What to know, do when visiting colleges
The counselor The high school senior The parent The college student By Mary Beth Schweigert, Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Penn Manor senior Lindamarie Olson thought one college looked like a great fit -- until she actually saw it.
Olson had checked out the school's eye-catching website and flipped through its glossy brochures.
But an in-person visit revealed something entirely different.
"The environment wasn't what I was looking for," she says. "The area ... wasn't very nice. Of course, that wasn't portrayed in the advertisements."
College-bound students like Olson can get a reality check by gassing up the car and visiting the campuses on their shortlists.
College visits can help narrow students' options to schools that are truly the best fit -- and the time to start is right about now.
Here's some expert advice on getting the most from your college visits from people who are invested in the process.
Ephrata High School guidance counselor Steve Habowski says:
n Time your visit right. Spring of junior year is the ideal time to start visiting colleges, Habowski says. Once the application process starts in the fall, most seniors get busy with schoolwork and extracurricular activities, as well as applications.
If possible, visit colleges while classes are in session. "It gives a better representation of what the school is really like," he says.
If you do visit over the summer, he says, return during the school year for a clearer picture.
n Find your magic number. Habowski recommends applying to, and visiting, five to seven schools.
One or two should be "safety schools," where acceptance is highly likely. Then add a few "probable" and "reach" schools.
n Do your homework. Thorough research can eliminate a stop or two before you get in the car.
"Research makes the application process a lot easier," Habowski says. "You can't start too early."
Before your visit, make a list of questions that your research hasn't answered. Be prepared for questions that might be asked of you, such as what you are looking for in a college.
n Get personal. Group tours provide a solid overview of a campus, but a personalized tour allows you to focus on locations and programs that especially interest you. See if you can set one up.
Try to schedule a meeting with someone from the academic department of your probable major.
"That's huge," Habowski says. "It gives (students) a good idea of where they might be spending their time."
n Be thorough. Check out classes, dormitories, dining halls and academic buildings. Talk to as many people as you can, including students, faculty and coaches.
"Spend some time ... around town, to see if it's a place you want to be," Habowski says.
Lindamarie Olson says:
n Narrow your focus. Picture your ideal school. Is it big or small, urban or rural? Which region of the country appeals to you?
Olson visited 10 colleges, mostly in the South. Her family vacations in North Carolina, and she's always wanted to attend college in the region.
"It's that Southern hospitality," she says. "Everybody's so nice."
n Declare your independence -- or not. Think about how independent you want to be. Visits will give you a good idea of just how far from home you could be living.
Olson is OK with heading home only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But if you're the come-home-every-weekend type, make sure that would be possible from your chosen campus.
n Look beyond aesthetics. Make sure the schools you visit offer a strong program in your chosen field of study, not just a scenic campus or winning football team.
Olson wants to attend a school with a great occupational therapy program. "I definitely want to work with kids with special needs," she says.
n Make an impression -- and record your own. Meeting people on campus is a great way to get your name out there. Olson took letters of recommendation to sit-downs with department chairs and admissions officers.
As soon as your visit ends, make a pro/con list. Colleges start to blend together after a while.
n Prepare for surprises. Olson hadn't seriously considered Belmont University, a small Christian college within blocks of downtown Nashville, Tenn.
But her parents convinced her to visit the campus -- and she loved it.
"Now I'm torn," she says. "Just keep an open mind."
Cynthia Kensinger, veteran of 10 college visits with daughter Sarah, says:
n Get in good financial shape early on. How will you pay for college? Early planning will help reduce stress later.
And don't automatically rule out small private schools.
"A lot of times people look at private schools as way too expensive," says Kensinger, a Warwick High School teacher whose husband is a Lancaster Newspapers employee. "But they're the ones with the endowments that can bring the costs way down."
When you visit schools, ask how long it typically takes students to finish their degrees. More than four years might not be in your budget.
n Let them dream. The Kensingers, of Lititz, visited one of Sarah's dream schools, Vanderbilt University, in Nashville.
"Kids need to have schools that are on their dream list," Kensinger says. "Hey, why not? They might get in."
n But also be realistic. Be honest about what your family can afford.
Sarah, a Warwick High School grad, was accepted to the University of Delaware, but limited aid for out-of-state students would have stretched her family's finances.
"It's hard to tell them, 'I'm sorry, you can't go to your first, second or third choice,' " Kensinger says.
But while they're away at college, the rest of the family still has to eat.
n Make visits a family affair. The Kensingers combined college visits with a family vacation to Virginia Beach. That way they could visit a number of Southern schools without it seeming like a chore.
"Try to make it as fun as possible," Kensinger says.
Younger siblings also can learn a lot from visits, she says. Her son is already more focused about what he wants in a college.
n Be a nag. Applications are a lot of work, especially if your child applies to several schools. Check in regularly for status updates.
"They don't like hearing that at the time, but they will thank you later," Kensinger says.
Sarah Kensinger, a Lebanon Valley College freshman, says:
n Remember why you're there. Does the school have a top program in your field? That should be a deciding factor in whether you apply.
"The reason we all go to college is for academics," Kensinger says.
n Ask about activities. Find out if the school has a group or club for dance, golf or whatever else interests you. Joining up will help you keep busy and meet new people.
n Keep an open mind. Visit a school you never thought you'd like. You won't know for sure until you see it for yourself.
"I ended up going to a school I thought I would hate," Kensinger says. "I only visited it because my friend asked if I wanted to come with her."
Ironically, Kensinger's friend did not end up attending LVC.
n Pay a return visit. If you're really interested in a school, go back and see it again. Stay overnight with a student, or attend an "accepted students" event.
Also, find out if the school offers any interesting or unique opportunities for visits. Lebanon Valley's "sports tours" give athletes an in-depth look at the Sports Center and playing fields.
n Just go. Kensinger had no idea what type of college she wanted to attend. So she visited schools both big and small, rural and suburban, public and private, close and not so close to home.
Seeing all those campuses helped her determine what she did and didn't want in a school.
One of Kensinger's new college friends visited only one type of school.
"She hates it here now and wishes she had looked at other places," Kensinger says. "She is now faced with the tough decision of transferring."n