Spring Break:
The Time To
Visit Colleges

by Kara Beitzer

Photo courtesy of Temple University

For parents of high school juniors — and, experts say, sophomores too — spring break is the time to visit college campuses. Because college and high school spring breaks rarely coincide, visitors can see colleges in full swing.

Admissions officers and tour ambassadors agree that by the second semester of her junior year, your child should have researched colleges and gotten an idea of places she wants to visit. If not, it’s a good idea to visit several types of colleges, such as a small liberal arts college, middle-sized and large universities, schools with religious affiliation, community colleges or trade schools.

Regardless of where, get there soon. Katherine Cohen, PhD, founder of ApplyWise, a college admission resource website (www.applywise.com) and author of The Truth About Getting In, suggests that high school sophomores make preliminary college visits. But she says the best time to visit campuses is during junior year. “By then you should have research and a more directed trip in mind,” she says.

For More Info

College admissions expert Katherine Cohen, PhD, offers an online resource at www.applywise.com. Its college visit section includes topics such as questions to ask a tour guide, when to visit a school and whom to talk to.

In Full Swing
The best time to visit a college is when it is in session. When it’s not, the campus is cleaner than usual, dorm rooms are devoid of personal touches and bulletin boards are bare.

Ed Wright director of admissions at Widener University in Chester, PA, says times when high schools are closed but colleges are open are best for a college tour. In addition to spring break, colleges are often in session on President’s Day and other days off such as when teachers are taking in-service training.

Brenda Farmer, coordinator of visitor services, gives the guided tours at Delaware State University in Dover, DE. Farmer says students as young as 6th graders take her tour, but she typically leads 11th and 12th graders.

Donna Dollard, a student ambassador at West Chester University in West Chester, PA, says, “Students can visit many different campuses during their junior year without having the pressure of needing to commit to a university, and can then re-visit the campuses of the schools that interest them during their senior year before making a final decision.”

Dr. Cohen suggests families of high school freshmen and sophomores add campus visits to their vacations. “Even if your child is too young, just throw it in the mix to see different kinds of schools,” she says. Although they won’t see the college in full swing, they’ll get a sense of what a campus looks like.

Types of Campus Visits
Universities offer different types of campus visits including guided tours, self-guided tours, open houses, information sessions, virtual tours and student shadowing.

On a typical guided tour, an admissions official or a student ambassador will guide you around campus to see the most important buildings and get a feel for the institution.

On a self-guided tour, your family can visit the campus on a weekend without reserving a guide.

Open houses and information sessions usually involve a presentation and question/answer sessions with professors, coaches, admissions or financial aid officers.

Most colleges also offer a virtual tour online. Karin West Mormando, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Temple University in Philadelphia, says Temple offers an Internet tour “to generate excitement and buzz, but as much as possible, we encourage campus visits.”

Many institutions offer the option to shadow a current student. When possible, your child follows a student with similar academic interests and can even sit in on a class. At Widener University, shadowing a student includes attending a class, a campus tour and a free lunch.

Even if a college you’re visiting doesn’t offer the formal option to sit in on a class, ask if it’s possible. “It is incredibly fascinating to see exactly what it’s like at 10:35am on a Tuesday in poetry class. This is what life would be like at this particular college,” says Dr. Cohen.

She suggests you take a full day to visit a college. That way you can fit in an information session, a tour and a classroom experience, and meet with a professor, have lunch and see the surrounding town.

What to Look For and Ask
During your tour, observe bulletin boards or announcement poles. Take heed of the cleanliness of the campus, a good indication of how the school is run. Pick up a campus newspaper or course catelog to get an idea of what goes on.

After visiting various campus facilities, your tour will probably end at the admissions office. There, you and your child will be able to visit with admissions and financial aid officers. If your child plans to work part-time, ask about campus employment and the best way to find off-campus jobs.

Check out the surrounding community after your tour for amenities such as restaurants, shops and movie theaters. Note the distances involved and whether transportation is available if destinations are not within walking distance.

Dr. Cohen says that exploring beyond the tour gives a more complete idea of the college. You can get a sense of the area’s safety, if a car is needed, if there is public transportation and what kind of neighborhood the campus is in. Your child should be attuned to the atmosphere he’s seeking. For example, Dr. Cohen asks, can he live in a one-street town for four years?

Don’t Forget the Students
Students attending the college can provide insights about campus activities and freshman social life. Widener’s Ed Wright suggests that rather than asking all your questions to admissions officers or tour guides, “stop a random person and ask instead. Ask anyone at the student center, ‘Hey, what do you think of this school?’”

Dr. Cohen says it’s important for your child to get contact information such as an e-mail address for your tour guide and other students you talk to. She says asking students questions privately is a good way to get honest, unscripted answers.

West Chester student ambassador Donna Dollard says, “Questions really do make the tour better.” So don’t be shy, ask away. Here are some questions you can ask students.

Why did you choose this college?

How many times do you go back home during the school year and how do you get there?

Are freshmen allowed to have cars on campus, and if so, what is the parking situation?

What student groups, such as sports teams, fraternities or sororities, or Habitat for Humanity, are the most popular and active?

What do you do on a typical weekday and weekend? On the weekend, are most students still around or is this a “suitcase college”?

Do you feel like you fit in? Are you happy here?

If you could change things about this college, what would they be?

What is one thing you wish you knew when you started out at this college?

The most important question is one that only students, not the admissions office, are likely to answer: What’s wrong with this place?

Be sure to write down your questions beforehand and take notes during the information session and tour. Temple’s West Mormando says take pictures to remember what you saw and to compare to other campuses you visit. Jot down names and contact information of those you meet along your tour.

If your tour does not include a key part of the campus, visit it on your own. For example, if your child is a violinist, see where the orchestra plays. If the tour doesn’t include a free lunch in a dining facility, ask ahead of time if you can have a meal on campus. It’s guaranteed not to be mom’s home cooking, but your child should experience what the college has to offer.
West Mormando says parents are welcome on campus tours “but let your kids take the lead, drive the process, own it, because it is so important. Make sure it is a partnership when visiting a campus.”

Dr. Cohen says it is “great for parents to be there, but at an arms distance.” She says to take the ‘we’ out of the transition to college. It is your child’s experience for the next four years. “Let your child shine on tours. Listen to her and what’s important to her, and discuss your thoughts after you’ve heard hers,” she says.

“Come prepared,” says Dollard. “Listen to the advice of the person giving the tour, but get different viewpoints, and that’s important. Process what you’ve heard and talk about it later with the family. Most of all, have fun, keep an open mind and enjoy the new experience.”

Kara Beitzer is an editorial assistant for MetroKids.