Answering Questions About College Visits

Think about timing and goals when exploring college campuses.

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The May 16 blog post, "Follow 9 Tips to Window Shop for Colleges," prompted a number of questions regarding college visits. I will address some of them in this week's column. If you have questions about any aspect of the college admissions process, send them to me at TheAdmissionsInsider@usnews.com.

I have an eighth grade son. When is the best time to start taking him around to visit colleges?

It is never too early to start giving your student exposure to college campuses. The keys are to do so in direct proportion to his enthusiasm for the task and to maintain perspective. The objective of early visits should be to create an awareness of the possibilities, not to choose a college.

Pushing him before he is ready can be counterproductive. On the other hand, helping your son develop an appreciation for the range of possibilities will make it easier for him to make an informed decision later in the process.

[Explore the U.S. News guide to college tours.]

Won't colleges just show us what they want us to see? How can we tell that we are getting the true picture?

It is true that colleges go to great lengths to create favorable first impressions. In fact, you might liken the tours, information sessions, and student panels to theater that is scripted to win your interest. While the "script" can be truly revealing, you are well advised to go "backstage" for an unfiltered perspective. Visit the neighborhoods of a college campus that you are likely to frequent as an enrolled student. These neighborhoods might include academic departments, practice rooms, and laboratories.

Introduce yourself to students. Ask them about their experiences: What do they like, and what would they change? How accessible are their professors? What are their plans? Ask professors about their work. What gets them excited about their work? What do they look for in students? How and when do they involve students in their scholarly pursuits? As you listen to the conversations, try to imagine where you might fit into the neighborhood.

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

Is there anything we can look for on college campuses that will give us an indication of their financial situations?

The financial health of an institution is an important indicator of that institution's ability to support students in achieving their educational goals. An institution that struggles to meet its operating budget or maintain its facilities may find that it is forced to compromise in other aspects of its academic program in order to remain solvent.

As you tour campuses, then, be sensitive to evidence of deferred maintenance (for example, peeling paint, poorly groomed grounds, and roads in bad repair). Find out what is happening to the academic program. Have programs been added or cut? Are full professors being replaced by adjuncts? Determine the likelihood that you will be able to complete your degree requirements in four years (ask to see the graduation rates). You don't want to end up on a campus where your educational goals cannot be adequately supported.

[Get advice on paying for college.]

Can't we just wait until we find out where our daughter is accepted before going to visit? It just seems to be a lot of running around otherwise, and she'll just change her mind anyway.

Actually, waiting to visit until after your daughter receives an acceptance letter can be counterproductive. Keep in mind the campus visit holds value to both the student and the college. Just as you are trying to learn more about the place and determine its ability to meet your needs, the college is trying to gauge your level of interest as well as your understanding of the synergy that might exist between its programs and your needs.

The absence of a recorded visit when your application is reviewed can raise questions about the sincerity of your interest. In that case, your application might be relegated to the wait list—or worse—and the anticipated visit following an offer of admission might never materialize.

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