Visiting Colleges: To-may-to, To-mah-to

red-tomato-1444420420UzII get a lot of questions about college visits during this time of year. Spring break seems to be a natural time for juniors and seniors to visit campuses. There’s an extended period of time off from school, teachers often give less homework over this break than over a regular weekend, and many families vacation away from home–often near a college town or a major urban center that may have many schools close to one another. If there are younger kids in the family, say middle schoolers, they’re with the family and might want to come along for the ride.

Colleges make admissions decisions using two large categories and depending on your timeline, you should focus on one or the other during a campus visit: objective/detail and subjective/big picture. Objective/detail items include test scores and grades. They help colleges predict whether or not your student is ready for the academic challenges of college work. Subjective/big picture items include extracurricular activities and essays. They’re designed to help colleges get to know your child’s personality and character. Subjective items are harder to compare than a hard number, but they can often make or break the college experience because they indicate whether or not a school is a good match/fit. Your student won’t have all of the objective items ready by spring break of junior year, but he or she has had the subjective stuff since childhood.

A junior year spring break college visit should focus on the subjective stuff: the big picture.

The main purpose of a junior year college visit is to see what kinds of colleges your child likes. Is she excited by the energy of an urban campus? Does he want a rural college in a college town? Does she want to have access to world-class scientific labs? Does he want to pledge a fraternity or study abroad? These characteristics can be found at many schools.

A senior year spring break college visit should focus on the objective stuff: details which will help your student make the final decision.

The main purpose of a senior year college visit is to decide which school your child wants to attend. By this point, he or she can answer the urban/rural or the liberal arts/pre-professional question. In contrast to the junior year generalities, senior year is all about picking a single school. This can be a tough call; a college visit can really help your student make a confident choice.

Think of it another way: if you’re getting ready to buy a house, you probably don’t just tape a map to your wall and start throwing darts. You visit neighborhoods, you decide if you want an apartment/townhouse/free-standing home, you think of your family’s needs. That’s like your junior year spring break visits. You’re looking at broad characteristics at this point. Come senior year, however, you have your budget (test scores and GPA) and you can really get down to business. Now is the time to get specific. You’ve narrowed down a “neighborhood” (big or small, urban or rural, liberal arts or public research, conservative or liberal) and you’re ready to look at specific “homes” (Kenyon vs. Denison, UCLA vs. USC, Michigan vs. Ohio).

So . . . what do you do on a visit?

Whether it’s junior or senior year, the things you do are pretty much the same. It’s just your attitude that’s different. As a junior, you’re thinking broadly. As a senior, you’re thinking specifically:

  • Take a campus tour (and marvel at the tour guide’s ability to walk backwards)
  • Go to an info session (they often tell you exactly what they’re looking for in applications)
  • Talk with an admissions officer (sign up on-line through each college’s website)
  • Have lunch at the cafeteria (especially if you’re vegan, gluten-free, etc.)
  • Ask random students questions even if it feels weird (just walk up to them and tell them you’re a prospective student — they’re always happy to talk)
  • Try to sit in on a class (to see what kinds of teaching styles are valued at the school)
  • Wander around campus and off-campus (pretend you’re a tourist)
  • Take lots of notes right after the visit
  • Talk with each other: what did your child like? what did your child dislike? why?

Whether or not your child ends up at a school that your family has visited really doesn’t matter. A campus visit might trigger a “Yes! This is it!” feeling. Sometimes your child won’t even want to get out of the car. Just remember the purpose of your visit:

To-may-to, To-mah-to

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