? Does the school help arrange them?
- Retention Rate: How many students come back for their sophomore year?
- Graduation Rate: in 4 years! If they can’t tell you what it is in 4 years, that is not a great sign unless they are a school with a Co-op program (e.g., Northeastern, RIT, Drexel) or a school with many 5 year combination Bachelor/ Master’s programs.
- Outcomes: What are the statistics for how many students are employed in their field or attending grad school 6 months after graduation (and what percent of students answered the survey!).
Remember, visiting a campus can be fun, but it requires some planning and advance research to make the most of it. Start with a few schools that are not likely to be a great fit, to get warmed up. You’ll be campus tour pros in no time!