Get a Head Start on College Visits

High school sophomores and juniors should explore colleges early.

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The acceptance letters have been mailed and the admissions decision deadline at most universities has passed, with the latest crop of high school seniors deciding where they'll attend college this fall. As seniors finish the taxing college admissions process, sophomores and juniors are beginning their own search for a future home. For students and parents alike, one of the first tasks is deciding which colleges and universities to visit.

Parents should help their children think in terms of the types of schools to visit rather than focusing on specific institutions when first approaching college visits, says Mary Conger, founder of the campus visit service Collegocity. "Try [to] see a large public research university, a small selective liberal arts college, a technical college, and a religious college," she notes. "Doing this provides wider exposure to what's out there."

[Get tips and advice on finding the right school for you.]

Early in the college visit process, parents and guardians should be expected to take on a role that is more of an adviser than director, says Tim Desch, assistant dean of undergraduate admissions for the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

"I think parents assume a certain role, and that is to guide and educate their [child], but, oftentimes, that kind of accelerates them into being a little too intrusive," Desch acknowledges. "The role for a parent is to be encouraging."

A common problem students and parents face during the early stages of the college search process is navigating the overwhelming number of options. Parents should guide their child through all the possibilities, Conger says. "[The parents'] job right now is to help their kids see all the options that are out there," she notes. "They should be explorers with them."

[Read about students giving credit to parents.]

Carly Parks, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Cincinnati, says that her course of study will be the largest factor in her college decision. "For me, the major is the biggest indicator," Parks says. "If a school didn't have a [particular] major, it wouldn't be as high on my list."

While it may be an effective way to narrow a college list, it's important that students keep an open mind early in the process, says Carol DelPropost, assistant vice president of admission and financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan University.

"If a student wants to choose [a university] based on a major, they ought to explore that major and what the requirements are pretty carefully," DelPropost says. "What I often suggest is to look for opportunities to present or do research or play a role in some kind of organization or initiative they perhaps may not have had the opportunity to do at another institution."

[Choosing a specialized major can bring high risk and high reward.]

Although crafting a list of schools can be laborious, planning extended road trips to multiple colleges can be just as stressful for families—but there are alternatives. Instead of organizing a lengthy college visit schedule, Conger recommends that families take detours to visit campuses while on other trips or vacations. "It familiarizes them with campuses and helps them [to] start thinking about college without the drama of a big, weeklong road trip," she says.

When visiting a school for the first time, DelPropost recommends that students prepare themselves with background information on the school so that they can be ready to ask questions while on campus. However, Parks, the prospective student, says she'd rather visit a college before doing heavy research.

"For me, it's about letting it happen," Parks says. "I'd rather go off on my own [and] see how everything works around campus."

While spontaneous exploration is a useful way to mold first impressions, doing some research can help students and parents avoid extra legwork later in the process, says Arizona State's Desch.

[Learn how to explore college campuses from home.]

"I would caution [students] against going in too unprepared," Desch notes. "It is an investment of time and there are so many things for them to learn and be prepared for. But that isn't to say that there shouldn't be a part of the visit that's a little more informal."