David Graves      April 26th, 2010 in Blog

At this time of year, our office starts to move its focus from the incoming freshman class to the rising junior and senior classes in high school. We will still be doing a great deal of programs for incoming freshmen, but April/May is the beginning of the transition time for our office. As such, I had lunch with a good friend of mine, Eric Johnson, who is the Director of the UGA Visitors Center. Here are his suggestions for high school underclassmen on the most important things to do when you visit a college:

Remixing the college road trip: 
Make your college quest an excellent adventure.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.” Ursula Leguin

So, you’re planning to begin visiting college campuses on your quest to find your dream school. Certainly, you should visit before you make a decision and commit to attending a school. I assume that, but I know many students who have never set foot on a campus until they move in. That’s not a good idea. You wouldn’t buy a car without at least a brief test drive. So, look at your tour of colleges as your way of “kicking the tires” of schools so that you can make an educated decision about the school you choose. Here are some suggestions to help you make the most of your college road trip:

  • Visit multiple and varying schools. 

Don’t be content to visit just the one school you think is your dream school. Even if you’re certain of your choice, plan to visit at least another campus or two for comparison’s sake. And try to visit schools that are different in nature. Visit a large state university and a small private college. Look at an urban campus and a rural campus. You might be surprised by what you find. Even if your expectations about a school are confirmed, you will at least be more confident in your decision and less likely to face regret halfway through your freshman year.

  • Talk to actual students. 

Admissions professionals and other campus administrators are great resources, but current students are the real deal. They are living the experience that you’re only imagining. So, seek out every opportunity to talk with actual, living, breathing college students attending the schools you’re considering. Understand that one student won’t speak for all, so keep any generalizations in perspective.

Usually, campus tours are led by currently enrolled students. Don’t be shy. Ask them whatever you’re most curious about. Don’t just stare blankly at your tour leader during your tour experience. Engage and interact with them. Tour leaders appreciate an audience that participates. Be a great audience member on the tour. Your attentiveness and interaction will bring out the best in those leading your tour. You may not be able to converse in detail during the tour, so plan to stick around after the tour if you want to have an indepth conversation.

And don’t be reluctant to strike up conversations with random students you encounter on the campus. Some tour leaders may only share the positives or the official script endorsed by officials at their school. Other students might be more frank. Ask for directions of anyone carrying a book bag on campus, and they’re most likely eager to help and may be just as eager to answer your questions about campus life in general. I was touring a campus once when a random student walked by and yelled out to the tour group, “Don’t come to this school.” I was surprised by this and thought it was a prank pulled on the tour guide. Later, I talked to another student on that campus who told me that was a normal, sincere occurence at that school. It was such a challenging atmosphere academically and socially there that it had become a tradition among many current students to warn passing tour groups. This is information that definitely was not part of the tour script.

  • The student, not the parents, should take the lead.

As a former Admissions professional, I sat in countless meetings with families where the prospective student barely said a word. Parents often said things like, “We are in interested in pre-medicine.” Or, “We don’t test well.” Whose college experience is this going to be? Yours or your parents’? Conversely, I was always impressed by a student who walked into my office with questions they clearly had considered carefully before arriving and whose family allowed them to take the lead in the conversation. Your family should want to be involved in the search process and they most likely will be paying the bills, but ultimately you have to live with the decision that you make. So, take ownership of the search process. Take the lead in planning which schools to visit. I’m encouraged when I find that it’s the student who actually has made the tour reservation and scouted out the logistics of their college search. Be the first to ask questions of those you meet with on campus. It’s great for your family members to care about this process and support you however they can, but you need to be the one to own this decision. Talk with your family members before a campus visit and let them know you value their input, but you want to be the one to take the initiative in the search to find a good match for your college experience.

  • Eat the food.

Almost every campus tour you experience will include praise of the campus meal plan. Don’t take their word for it. Go eat in a campus dining hall during your visit if you can. If you’re going to eat three meals a day there or more throughout your college career, make sure you like the food. It’s also a great place to encounter current, unscripted students who can give you more insight about that school.

  • Consider the community beyond the campus.
Make sure you get a sense of the kind of community that will become your home away from home beyond just the college campus. Check out the town the college is in and ask students what it’s like to live there. Some want to live in a place with a wide variety of social and cultural opportunities. Others may prefer a quiet community with minimal distractions. Determine what’s important to you in the place that will be your home for four years or more.

  • Listen to your head, but trust your heart.

Weigh the logical factors you should consider: cost of attendance, academic programs offered, opportunities beyond the classroom, academic caliber of the student body, etc. But, ultimately, I think you have to just feel right about the school you choose. I’ve heard many students say, “I just walked on campus and knew this was the place for me.” I think there’s something to that. Now, don’t ignore reason and logic or your family’s budget. But do trust your instincts about the place that you hope will be your future alma mater. You want to find a place where you can own the choice you made. And you want to find a place where you can come alive and become the student and person you aspire to be.

Make the college search a fun quest. Go with family. Go with friends. Seek out unique experiences and get off the beaten path a bit as you explore your options and plan your future. You will not regret the time and effort you put into this adventure. 

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”  Mark Twain

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