Conventional wisdom holds that a college visit should include a quick information session and tour, with families as passive recipients of whatever the school offers. Since visitations can be stressful, the internet is full of suggestions for navigating these visits. It is essential that parents carefully assess some of this advice, which may be misleading or not particularly relevant to their child’s unique needs.
Here is my list of the top college visit mistakes:
#1: Skip the information session
Some online advice suggests skipping the info sessions in favor of the tour if you are short on time. While it is true that college info sessions often cover facts from their websites, you still get a very clear sense of the school’s values, priorities, and admission criteria if you listen carefully and read between the lines.
Pay attention to the message the speaker – and the college as a whole – are conveying:
- Is the speaker informed?
- Is the info session easy to access in terms of parking, registration and seating, or does it require heroic efforts to find it?
- Are the staff welcoming, or do they seem annoyed with questions?
- Do they provide specific criteria about what students are likely to be admitted in terms of GPA or SAT scores?
- Is the information clear and specific, or more like a pep rally full of stats about their sports teams and famous alumni, but little about their students?
#2: Rely too much on your tour guide
Too many families give excessive weight to advice from their tour guides. They rave about how these students manage to walk backwards, pepper them with “trick” questions about the party scene, and expect them to answer truthfully about problems at the school. Some even eliminate a college from their list altogether because of a disappointing tour.
Let’s keep in mind that these guides are usually 20-year-olds in work-study jobs. Yes, they may love their school, but expecting them to be the sole spokesperson for their college is unrealistic. You might gain a bit of inside information, but again, it will be colored by their perspective, and censored because of their job status. Stop expecting so much from these students, and instead, use the tour to notice the surroundings, buildings, current students, and those visiting on the tour along with you – who may end up becoming your child’s classmates.
#3: Focus on the dorm visit
Most teens and parents look forward to seeing a dorm room during their campus tour. While it can be informative, keep in mind that this is only one of the many dorms on campus, and may not be representative of where your child will reside. Do the research and take an online campus tour to view the available dorms. Similarly, although eating in the dining hall may provide some perspective about the food, one meal does not represent the quality of an entire year’s worth of grub. What is helpful, though, is viewing interactions among students, how calm or chaotic the environment is, and how easily students navigate the dining hall to access a meal.
#4: Stick to the tour
Tours are designed to impress, and to view what college administrators assume most families will find appealing. They typically cover some highlights of the college – beautiful buildings, the library, a new gymnasium – but may not help specifically with what you and your child need to know. After the official tour ends, go on a tour of your own.
Visit buildings YOU need to see. If your child knows her potential major, visit the building where it is housed. This is especially important with hands-on majors, such as art, music, engineering, and the sciences. Go to an extracurricular activity she plans to join. If she is an athlete, performer, or musician, encourage her to visit the venues where she will be spending her time.
#5: Avoid the classroom
Some people advise against sitting in on classes, since your child might stumble upon a professor having a bad day, or one with a less than engaging teaching style. Nevertheless, your child has the most to learn about the college through class attendance. He can witness the pace and complexity of instruction, picture himself in the room, and determine whether the class is much too easy, just about right, or way too complex. He can see how professors interact with students, whether they encourage class participation, or merely lecture to them. He can view how engaged students are, whether they offer their own ideas, or are disinterested and glued to their phones.
#6 Require your kid to do an overnight visit
Some claim that prospective students should spend an overnight at a college with other students to get a feel for the social climate. Many colleges recommend overnights for admitted students, and pair them with student volunteers. While some high school seniors certainly enjoy the trip away from home, the visit may paint a limited picture of life at a particular college. Much depends on their rapport with their host, whether they enjoy the activities provided, and how much the events correspond with actual college life. Evaluating the college under these circumstances can provide an unrealistically positive or negative impression. As mentioned in #4 and #5, sitting in on classes and extra-curricular activities can provide a more accurate view of what lies ahead.
#7 Have no input into choice of schools
Of course, your child needs to make the final decision about where to attend college. But sometimes, teens can harbor impressions and biases that discredit certain colleges. Parents may need to gently encourage visits to additional colleges (not on their lists) that might be viable options. It is especially important to find both academic and financial safety schools, and to have at least several realistic choices, since admission to your child’s dream school may not materialize. If visiting a college is not possible due to financial constraints, check out online tours available on many college websites. Even these can provide a wealth of information and help to clarify preferences and priorities.
Bottom line: Get informed, learn as much as you can about colleges, know what your child needs, and use caution when following advice (even this article’s advice) that you read online. Remain available to offer suggestions, answer questions, and calm your child’s nerves – but try to refrain from expressing too many of your own opinions. Let your child share whatever thoughts and impressions emerge. And enjoy the college visits. They can be a wonderful opportunity to share a unique experience with your child!
Gail Post, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, in practice for over 30 years. She works with adolescents and adults, with specialties in the areas of eating disorders, women’s issues, parenting, anxiety, and depression. Dr. Post also offers workshops, consultation and public speaking, and writes a popular blog about gifted children and adults, You can follow her at Facebook and Twitter.