Make your campus visit effective

With the abundance of information, photos, virtual tours and live chats available on  college websites, how important are campus visits these days?

“You can’t overstress the importance,” said Chuck Byrd, senior counselor and director of admissions at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta.

He reminds students that brochures and websites are generated by the marketing arm of schools.

“They make every college look like paradise, but you aren’t going to get a real feel for the culture of a school unless you go,” he said. “You wouldn’t think about buying a car without a test drive, and the choice of a college is so much more important than a car.”

Byrd’s “College 101” sessions help high school juniors and their parents make the most of their college searches. With his encouragement, many families add college tours to their spring break plans.

Spring break is a better time to visit colleges than during summer because school is in session, said Erica Johnson, director of admissions at Spelman College in Atlanta.

“We give tours year round, but if you really want to get our full likeness, you want to come when students are here and classes are meeting,” she said.

Ideally,  prospective students should schedule visits in advance for Mondays through Thursdays, when they can take a tour, attend an information session, eat in the cafeteria and talk with students, Johnson said.

“Do your research first to find colleges that fit your needs and goals. Think about your best living and learning environment,” Johnson said. “Do you like city life or a more natural, rural setting?

Would you rather have the many options of a large university or the additional support of small classes and accessible professors?”

Are football Saturdays, Greek life, pre-veterinary studies or cultural diversity important to you?

“Try to identify your non-negotiables, the must-haves you want in a college experience and then visit to see if they are there or not,” Byrd said.

Think about what you want to see and ask before you go on a visit, and enlist the school’s admissions office for help.

“You may want to schedule a classroom visit, a night in the dorm, or meet with someone in financial aid. You can, if you plan in advance,” Johnson said.

Information sessions are generic, but you can glean better data by asking questions that can’t be  answered online. Ask about the quality of the marching band,  the club soccer team or where students study abroad — things that matter to you and that go beyond the statistics.

“ 'Where are your alumni going and what are they doing?’ is a great question because colleges should prepare students for what they want to do in life and give them the tools to pursue it,” Johnson said. “We’re proud that so many of our young women are accepted and graduate from medical school, for instance, and would talk about that with anyone interested in pre-med studies, for instance.”

Johnson suggests asking the same questions at every school you visit in order to better compare and contrast them later.

“Don’t just take the tour, go to the information session and leave. You want to get beyond the formal pitch and engage the customers — the students,” Byrd said. “If you really want to see if you’d be happy there, you have to engage the people.”

Visit the cafeteria, the campus quad, the library and the dorms.

“Ask students what brought them here, whether they would choose it again, what they see as its strengths and what they would like to change,” Byrd said. “Ask what they do on weekends.”

“Students love to talk and they’ll give you honest answers,” Johnson said.

Pick up a copy of the student newspaper and read campus bulletin boards to see what’s going on.

After lunch, Byrd tells parents to let students wander alone on campus .

“Too often, parents ask most of the questions and direct a visit. It’s good for a student to have some space to form his own impressions, to see if he can visualize himself there,” he said.

Organize your visits, Johnson said. Take notes and photos.

“Make a checklist of pros and cons for each school while your impressions are fresh,” she said. “You’ll be able to make better decisions later.”

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