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Five Tips for a Successful College Visit

After three years of exploring various college and universities with my two teenage sons, I’ve gradually developed a formula for getting the most out of our time on campus. Here are some of the tips that have helped make our visits less of a chore and more of an adventure.

Plan Ahead

Based on conversations with the experts, including high school guidance counselors, college admissions staff, student tour guides and college admissions consultants, the ideal time to begin visiting campuses is in the sophomore and junior years of high school. Freshman year, most kids aren’t ready developmentally and senior year is cutting it a little close for both parents and teens.

There are two ways to experience a college visit: Either at an Open House, an all-day event where everything is planned for you; or a more informal visit where you take part in a scheduled admissions meeting and campus tour but you’re on your own for the rest of the day. Each has its own merits, so try both and see which suits your family better.

Schedule your visit when ‘real’ students are on campus going about their normal routines. Visiting during summer vacation or exam time isn’t likely to give you a realistic look at the school.

If you’re able to coordinate visits to several colleges and universities in the same geographical area, you can save both time and money. A word of warning, though, more than one or two visits a day will send you all into ‘information overload’ making everyone cranky so don’t over- schedule yourselves.

Let Your Teen Lead

Have your son or daughter research the college/university ahead of time to see what the school offers visitors, including any special opportunities in their intended major. They can also be in charge of signing you all up for the Open House, admissions meetings or tours.
Once you get to campus, take a back seat. The experts agree that the best way you can help your teen is by staying quiet and taking notes. The exception to this is if you hear about or see something that your child may not have noticed that you feel would really enhance their visit, like the opportunity to sit in on a class or watch an Aeronautics Club fly their model plane. That’s your chance to speak up!

Be Prepared

Paying attention to little details - like getting accurate directions and finding out where to park ahead of time - make a big difference.

Dress in layers with the weather in mind. Wear comfortable walking shoes and don’t forget an umbrella or sun hat, depending on the time of year.

Carry a backpack with water, a few healthy snacks, a little cash, pens and a notebook in it. This also gives you a place to store the many handouts you pick up along the way.

Look at Everything

Taking a guided tour will give you the opportunity to learn a lot about the campus. However, if your prospective freshman has a specific interest, (like my music major did), then it’s important to see if there are facilities like a music library and what the performance hall and practice rooms look like. You’ll also want to use the bathrooms, eat the food, check out the laundry facilities and look at the student lounges - all important places that may not be included on a regular tour.

It’s also a good idea to explore the surrounding area and what it offers to students. For example, is the campus located in the country or a city? Is there a local public transportation system or do many students bring cars? Are there movie theatres, museums and sports arenas close by or is it mostly bars and bowling alleys and which would your teen prefer?

Picking up both a campus and a local newspaper to read along with any free publications that are available will give you a good feel for the area culture and how your son or daughter might fit in there. Take a few minutes to read the fliers on the bulletin boards as you walk around campus to see what kind of clubs, activities and special events are available for students.

Keep a Positive Attitude!

Don’t stress out if everything doesn’t go exactly as planned. This is a new learning curve for all of you and should be an exciting, satisfying experience; a time to get to know each other better while working toward a common goal.

Hopefully the next step will be for your teen to choose a college/university that will encourage them to grow academically and socially.

Sue is a regular contributor to Family Magazine who frequently writes about teens, parents and the college application process. Contact her at


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