Follow 9 Tips to Window Shop for Colleges

Visit many different college campuses early in the process before there's pressure to 'buy.'

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As the school year winds down, thousands of families are gearing up to start the college search and selection process in earnest. For many, the process starts with plans to visit college campuses. The questions that often arise include, "When is the best time to visit?" and "What should we expect to accomplish?"

The answers are fairly straightforward: "Visit when you can," and "Soak up as much information as possible!" Ideally, you would visit colleges when classes are in session and the campuses are full of life. But that may not always be possible—so, go when you can. The best opportunities may be around business trips, holiday travels, or vacations.

[Learn more about college tours.]

When such opportunities occur early in the college planning process, take time to go "window shopping." See as many different kinds of places as you can—big schools, small schools, research universities, liberal arts colleges, urban campuses, and places way out in the country. By visiting many colleges at a time when there is no pressure to "buy," you give yourself a broad perspective on what is out there. Check out the inventory so that when it is time to buy, you know what you like and you know where to find it.

As you visit the campuses, allow your senses to guide you. Ultimately, it will be a "sixth sense"—the proverbial gut feeling that will lead you to the places that suit you best. So, pack up your sixth sense and get ready to enjoy the adventure found in window shopping college campuses. The following are tips that will help you get the most out of your campus visits:

1. Plan ahead: If possible, schedule your visit at least two weeks in advance. At some colleges, you may need to call two months in advance for an interview appointment. This will be especially true over the summer and around holidays.

2. Prepare well: Read the information you have about the school. While on campus, you will want to test your initial impressions. See how you fit.

[Read answers to parents' college planning questions.]

3. Arrive early: Give yourself time to stretch and walk around before you make an official introduction. Find a snack bar or some place where you can comfortably take in campus life. How do folks relate to each other? How do they relate to you?

4. Take advantage of everything the school has to offer: If an interview is offered, take it! Go on a tour. Visit an academic department or program area in which you have an interest. Ask thoughtful questions that reflect your interest.

5. Get more than one opinion: Much of what is offered formally by a college is staged for your benefit. If you can, go "backstage" to learn what you can. Visit the areas of the campus that you are likely to frequent.

Introduce yourself to students and ask questions like: "What do you like most about your experience?" "How would you describe the academic environment?" "How is this college helping you to achieve your goals?" "If you could change one thing about your experience, what would it be?" Listen to their stories. How do you see yourself fitting into the picture they paint of life on that campus?

[Consider 36 questions to ask on a college visit.]

6. Record your visit: Make notes as soon as you are able. The more colleges you see, the more they will become a blur in your mind. Take pictures. Buy postcards. Give yourself a visual index of what you have seen to avoid confusion later.

7. Follow up: Your campus visit gives you a chance to establish relationships with individuals who might be decision makers when your application is considered. Be sure to stay in touch with them in appropriate ways as you continue exploring your interest.

8. Absorb it: Resist the impulse to make immediate judgments on a campus visit experience. Sleep on it. Process what you have learned. Weigh your impressions against those you have of other schools. Your first reaction is bound to be emotional. In the end, you need to remain as objective as possible.

9. Focus on fit: How does the college you are visiting meet your academic needs? Will you be challenged appropriately? Is the style of instruction a good match for the manner in which you are most comfortable learning?

Does the college offer a sense of community that makes you feel at home? And where do you see evidence that you will be valued for what you have to offer? (For more discussion of a good college fit, check out The College Planning Workbook.)

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