Each year, Director of College Counseling Rusty Allen and I take some time to visit colleges on behalf of Randolph and its students. We tour schools that might make a good “fit” for Randolph students, schools about which we hope to learn more, and schools where our students have shown interest in the past.
In June, I had the chance to visit some colleges in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions, braving unseasonably warm temperatures and miles of interstate highways to spend some time on a wide variety of campuses. By the end of the week, I was exhausted. Memories of ivy clad buildings, undergraduate research projects, glistening fitness centers, and sparkling dormitories blended together. Returning to Huntsville, laden with a collection of pens, viewbooks, and coffee mugs, I was reminded that the process of visiting colleges can be time-consuming, expensive, confusing, and physically and emotionally distracting—and keep in mind that I am neither a rising senior nor the parent of a soon-to-be college-age student.
Mr. Allen and I speak often about the importance of finding the right “fit” or “match” in the college process. Students and families seek colleges that meet their intellectual, social, emotional, financial and physical needs. We believe that the best way to gauge this “fit” is by experiencing the campus and envisioning oneself as a student there. That said, colleges tend to have more similarities than differences, the visit experience tends to be highly structured, and the visits can be time-consuming, particularly if one wishes to explore colleges beyond our immediate region.
Here are some good ways to ensure that your college visits are meaningful and relevant to the college search:
1.) Set a reasonable pace. While traveling 500 miles to see six colleges in three days can be tempting for its efficiency, keep in mind that college tours can be physically and emotionally draining. Instead of packing all college tours into one week over the summer, consider interspersing them in bigger family trips or breaking tours into smaller, more manageable legs. Doing so will allow you to better differentiate between schools and you will be able to retain more information.
2.) Record your impressions. After each visit, take a few minutes to take some notes. Use your phone or a pad and pen to write down your emotional response to the place, to list programs, majors, or facilities that made the college distinctive, and to think about exactly what you would take advantage of as a student at that college. Not only will these notes help you to winnow your list and to better articulate your desires in the college process, but also they will help to guide your response to the “Why [Insert Name] College?” question featured on some college applications.
3.) Engage and listen. You will find that both experiences will offer a fair amount of déjà vu after your third or fourth college, so be sure to utilize ways to make tours and information sessions meaningful.
On tours, be sure to engage with your tour guide and ask questions about his or her own experience. Remember that the tour route is fixed, and guides are instructed to convey specific pieces of information about their college. The tours themselves can grow redundant as well: it will always be your guide’s birthday; he or she will inevitably compare some element of the college to Hogwarts; and the climbing wall, emergency call boxes, and meals at professor’s houses that seem so novel on that first tour will be unremarkable clichés by your third or fourth college visit.
Tour guides are usually very happy with their college choices, so gaining some insight as to how they made their matches might help you to find your own. Keep in mind, however, that tour guides also tend to be overachievers, so do not be overwhelmed by what might seem to be an unattainable pedigree of academic and extracurricular passions.
During information sessions, pay attention to what the college itself is presenting as its distinctive characteristics. Many of these sessions will appear nearly identical from college to college, so those distinctive features will reveal themselves quickly. Also, take the opportunity to ask questions, for doing so will at the very least disrupt the monotony of the information session.
4.) Eat in the dining hall. Remember that tours and information sessions are highly structured opportunities for colleges to market themselves to prospective families. While the narratives crafted in these sessions might be compelling and authentic, they are also designed to show the college at its absolute best.
Get a true feel for the college by eating in a dining hall, visiting a class (which can often be done by arrangement with the admissions office), sitting around the quad, wandering into buildings or (if possible) staying overnight with a current student (check with colleges to find their overnight visit policies). People-watching, eavesdropping, and checking out buildings or areas of campus not on the tour will help students to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what the college offers and whether the community will allow them to thrive. Remember that you spend the overwhelming majority of your time in college outside of the classroom. You want to ensure that you will be comfortable on campus. Getting a sense of the people who make up a community will help you to develop that level of comfort.
5.) Let the student be the star. While finding the best “fit” should be a family experience, the actual act of attending school will be left to the student. Admissions officers and tour guides much prefer questions and comments from students, and the student should be the driving force throughout the visit. If your family is like mine, where long hours in the car can erode the emotional resiliency and maturity of all involved, consider sitting separately in information sessions or joining separate tour groups if possible. Creating space during the visit will allow you to have deeper, more productive conversations after the visit.
6.) Trust your gut. The challenge of finding “fit” comes through its indefinable nature. Allow the college visit to be an emotional and spiritual experience. Choosing the right college is not always a rational process, so if the comfort of chairs in the library moves one college up the list and the lack of uniform architecture moves another college down the list, do not despair or second-guess your choice. While you should try not to allow any one factor to completely overshadow the totality of the experience—not all tour guides are terribly compelling—allow your instincts to tell you as much about what fits for you as your intellect.
7.) Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find “the one.” With all this talk of match and instinctual knowledge, you might start to feel pressure to fall in love with a college or to have one school boldly step out and announce itself as the college of your dreams. Remember that you are not searching for a future life partner or even a prom date. Taking notes, engaging in thoughtful family dialogue, building lists of pros and cons, and assessing colleges in relation to your passions, goals, and strengths will help you to make informed and confident applications. Most of you will apply to multiple colleges. Identifying five to eight beloveds will be much better for you in this process than cultivating a near-obsessive relationship with one school.