Campus Visits: Prerequisite for Choosing a College

Author: Karen Rubin

Tags : Teens, Tips & Documents

Resources for families with teens doing the college visit circuit.

Like thousands of other families, this past school break, we hit the road that ribbons past colleges in preparation for that rite of passage: college applications. Like that of so many others from our area, our road leads to Boston. No wonder; with 250,000 students attending 50 colleges in a 50-square mile area, the Boston Metro area probably has more colleges students than any other on the planet.

In planning the trip, I found it extremely helpful to check the websites of the different universities we wanted to visit (usually the web address is the name of the university followed by ".edu"). Under "Visiting Campus" each university usually posts a schedule for general information sessions, and for campus tours led by students.

Campus Visit to the Rescue

Boston colleges attract so many visitors that a company has emerged just to provide assistance to out-of-towners. Supported by the 16 major schools which tend to draw largely from outside the state (including Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, Tufts, and Wellesley), Campus Visit (888/99VISIT) publishes incredibly handy, free annual guides with invaluable maps and detailed driving instructions. It's Boston edition, called "America's College Town" (781/431-7755), is chock full of marvelous tips about making the visit more productive. The company also helps facilitate hotel bookings at discounted rates, and provides savings on USAirways and 50% off Amtrak. Similar services and free annual magazines are also available from the same website in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Columbus. 

"Our goal is to facilitate," says Todd Hoffman, a former marketing professional for a major Boston hotel, who runs the company with his wife, founder Cherlene Hoffman. "Our aim is to prepare families, so they have faster, better, cheaper visits. If they do, we think they will think more highly of Boston."

One reason they started their company was that it was so hard to get a hotel room, particularly around the peak campus visiting times, which tend to coincide with other happenings in Boston (and when are there not happenings in Boston?).

"One of our objectives was to get people to take their time, spend the night, and definitely not to do more than two tours in a day," he says. People think Boston is small enough, but even if you could cram three campuses into one day, Todd advises against it. "Physically, you may be able to, but then you can't remember it all, and it backfires. If you are fitting three campuses into a day, you are not doing it right, you are not giving yourself enough time to decompress. This is such a big decision."

Indeed it is. Choosing a college is one of those life-changing choices, perhaps not quite as significant as proposing marriage, but certainly on par with going for a job that may involve relocating your family. With the cost of higher education today, this may well be the second biggest investment a family makes, after owning their home. For the student, college is one of those major steppingstones (we think, anyway) to career and (when you consider that many people meet their future spouse at college) even their future family. I am thinking these heavy thoughts as we continue our odyssey, the current edition of Campus Visit in my lap, and we make the turn off the highway to our second campus of the day.


Checklist to Consider

In this edition, Michael Kalafatas, Director of Admissions for Brandeis University, offers 14 tips to make your campus visit fun and useful. His sage advice includes: don't overdo it; be sure to allow at least a half-day per campus (there may be only one or two daily scheduled general information sessions and campus tours); give yourself adequate travel time between schools; and if you are going to be late for an interview, call. Don your best consumer glasses, he advises: "Kick the tires, ask tough questions." Take the campus tour, but also roam widely; spend time with students, ask directions freely (it's a great way to get into conversations and talk to more than one student). Get the scoop on academic life by sitting in on a class or two.

Kalafatas also advises visiting the campus when there is apt to be activity. During exam time or summer or holiday breaks, "the campus may look bleak." Families should check out the dorms, libraries, computer facilities, and, if they interest you, the laboratories and arts and athletic facilities.

We scanned student newspapers and bulletin boards, which provided insight about campus culture and the level of extracurricular activity. We also found it useful to eat in one of the dining halls when many of the other students were there, and to hang out at the student center. Well-maintained buildings and grounds are clues to a college's financial health. Also, consider safety and security on campus (we were introduced to the "blue light" and call- box system on several campuses, and informed about campus police services).

Todd Hoffman recommends taking notes and Campus Visit magazine even includes a helpful form which you can also download from the site. "After you've visited a bunch of campuses over a period of time," he says, "you may not remember them as well." When all of your campus visits are over, you will be able to use your notes to compare your options more objectively.

Visiting is Essential

For most students, the campus visit is the most useful single element in making a selection. Hoffman, interestingly, did not visit his college before applying. "I am among the 40% of people who, if they could do it all over again, wouldn't have gone to their school," he reflects. "I am a big proponent of making sure you walk the campus. If you are serious, you will visit." But the visit should be more than casual and is something you should approach as an educated consumer.

"You can do a 'K-mart' campus visit, and just walk through, and not let any of it sink in, but that will not give you a true impression," says Hoffman. Instead, go to the library, eat at the dining hall, ask a student to show you their dorm room (dorms are rarely included on the tour). If your child knows what he or she intends to major in, visit that department or building. "Talk to students, talk to a professor who has the office door open. Get beyond the person who gives the spiel." It boils down to finding the right fit, a place where your child will feel comfortable.


Plan an Overnight

One of the best ways for your child to determine whether a campus offers the "right fit" is by arranging an overnight. You can do this by contacting an alum from your high school, or, in our case, contacting the Hillel Organization, which proved extremely accommodating. Then, say goodbye to your child and go to your own hotel. By the time I returned the morning after my son's overnight, son had already attended a couple of classes and came away with a solid picture of campus life. When we visited other campuses, even if we weren't able to arrange for him to stay overnight with a student, we attended classes and met up with some alumni from his high school.

In addition to the publications and a marvelous website, Campus Visit also provides a hotel reservation desk. When you call, you can speak to a person who offers the best advice on where to stay for the places you want to visit. But, alas, they can't answer all of your questions. "People call us and tell us their child got such and such score on the SATs, and ask: Do you think he will make Harvard?"