Kent Parker* should have been ready for his college visits. Since the middle of his junior year in high school, he'd been skimming college guides and brochures, and surfing the Internet for prospective schools.
Then packets of information started arriving…and arriving and arriving. Before he knew it, there was an unopened mountain of envelopes in his room. The stack looked overwhelming and intimidating. He knew he needed to look through each packet, checking out which ones were a good match for his interest in missions. He knew he needed to narrow his choices before he could plan any college visits. But he just couldn't force himself to conquer that mountain.
That's where his parents came in.
"It seemed like my parents were always on my case," Kent says. "'Get on the ball, Kent. Get on the ball. You need to start working.' It was a lot of pressure for me. But now I see that without that pressure I would have just let those packets sit there."
So Kent finally, well, got on the ball. He looked through all those packets and kept those that had what he wanted and discarded those that didn't. Then he called admissions counselors and probed for more information and details about each remaining school. Again, he discarded those schools that didn't fit what he was looking for. By early in his senior year, he'd chosen his top three schools and made plans to visit each one.
Kent, a junior at Bethany College of Missions in Bloomington, Minnesota, is now thankful for his "nagging parents." He's also thankful that he made his visits early in his senior year, and stresses that early visits give you plenty of time to carefully evaluate all available options.
That's something Val Rios wishes she'd done. Val, a sophomore at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, ended up at a school she loves, despite not starting her visits early enough. Since she waited until spring of her senior year, she didn't have much time to make her final decision.
"Get started early," she now advises, "because there's so much to do. If you don't do it in organized increments, it gets really overwhelming at the end."
Another downside of starting late? You may miss out on some much-needed scholarship cash.
"I made the decision to attend ACU after they had awarded all their scholarships," Val says. "I got a little bit of financial aid, but half of my tuition came from outside scholarships that I had to work to find. It was really difficult."
The bottom line, say Kent and Val: The earlier you visit, the better.
Making the Visit Happen
The best college visits take a bit of time, effort and organization. Planning your visit isn't simply a matter of showing up on campus. The best college visits take a bit of time, effort and organization.
"I'd been in good contact for a couple months before I visited during the fall of my senior year," says Kent. "I'd called to ask questions about the programs and costs, and about my plans to visit."
Donnel Oliver also did a lot of advance planning with the admissions office: scheduling class visits in areas of personal interest (including a psychology class), one-on-one time with a professor, time with student government members, and a tryout with the school's chorale. Donnel, a senior at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, says his planning paid off because "the admissions office connected me with the right people." And those right people ended up giving him a lot of individual attention—something that may not have happened if they hadn't penciled his visit into their packed schedules.
Before her trip to the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota, Liz Garthright arranged to spend time with the school's softball team and coach. And her time even included a chance to practice with the team. During practice and throughout her visit, Liz said she got a chance to observe the coach's style and see how the team got along with each other.
"I just got a good feel for how I'd fit in," says Liz. Now a senior at Sioux Falls and a catcher for the team, she feels her time observing the team clinched her decision.
Knowing what you're looking for really is key to any successful visit. Liz recommends arriving for a tour with a written list of questions. "It's harder to think of things on the spot," she says. "If you don't write them down, you won't remember everything." Liz also suggests creating a list of stuff you're looking for in a school. As you're walking about the campus, you can see if the school offers what's on your wish list.
Donnel, Malone's student body president, says you should be assertive and take a lot of initiative on your visits. "Don't be afraid to ask questions, to talk with the professors or the staff or the students. Take advantage of every opportunity."
Donnel believes the individual attention he received during his visit to Malone—including a one-on-one guided tour—helped him feel more comfortable, and also helped him get the information he needed to carefully evaluate his visit.
While individual attention is important, the students we talked to also saw the advantages of taking part on large tours on planned visitation days—especially if you're interested in just getting a general overview of the campus. These types of visits are helpful for students who are in the early stages of their search. After visiting five or six schools, you can then decide to return for individual and personalized trips to your top one or two choices.
"It's not the type of tour that matters," says Liz, who gives tours for her campus. "It's how prepared you are for the tour. If you come with questions and know what you're looking for, you'll probably have a positive experience. I give some individual tours where the students are always 10 steps behind me and don't seem that interested."
What to Look For
Donnel, Liz, Val and Kent all had helpful suggestions on what to check out during a campus visit:
- The dorms. Find out how roommates are assigned. Liz recommends spending time in the dorms to see the size and condition of the rooms, bathrooms, laundry area and lounges. Dorm time also gives an opportunity to talk with residents in a setting where they're most comfortable. Your visit should certainly include an overnight stay in a dorm room.
- The food. Try it, then ask yourself, "Can I eat this type of stuff for the next four years?"
- Classes. Look at everything from the largest lecture hall to the science labs. You'll want to visit a couple of classes in session. Kent says don't make the mistake of visiting on a weekend, campus holiday or any other time when classes aren't in session. When you arrange your visit, make sure classes will be meeting.
- The instructors. Who's standing at the front of the classroom? Profs? Teaching assistants? How involved will professors be with you? How will your instructors prepare you for life after graduation? When you leave the campus, you need to be satisfied with the overall quality and qualifications of the instructors.
- Everyday life on campus. Find out about schedules and free time. How much time do students spend studying? Goofing off? Watch students in action. Are they relaxed? Stressed? Most important question: Do I see myself capable of handling this school's average day?
- The students. Donnel, Liz, Val and Kent discovered that spending time with students reveals the heart of campus life. A freshman named Josh took Donnel to a Perkins restaurant, a popular hangout. That experience became more than just a chance to eat off campus. "Josh introduced me to all of his friends," Donnel says. "He explained the rules of the college and all the things I could do to get involved on campus. We talked about God, the school, and where I can go after graduating from Malone."
- The financial aid office. Talk to the school's money pros about financial aid. Find out about job opportunities—both on and off campus.
- Spiritual life. Observe it directly during chapel and other worship services and indirectly through conversations with people on campus, including the college chaplain. Note how students talk informally. Is faith part of their conversations? Are they volunteering for campus and community ministries? Are they involved in personal and group Bible study?
- Places where students go for fun. Val encourages finding out if students leave on the weekends or if they stay on campus to do stuff. As a college student, Liz doesn't have much money, so she relies on the numerous campus activities for her social life. Kent, on the other hand, enjoys attending off-campus concerts and going to coffeehouses.
- Extracurricular stuff. Schedule time to meet with members of any groups or organizations that interest you.
- Mom and Dad. Yes, it's a good idea to include your parents on your visits—and to watch for their responses and listen to their comments. Val says her mom simply had different concerns than she had—like campus safety and finances. Val, on the other hand, was much more interested in exploring student life—both in and outside the classroom. Whether the two were checking out something together or separately, their different interests and perspectives only helped as they compared notes about the visit.
That Indescribable Feeling
You can't beat a well-planned college visit. Looking objectively at what the school offers in terms of academics, spiritual growth opportunities and student life can't be underestimated. But after all that, there's a side to the visit that goes beyond the facts. Call it that "gut feeling." And it comes in a variety of ways and through a variety of experiences.
For Val, the defining moment of her visit came at the end of her campus tour, when she and another prospective student sat with their guide in the school's outdoor amphitheater—the place where new freshmen begin their ACU experience with a candlelight service.
"The amphitheater sits in front of a tall tower of light and is symbolic of what ACU is all about," says Val. "While we sat there, our guide issued us a challenge. He said, 'If anything I said today touches your heart, or if you want to be a part of the ACU mission to change the world, then ACU is the place for you.'"
As he spoke, Val could imagine herself sitting there next fall holding a candle. Praying. Looking up at the stars. Singing in unison with fellow students. Val was hooked.
"I loved the campus," she said. "I was so excited about the people and their attitudes. I was totally sold."
*Name has been changed.