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    College Visits 101

    Here's how to make the most of your time and money.

    Greg Asimakoupoulos

    It was a classic case of "good news/bad news." First, the good news (actually, great news): Kristin, my oldest daughter, wanted to attend a Christian college. Since my wife and I met at a Christian school, we have very fond memories of our time there. Along with being the roots of our romance, the Christian campus helped ground us in our faith and showed us how to apply our beliefs to our vocational choices.

    So what was the bad news? The cost. To say the least, tuition and room and board are quite a bit more than they were 30 years ago—especially at a private institution.

    Since I work for a not-for-profit organization, I don't have a six-figure income. It was obvious we needed to start watching how we spent every nickel. And while visiting prospective colleges was essential to making an intelligent choice, we also knew multiple visits across the country would be a budget breaker. Then it hit us: Why not combine our already budgeted family vacation with college visits? This two-for-one-price approach made a great deal of sense.

    So, in the summer before Kristin's senior year, we traveled to Southern California and Washington State to visit both sets of our kids' grandparents, saving on hotel bills by staying with family. As we traveled from one grandparents' house to the other, we visited Christian colleges along the way. Since Kristin wanted to visit some West Coast schools, the trip was a dream come true. Then when we got home, we made some less-expensive day and weekend visits to local Christian colleges near our home in the Chicago suburbs.

    As you pull together your own campus visits, I'd encourage you to also take your own "vacation with a purpose." And to really get the most of your time and money, I'd also encourage you to follow these nine tips for successful visits.

    • Call ahead
      Let the admissions office know you're coming. There are many other prospective students and their parents checking out schools on any given day. So you'll want to make sure you get individual attention when you show up. Calling ahead also allows you to find out if the admissions staff will be available to assist you during your visit. Sometimes they are on the road at college fairs. At other times, special events on campus require offices to close. Because we called ahead before our visit, we were treated like celebrities—something that really impressed Kristin's younger sister Lauren, our fifth grader!

      Along with calling the admissions office before your visit, I'd also encourage you to schedule an appointment with someone in financial aid. Ask what forms or documents you should bring. Come prepared with a list of your questions about student loans, scholarship opportunities and campus employment. Be sure your college-seeking teen and your other older children sit in on this interview with the financial aid staff. They'll hear someone other than you talk about the merits of saving wisely, and of developing good study habits and getting good grades in high school. After all, a great GPA really can pay. Although initially discouraged by the high cost of a private education, we discovered there were ways we could afford to send our firstborn to a Christian college—something we may not have learned if we hadn't spent time talking with financial aid personnel.
    • Visit on a regular class day
      For a productive experience, it's important for your soon-to-be college student to sit in on a class in session. The admissions office can arrange for this classroom experience. This, of course, means planning your visit when students and faculty are on campus going about their normal, daily routines.

      It might work best for you to visit during your children's spring break, but make sure the college isn't also on break. Another option is to plan the trip during the school year when your children aren't taking finals or don't have major projects due. If your teen's high school is uncooperative about allowing an extended absence, contact the guidance office. Guidance counselors know the importance of college visits and should be helpful advocates for you.

      Again, I stress visiting on a regular class day. Parents' Weekends can be very nice, especially since they "roll out the red carpet." But those polished presentations may not provide a realistic impression of a typical day or a typical school. These special promotional events also revolve around programs and tours. Since our visits weren't initiated by the schools, we were able to fashion our own tour. My middle daughter, Allison, who will soon snoop out colleges for herself, was interested in seeing the athletic facilities. Lauren wanted to try out the computer games in the student activity center. Kristin wanted to see the residence halls—and not just the newest ones. She was smart enough to know freshmen aren't normally placed in the most up-to-date facilities. Our "free roaming" experience allowed us to focus on our own interests and particular needs.

      This, of course, is not to say you should never visit a campus on special weekends. These planned events do offer well-orchestrated and well-rounded programs designed to give you an overview. It's just important to also plan to visit on a typical day of classes. And if you can only make one visit, then I'd highly recommend visiting when life on campus is pretty normal.
    • Attend chapel
      Attending a chapel service allowed us to experience the school's "worship atmosphere." It also gave an essential glimpse into how students are encouraged to live out their faith. Along with attending a chapel service, you should also schedule an appointment with the campus chaplain. You can talk about ministry opportunities, Bible studies, churches students attend, and other opportunities for Christian growth. Speaking of churches, if your visit includes Sunday, try to attend a worship service that's popular among students.
    • Eat in the dining hall
      The only way to get a taste of the kind of food students enjoy (or put up with) is by sampling it first hand. And for a growing number of campuses, the food service operation is like a food court in a shopping mall. Being able to choose from among items at the grill or salad bar was a highlight for all three of our kids. It's also a great opportunity to mingle with a few students at the school to get the inside scoop.

      In many cases, prospective students (and their families) eat quite reasonably or even for free. But again, it's best to visit the cafeteria on weekdays or weekends that aren't planned by the college. You'll avoid "special meals" and get to see (and taste) how students really eat.

      Before you leave campus, visit the student snack shop. There's just something about an ice cream cone that can calm the nerves of parents and kids weary and stressed from a long and busy day.
    • Leave 'em in the dorm
      Arrange for your son or daughter to spend a night in a dorm. Along with being an essential part of the overall campus visit, a dorm "sleepover" offers a reality check for every soon-to-be college student. They get a good feel for how students really live. They'll also see how much stuff they can (or can't) fit in the typical dorm room—which could help cut down on future arguments over whether or not their entire stereo system will fit in a 10-by-15-foot "box."For Kristin, an overnighter allowed her to sample evening dorm activities. Yes, she discovered lights don't go out before midnight, like they do at home. She also found out the typical college student doesn't complete homework right after dinner. And she'll also tell you they really do study after a midnight pizza run, accompanied by a cranked-up CD player.

      The dorm experience also allows your child to "get a little distance" from you. While your input during the visit is important, it's also essential for teens to have opportunities, like a night in a dorm, to try out the school all on their own. Yes, all on their own. Even if they whine because older sib has all the fun, your younger kids still need to spend the night in a hotel with you. Your college-bound teen really does need some space—and some time to check out dorm life without a tag-along sibling.
    • Don't miss the bookstore
      It's amazing how much stuff campus bookstores carry these days. In many ways, they're like old-fashioned general stores—with the addition of a pretty impressive rack of Christian rock CDs!

      As my wife and I browsed the aisles, we were assured Kristin would never be far from essentials—hygiene products, soft drinks, bags of chips or batteries for her CD player. We also checked the shelves for books authored by the members of the school's faculty.

      There's just something about a college bookstore that conveys the unique personality of a school. It is also a great place to reward the patience of younger siblings who were done with the campus visit a half hour after it began. We let each of our kids pick a souvenir bearing the school's logo.
    • Catch a game, see a play
      If possible, attend a sports event, a play or a concert. By seeing students in places other than the classroom, dining commons or dormitory, you'll gain a more well-rounded picture of the student body. Besides, a sporting event or concert is always more interesting to younger siblings than sitting in on a class lecture or traipsing through a library.

      Even if you can't attend these kinds of activities, at least tour the facilities where they take place. Scan trophy cases, read playbills posted in the theater and auditorium, and check out announcement boards all around the campus. Doing so will show you what a particular school offers outside the classroom, and it will also help you see what fun and entertaining activities take place on campus.
    • Take a family drive
      The campus's location and surrounding landscape are important aspects of the college choice. So before you leave, hop in the car and take a sightseeing tour of the area surrounding the campus.

      For example, during our West Coast trip we visited a school in the heart of a big city. Before our visit, it was tempting to discount the school because urban areas aren't always the safest places. Yet we were reassured to find that the three-mile radius around the school was clean, attractive and safe. Another school we visited was a stone's throw away from the Pacific Ocean. Walking along the beach and watching the waves hit the shore were definite pluses for my surf-loving girls. And while a brochure may tell you a school is close to the ocean, you don't really know how close and how beautiful the setting is until you've experienced it for yourself.

      Of course, not all schools are located near an ocean or a major urban area. Some are in the middle of cornfields, miles from the nearest mall. Some are in small towns. Some overlook mountains and others sit on the edge of deserts or prairies. It's just important to get a lay of the land, and then have your teen ask herself, "Can I live here for four years?"
    • Schedule local visits
      In addition to scheduling a series of campus visits as part of a family vacation, plan short single-day or weekend excursions to colleges within a few hours drive from your home. These trips won't cost an arm and a leg and can be done without a lot of planning. They can also serve as a sneak peek to determine if a follow-up, longer visit is necessary. For a successful visit, however, do call ahead, and also follow the other tips I've offered.
    • Kristin—our visit pro
      After we returned from our vacation to the West Coast, Kristin began taking some local, initial visits all on her own. The great thing was, she'd turned into a "visit pro." She now knew what questions to ask and she was prepared to make comparisons between the various schools she visited. No longer nervous about walking onto a college campus, she approached each local visit with increased confidence and with eyes opened wide to what she wanted and didn't want in college.

      The results of those local visits? Kristin fell in love with Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and this fall she'll begin her second year there. And to think it all began because of our vacation with a purpose.