DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE OF A CAMPUS VISIT.
This weekend was Parents’ Weekend at Willamette University and I attended as a surrogate parent for my niece, who is freshman. As I sat in the audience enjoying the different jazz groups one night and being impressed with the professionalism of the orchestra, then next, cheering on the soccer team and attending some lectures, I was reminded of the importance of campus visits. A visit allows you to experience first hand the environment and evaluate the academics, athletics, housing, and the social life for yourself. Brochures, catalogues, websites and presentations by college representatives can help to form an opinion of a school, but seeing it for yourself is the only way to know if is the right place for you. For one thing the college, of course, puts its best foot forward with glossy pictures of sunny days and smiling students. Secondly, and most important, you are an individual and you are the one who has to figure out whether what the college is advertising is what will make that college or university the right place for you. The promotional material and what others have to say can be quite convincing, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right for you. Better to find that out before you arrive in the fall with your bags and books in hand.
There are two kinds of visits: one is the “drive-by” informal visit and the second is more involved including a tour, information session, interview, class visit and maybe an overnight stay. The first can begin early in the college search. The summer time and spring break are ideal for an introduction to college campuses. It can be made without a lot of hype and pressure and does not even have to be the college to which you will eventually apply. With a little planning the visit can be a welcome side trip off the expressway during a vacation, with the opportunity to walk around, see the facilities, eat in the cafeteria, and visit the bookstore. This can be a very low-key, non-stress way of experiencing many different colleges and universities for the whole family, including younger siblings. The differences between campuses will soon become clear to all. The second type of visit is more appropriate when you are trying to narrow your list of schools. It is best to visit when the college is in session and students are on campus. Spring of the junior year or fall of the senior year is recommended. The visit should include a campus information session, a campus tour, time to wander around the campus, perhaps a campus interview if the college provides the opportunity, and if possible an overnight stay. Many colleges offer this option only in the senior year and not on weekends. In any case, I recommend parents encourage their student to go off on his or her own to investigate the campus.
If you are not able to travel long distances to visit colleges I recommend that you visit nearby colleges so that you can get the feel for size and environment. A large university in the northwest will have many of the same characteristics as one in another part of the country – with the understanding, of course, that a rainy day on the U of Washington campus will be different than a sunny day at UCLA! Nevertheless, the feeling of size both of the campus and classrooms and the energy level will be similar. If you compare that experience to a visit at a small liberal arts school in a small town or rural area you will quickly see the difference and begin to understand which environment will best suit you.
Although a third option is to wait until you are accepted to a college in April I think that this can be risky. First, it can be very hectic and expensive since you may not hear until early April and the decisions have to be made by May 1st. Second, you may be accepted to schools in different parts of the country and that will make visiting all the more difficult. Third, this will be a very emotional time and perhaps not the best time to be trying to make comparisons of schools.
Not only can visiting campuses as part of the college search process be a help to narrow down choices, but it can also be a real motivator to do well academically as well as in extracurricular activities. In addition to providing a clearer picture about college environments it can act as an ideal opportunity for parents and students to talk about this very important decision.
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