A Guide to College and University Visits

By Anathea Simpkins

High School

One of the most important steps in the college admissions journey is narrowing down the list of schools of interest. Maybe your teen knows he or she wants to attend a local school, or maybe he or she wants to get out of dodge, but isn’t sure where. Urban or rural? Large university or small liberal arts college? The options are endless, which is why having a well-organized plan for tackling college visits is so important.

No two colleges are the same. This is particularly true when it comes to academics and areas of strength. If your teen wants to be an engineer, or a specific type of engineer, that narrows your search criteria. If your child wants to study a particular segment of medieval European history, there may be only a handful of schools offering that specialization. Some students have very focused academic interests, which allows for a smaller, more targeted list of colleges. But whether your teen knows specific criteria or not, the only way to get a feel for what is truly important is to go on as many college visits as possible.

One important thing to remember is that you don’t have to wait until junior year of high school to start thinking about this. In fact, you can start thinking about this as early as elementary school, which is the time you should start building the college- or university-going mindset in your home. In short, this mindset is building the expectation that your child will attend college after high school. For more information on this topic, check out 10 Ways to Cultivate a College Going Culture at Home.

But let’s talk about the college visit process. First, let’s review a few tactics for narrowing down the college visit list and weaving in as many as possible without breaking the bank.

How to Narrow Down the College Visit List

  • Whenever you go on vacation anywhere, aim to set aside a couple hours to visit at a local college or university.
  • Take a weekend, perhaps once a quarter, and take a drive to local institutions either in your state or neighboring states. If your child is unsure whether he or she want to attend a rural or urban school, a small or large school, be sure to mix it up!
  • Is your child a sports fan? Why not attend a college basketball or football game? How about the arts? Film or dance? The opportunities abound.

  • What about Greek life? Important or not? Some institutions have a very active Greek system, while some do not. Knowing this can help remove colleges of interest from the list. Or, if unsure, visit one of each to get an idea.
  • Finally, of course, if your teen knows exactly what career he or she wants to pursue, or even if not, this can narrow the search as well. For example, MIT is, of course, a good option for STEM-related fields. NYU, among other things, is known for its film program. Do your research!

Once you’ve scheduled your college visits, what do you do when you get there? Here are some strategies to get a really good feel for what it would be like to attend school there:

Tips for Tackling a College Visit

1. First, do your research and find out when and where the college visits are scheduled.

2. Pay attention to the weather. If you visit in winter and the temp is sub-zero, this is pretty much an indication of what the majority of the school year will be like temperature-wise.

3. Visit a local restaurant, coffee shop, or other business frequented by students. Don’t be afraid to ask a student or two a couple questions about their pros and cons.

4. Speak with a professor, meet with a coach, or attend a class that interests you and your teen.

5. Read the student newspaper or other student publications, such as literary journals.

6. If possible, spend the night in a dorm or participate in a social event, but by all means visit the dorms and find out about other living arrangements.

7. Take a walk around the campus and its surroundings, observe the student body in its daily life.

8. Attend a sports event, play, or reading.

9. Visit the Career Office. The goal is to go from college to a job, and you want to make sure that the college provides resources to help with the job placement process.

10. Have your teen envision him or herself attending the college/university for four years.

Preparing for college is exciting, but can also be nerve wracking. If your teen could benefit from test prep or college readiness programs, Sylvan is here to help! Our tutors are amazing at getting scores, grades and confidence up. For more information, please contact your local Sylvan center today!

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