Making the Most of Campus Visits

Winter and spring breaks are usually popular campus visit opportunities.

For seniors, that means going back to “Accepted Student Days” or making a second visit on a typical school day. It may take multiple visits to make this important decision. It’s essential to sit in on a class or two, meet with faculty in a specific department, and consider spending the night on campus. If you will be using accommodations in college – such as extended time on exams – visit the Accessibility / Disability office to get a handle on their procedures and to find out if they offer any additional support.

Juniors, on the other hand, will likely be visiting for the first time and deciding whether to keep a given school on their list.

During Covid, colleges started offering many options virtually. You can start with a virtual tour and information session – these can be found on the college’s admissions website. This makes sense if the college is far away or to help you narrow down which schools you plan to visit in person.

It’s helpful to visit before May so that students will still be on campus prior to their summer break. While most schools start offering tours again in June – and the summer can work for an initial visit – if you like the school, make sure to return when students are there.

Remember as well to always “officially” sign up for a tour and information session, whether it is in person or virtual. This way, the admissions department knows you were there, and you get “credit” for visiting.

Consider each of these factors as you learn about colleges. Take notes! (Seniors will want to get into more detail in each of these areas.)

Academics: What is the strength of the school or the program your student is interested in pursuing? How strong is advising for students who are undecided on what they want to study? How accessible are the professors? Are teaching assistants used to teach? Is the school’s emphasis on undergraduate teaching or on graduate research? Is the atmosphere more competitive or collaborative? What is the level of student stress?

Class size: How large are the freshman classes? (This is not the same as the faculty-to-student ratio.)

Graduation Rates: These may be reported as four-year and/or six-year rates. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples across schools. Keep in mind that a school that sends students on Co-Ops or has a lot of 5 year masters programs may have a lower four-year graduation rate.

Retention: What is the percentage of freshmen who return as sophomores? Compare this to other schools of a similar nature.

Support: Are there resources to help with the transition to college? Are there writing, math and foreign language labs? Is there a fee for content tutoring? Are the tutors peers, grad students or faculty? Is there help with time management, organization and study skills? Does faculty tend to notice if a student is struggling and recommend resources?

Internships: What percent of students complete internships? (A college degree is not always enough these days!) Does the school (career services) help secure the internships?

Housing: What percent of students live on campus? Is housing guaranteed all four years? Are there any living / learning communities?  If students live off campus, are they commuters from home or do they live in near-by housing?

Student Body: What is the level of diversity in all areas – racial, socioeconomic, religious, sexual orientation, geographical, etc.? What is the level of tolerance for differences? Is there a political leaning one way or another? Do at least some of the students seem like people you could be friends with?

Campus life: Do the students look happy? (Keep in mind that no one looks happy on a college campus early in the morning or when they are dashing to class in the rain.) Try to talk to students in addition to the tour guide. Ask what they like about their school and what they wish were different.

  • What percentage of kids goes home on the weekends?
  • Are there plenty of activities for students who are not interested in parties?
  • Is there Greek Life and, if yes, how dominant is it?
  • Are there ample opportunities for volunteering?
  • Does the school have the amount of school spirit you are looking for?
  • Do students regularly attend sports games or dance, music, drama performances?
  • Where do students go when they want to get off campus?

Location: How easy/expensive is it to get home and how much does that matter?

Finances: It’s important to consider the overall expense to graduate. Look at the percentage of kids who graduate in four years and consider the extra cost if additional time is often needed at a particular school. All schools now have a “Net Price Calculator” to get an early estimate of any financial aid your child may be awarded.

Exploring colleges takes a bit of time and effort. Plan to get started soon so that you can begin sharpening your preferences and narrowing your list to those that seem like the best fit!

Juniors: It All Starts Now

January marks the official start of the “season” for juniors planning to attend college immediately after high school.

Now is the time because the first semester or second term is ending and some students have practice SAT or ACT test scores back. With a current GPA in hand and at least some sense of how they are likely to score on standardized testing, students have a general idea of the academic level of the schools that might be a good fit for them. That makes it a little easier to narrow down the list from the thousands of potential colleges to which your child might be interested in applying.

Your child probably doesn’t need to be reminded that this is the year that colleges will examine most critically to see that a student is challenging him or herself academically. Your student should make extra effort to participate in class discussions, as junior year teachers are typically the ones asked to write recommendation letters. This participation can also take the form of asking for extra help or attending review sessions – skills that will be needed in college as well!

Hopefully, your student has been able to participate in activities this year outside of class (sports, clubs, jobs, etc.). There need not be a lot of activities, but it is beneficial to participate in something in addition to academics. Also, all students need a social outlet and something to look forward to so that they can buckle down to the academics of junior year.

Many students are involved in test prep to prepare for the taking of the SAT or ACT this spring. Test scores can add to the strength of an application if this is an area where your child excels. Most colleges have said that they will continue to be “Test Optional” for the Class of 2024, so some students may opt out of testing altogether if they really struggle in this area. Make sure your child has asked the counseling department to help with obtaining testing accommodations if they use them for tests at school.

Finally, some extra sleep, eating well, and regular exercise will go a long way and plant the seeds to continue these habits in college (easier said than done, I know). Overall, Job One remains doing the best they can academically to keep grades up.

Beginning the College Exploration Process

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. The first question should always be: Does your child want to go to college and do all those involved consider this a good plan for immediately after high school?

Keep in mind that there are students who are not yet ready, and it has become much more common (and acceptable) for students to take a “gap year” to travel, volunteer, work, etc., with plans to enter college when they are a bit more mature and college-minded.

Some students may benefit by pursuing a “transition to college” program that will provide more support with academic and social independence. It may also make sense to think about a community college, with plans to pursue an associate degree or a certificate program first and then (if desired) transfer to a four-year school upon completion.

Step two, for most families, is to have a frank discussion regarding the family’s financial situation as it relates to paying for college. It’s best to have this discussion early in the process, even before your student puts together a list of schools. This will save much disappointment later, in case your student does not receive the financial aid package they had hoped for and you are not in a position to make it work at their “dream” school.

Step three is to consider general college characteristics that will make a school a good fit for your child. These include distance from home; city vs rural/suburban; size of school; size of classes; level of academic rigor; amount of academic support offered; availability of a particular major if known; and make up of student body.

It’s a lot to think about, I know. And while it’s easy to think that there is plenty of time to start this process much later (and there is), take it from me that the time can get away from you, too. Particularly if your student will have a busy senior fall (they usually do!) due to a sport, work, or extracurricular activity and/or if they want to start applying to colleges mid-fall (many do these days), it is a good idea to start this process of exploring schools soon.

Ideally, your child will start to form opinions of the type of schools that feel right this winter and you can fit in some local window shopping or drive-through visits to see what is out there. I also recommend that students attend virtual tours and information sessions offered on the admissions pages for each college in which they are interested, especially if the school is farther away and visiting will be challenging. Encourage your child to take notes!

Later on, over winter or spring breaks, school vacation days or on a weekend, you can make more focused college visits. The summer is an option too (although students will not be on campus). Your student should also sign up to be on the school’s mailing list and make sure to open emails that are sent. Colleges can track this activity and it shows the college that he/she is interested – that counts!

Remember that this search is about finding a good fit for your child, regardless of whether the school is a household name. I often remind parents not to voice their opinions until their child has had a chance to explore what is out there.

Overall, try to enjoy this exploration process with your teen and keep things light. Junior year is stressful – your child can use lots of support and encouragement!

First Semester Angst

Hello College Freshman Parent,

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving with your loved ones.

In addition to cozy togetherness, there was likely also some tension as everyone struggled to figure out which household rules to still enforce, now that your student has spent time living away from home. That can be challenging!

Also, it may have been a time when your student let you know that they are not as happy at college as they had hoped. Maybe they are struggling academically or feel overwhelmed trying to balance work and play without the structure of high school. They may not have worked to join college activities and make new friends, opting instead to remain in close contact with those from high school. And, of course, there is the ever-present illusion of social media, suggesting that others are fabulously happy! Students at this age often do not realize the effort that may be needed to find their “people,” they expect it to just happen.

These challenges have always been an issue, but colleges have been reporting that new students are arriving at college less prepared – academically, socially, and emotionally – after the pandemic years in high school.

It is important to listen and help your student understand that they are not alone and that these feelings are more widespread than they think. It is also critical to assess if they need to seek mental health intervention if they are really struggling.

It can be helpful to encourage your child to look into additional support if they are struggling academically and to pursue activities on campus if they are unhappy socially. Getting involved in community service can often be a way to appreciate what they have and feel good about helping others. With some effort, things often turn around in the spring.

For the time being, students will want to keep their options open by getting strong grades in their courses. This will give them the option to consider a transfer if they have still not settled in by the end of the academic year. However, struggling academically or socially may not subside if a student transfers to a new school, so it’s important for students to put in renewed efforts to help things improve when they return to school after the winter break.

It is also possible that your student is just not yet ready to be at college. There is no lasting harm in taking a leave of absence for a semester (or longer) to work, get an internship, do a Gap Year experience, take a class at a community college while getting academic support, pursue a mental health program, etc.

Each student is on his or her own timeline. They may be a very strong college student when they are ready, but now might not be that time. Students with ADHD, a learning disability, or who are on the autism spectrum are often several years behind their peers in some areas of development. And all students suffered setbacks in most areas of development during the pandemic years. Students who are currently struggling with significant anxiety or depression are often not able to handle the rigors of college and life away from home for the first time.

(Here are two articles that address the academic and mental health issues that some new college students are facing.)

Take your student’s concerns seriously and help them make a plan for improvements and/or finding more support as they look toward the winter / spring semester. In many cases, you will be hearing a more positive story by the time spring break rolls around.