By Lisa Mann
It’s that time of year; the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and–if you’re lucky—glossy college brochures addressed to your college-bound high school junior are starting to arrive in the mail.
Choosing a college based only on a brochure or website is like choosing a mail order bride—only, given today’s college costs, perhaps a bit more expensive.
You won’t know until you go
The only way to test drive a campus is to visit it. That’s why the family vacation college visit tour has become something of a right of passage for high school students. Here’re some tips on planning a trip that the whole family will enjoy—and one that will help your student make one of the biggest decisions of their life.
Your road map
Planning is essential. Most admissions offices suggest making appointments at least two weeks in advance. You’ll cram in appointments with admission and financial aid officers, campus tours, exploring the community, and enough family fun time along the way so that the trip doesn’t seem like a punishment for college-worthy grades.
And—here’s the trickier part—you’ll want your child to be involved in planning the trip.
Where to go
Your student should choose their top few choices from the colleges they can reasonably hope to get into. You can’t comfortably visit more than 3 to 5 college visits in a week—save the long shots for a visit after acceptance (but before you put your money down).
When to go
Most college admission officers suggest visiting in late spring of junior year, when classes are in session. Realistically, that is often the most difficult time for families to go—missing school late in the term is rarely recommended during for juniors (or their siblings).
Spring break is a popular time to visit—particularly if your spring break doesn’t coincide with the college’s break—but admissions office are swarmed then, so advance planning is even more vital.
Summer is a more relaxing time to visit, but it may be hard to find professors or admission officers, and your son or daughter will have to visualize the campus crowded with students. September or October of senior year can be ideal, if your kids can afford to miss some school.
As soon as you’ve chosen the dates of your trip, contact the admissions offices of each campus. Schedule an appointment with an admission officer and a tour of the campus.
Schedule an appointment with a financial aid officer if you will be applying for financial aid. They see far fewer students in person, and may be able to create a more comprehensive aid package if they’ve gotten to know your child.
If your child has chosen a major, call that department and ask to for appointment with a professor—or even a student majoring in that subject.
Go online and see what events are happening at the time of your visit—if your student is an athlete, see if there will be a game on campus; if they’re a drama geek—look for evening performances. This will give your child the chance to really explore what campus life is like, and will help your vacation seem more vacation-like.
Finally, call the Convention and Visitors Center for the community the University is in. Ask about nearby family attractions or events, hotels near campus, and special deals or coupons.
In addition to the official tour, schedule some time to wander the campus on your own. Take the time to talk with students, and eat in the student union or cafeterias.
“It’s important to get a glimpse of college life beyond the information presented in group sessions,” says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, the Director of Admissions for Harvard College.
“Try to chat with the student guide if there is one, asking why she or he choose Old College—and how the experience has compared with expectations. Try to get a sense of how students spend non-academic time.”
In the dorms
Many colleges allow prospective students to spend the night in a dorm. It’s a great way to get a feel for campus life. Ask when you set up the admissions interview about overnight stays.
If you’re visiting during the summer, consider dorm rooms for the whole family. Many colleges rent empty dorm rooms to the general public during the summer session. Accommodations may be spartan but they can be surprisingly affordable—$18 -$60 a night even in major metropolitan areas–and often include use of the sports facilities and laundry rooms. The Admissions Office may not be able to make those arrangements. Try asking for the Housing Office, the Summer Conferences Department, or even the Treasurer’s Office.
Keep it fun
Plan a few fun activities, and allow time to talk about each campus before you get to the next one. By the end of the week, the details will start to blur together. A relaxed conversation over dinner or by the pool can help cement the impressions—and taking notes won’t hurt. If you can’t do it any other way, put your high school student in the front seat on the drive between campuses and hold the iPod hostage.