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Posted at 12:03 PM ET, 02/ 5/2010

College visits: real and virtual

By Valerie Strauss

A true story: A high school student flew to Minnesota to visit a college she was interested in attending. She went on the day after a huge, uncommon rain storm, which brought out an army of bugs that usually stay unseen. She hated the school because of the bugs. If she had gone any other day, she might have loved it.

Moral: College visits can be a great help in helping your child decide where to go. But they can also unfairly leave a bad impression. And while it is useful to visit, lots of kids pick a college without ever seeing the school they wind up attending.

Several readers have asked for help planning college visits with their children who are juniors (or eager sophomores) and some have expressed concern about the cost of traveling from city to city.

There are ways to avoid spending a lot of money and help is available online to guide you in planning your trip if you are intent on taking one.

College admissions officers urge juniors to visit a range of campuses--but that doesn’t mean they have to spend thousands of dollars flying around the country.

First, identify different kinds of schools--city, suburban, large, small, private, public--that are in the region where you live. Go visit them, whether or not those schools are actually on your student's list.

Visiting an urban campus, say George Washington University in Washington, D.C. or New York University in Manhattan, can help your child get a sense of what it will be like to go to school in a city at a school without a traditional campus.

The Internet offers great opportunities for families who don’t have the time, money or inclination to take a college tour. For instance, CollegeWeekLive, at, says it is the country’s largest virtual college fair, with more than 50,000 students using it last year--for free. The main attraction is that students can chat live with admissions staff, financial aid experts and other students from more than 250 colleges. The next fair is March 24-25.

For in-person visits, start by figuring out the schools you want to visit in a particular region of the country, then plan a route, considering the distances between each school. It is hard to tour more than two schools in a day.

The College Board website has a lot of advice on how to plan a trip and what to do when you get to campus. Click here:

Here’s help with planning a trip on a budget.

And here’s a checklist--for teenagers--from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, with suggestions for formal and informal activities for students when they are visiting a campus.

But remember that not every suggestion will work for you. For example, the College Board site urges families not to visit colleges when they aren’t in session:

--Thanksgiving weekend
--Christmas week
--Winter and spring breaks
--When classes aren’t meeting, e.g. reading period, exam weeks, Saturdays and Sundays, when the admissions office is closed to visitors

Well, that doesn’t leave a whole of opportunity to visit a campus without missing high school classes, does it?

Spring break of junior year is a prime -- and often crowded -- time for many families to visit campuses. In some cases, the colleges will also be on break but often they won’t.

Is it worth visiting a campus on break if it is the only time you can get there? Only if you think your child can get a feel for the school and won’t be put off by the emptiness of the place.

Once your child is on campus, there are a lot of things to do to get a real feel for the place.

The College Board has a long list here.
And ACT has one too, here.

And here are some tips:

The first thing is to take a campus tour. Be sure to contact the school in advance to find out when they are and sign up. Also try to arrange an interview with an admissions officer and get all necessary forms, including those for financial aid.

If your child can sit in on a class, or arrange to sleep in a dorm, all the better, but these things are probably best for schools at the top of the desired list.

Prospective students should also try to:

Read the student newspaper and other student publications.

Wander the campus without their parents and talk to kids about the school. Ask them about classes and social life.

Have a bite in the cafeteria

Try to find other student publications—department newsletters, alternative newspapers, literary reviews.

Visit the library.

If anybody has other tips, let’s hear them.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 5, 2010; 12:03 PM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college visits  
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This is generally good advice, esp. the advice to visit local places like the ones you're interested in if you can't travel far. I disagree with the assumption that you can only visit schools when your high school is on break. Check district policy to see whether you can have an excused absence for visiting or if visiting colleges might count as school business (as it does in Tampa, Florida).

The College Board page linked here had one great and one horrid idea not mentioned here. Great: browse the college bookstore (and see what's assigned). Horrid: try to visit dorms you're not taken to on a campus tour. (This is a fine way to get arrested; aren't dorms supposed to be secure?)

Posted by: ShermanDorn | February 6, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

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