A high school senior and her parents walked into the dining hall at Reed College and found many students eating alone. That was all they needed to see. While the intellectual rigor of the school appealed to her, this student also wanted a more social environment, and decided this wasn’t the place for her.
Friendliness, atmosphere – that’s the kind of information you don’t get from viewbooks and websites. Once a student has clarified her educational goals, values and personal needs, there’s nothing like a campus visit to find out if a college will meet those needs.
Often, students don’t know what they really want till they see a college. One student loved the idea of a lush, sprawling campus. But when she visited Connecticut College, with its 700 acres of greenery, woods and water, she thought it was too quiet and decided to look at schools with a livelier atmosphere.
The more colleges you visit, the better you get at evaluating whether the school is a match. That’s why I suggest starting with local colleges, even if they’re not on a student’s list. If you live in Los Angeles, visit UCLA and Occidental to get a sense of how a large public university is different from a small, private college. After visiting a couple colleges, you’ll know what to look for, and will be in a better position to evaluate what you’re seeing.
On college trips, it’s hard to resist the temptation to see as many schools as possible. But visiting more than two schools a day becomes a frantic rush from one college to the next, with no time to fully experience each school. Plan on spending at least three hours on campus to allow time for a tour, information session and lunch in the dining hall. If there’s time, give your child an hour on her own to imagine herself as a student at the school, while you check out the surrounding community.
While student tour guides are very knowledgeable, they’re also fans of the school. That’s why they’re tour guides. That’s also why it’s important to talk to other students. All of these students have gone through the college application process in the last few years, and they’re usually happy to share their wisdom. I always ask what other colleges they applied to and why they chose this one. How has the school met their expectations or disappointed them? What kind of person is a good fit for this college? What are their three favorite things about the school and what are three things they wish were different? If their complaints are in areas that are important to your child, that’s useful information.
You also want to know if students have trouble getting courses they want. While a student might expect to be shut out of classes at a large state university, especially when budget cuts have forced many schools to make cuts, it can also happen at small colleges that are committed to keeping classes small. Get a feel for the intellectual climate by asking what the most popular classes are, how many hours a day students spend studying, what they do on weekends. Check bulletin boards and pick up a school newspaper to see what lectures, concerts, and activities are scheduled.
For a prospective student, it comes down to a gut reaction. Does she feel excited being on this campus? Can she see herself walking to class, hanging out with these people? If she feels good about herself while she’s visiting this college, if she sees people she’d like to get to know, she’s that much closer to making a good match.