The ten most influential years of my life—bridging adolescence to adulthood and including my undergraduate experience—were spent in Washington, DC. To this day my favorite city in the world, DC’s Aprils and Mays are evident by the cherry blossoms lining the city’s most famous streets, signifying that the end of school is near. Once finals are over countless high school juniors embark on that time-honored tradition called the college tour, otherwise known as “the week during which my parents will shower me with unrelenting embarrassment.”
Summer is not the best time to visit colleges. Campuses are generally empty (except for some high school students who attend pre-college programs under the erroneous assumption that they’ll earn some edge in the admissions process that awaits them one or two years hence rather than seeing the program for what it is: an opportunity for colleges to make money, preying on kids who hold this fallacious belief), under construction, being repainted, or otherwise not in tip-top condition to learn what it will be like when a prospective student might actually attend. Nevertheless, due to school, mom’s work schedule, soccer practice, ballet recitals, and Cousin Julie’s bat mitzvah, for many families summer is the optimal time to visit colleges.
If you are going to spend a week on the road, piled into the minivan and boarding at a series of Hampton Inns, keep the following in mind to make the most of this precious time:
Bring a camera
The excitement you feel on Monday of the weeklong sojourn turns into exhaustion by Thursday. The sun—once a welcome change from the sunless days spent studying for AP’s—is now beating you down as if you’re an Israelite wandering ancient Sinai. You will want digital evidence that you actually liked some of the schools you saw as well as the visual to jog your memory when it comes time to responding to the “Why do you want to attend College X” essay on the Common Application supplement.
Hour-long information sessions can be tedious. You will find that 95% of what is covered in one is presented in the others, including (but not limited to):
- We offer themed housing to cater anyone’s passions
- Our students intern with local banks, law firms, and other various corporate entities
- The admissions process has become more selective in the past five years
- Students come from all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries
- Financial aid packages are generous, comprised of grants, loans, and work study
- By the end of sophomore year students are required to choose a major, but can easily change and are encourage to work with willing advisors to create their own major
- Hundreds of clubs satiate every extra-curricular desire a student might have
- Over half of the junior class studies abroad
If you can eliminate this bleeding of traits among schools and cut to the heart of what truly distinguishes colleges from one another then take note of those differences; it will become valuable information down the line.
Ask probing questions
Admissions officers and tour guides are trained to offer rote responses to simple questions: What is the average SAT score of your admitted students? What is your most popular major? Do you have an intramural ultimate Frisbee squad? These are questions the answers to which are easily found online and, frankly, are unlikely to be the deciding factor in whether or not you will apply. You want to ask questions that cause the respondent to think, for these queries are more likely to impact how you feel about a college: What was the reaction on campus when we led NATO forces into Libya? How has the student body changed in the past decade? If you were president of the university what changes would you make? By asking incisive questions you might even get noticed by the admissions office.
Speak with randomly selected students
If you do ask those investigative questions you still might get a response twisted to make the university sound like a paradise. Take the question about our military action in North Africa, for example. A seasoned admissions officer might respond: “There was a healthy debate on campus after our government’s decision to invade Libyan airspace, illustrating the opinions of all students are heard and respected.” This crafty answer sounds great, but doesn’t really tell the story since most communities lean one way or the other. See, colleges want to attract all applicants and cannot afford to offend anyone. If, however, you ask this same question of three or four randomly selected students you come across as you walk around campus, you are much more likely to hear an earnest reply. The question doesn’t need to be weighty. You might simply ask: Do you enjoy going to college here? Why or why not? No tour guide will ever tell you that the college lacks a spirit of community, but if a half dozen kids all tell you that then it’s probably true.
Spend time away from your parents
Most visits break down into two one-hour segments: the information session, led by an admissions officer, and the walking tour, led by a current student. Some colleges send students and parents on different tours and this is terrific. If you aren’t lucky enough to have that pre-ordained, plan to spend at least a half-hour apart, talking to students and faculty independent of each other. This will prevent groupthink from setting in, a tendency for students and parents to pick up on the same cues (both verbal and non-verbal) when they are together. The other advantage of a student distancing herself from mom or dad is that parents tend to ask questions that students perceive as embarrassing. It’s perfectly reasonable for a parent to want to know about campus safety, even if this is not foremost on the mind of the student. Likewise, parents don’t want to hear about the party scene on Saturday night at the fraternity house. Some things are better left to the imagination.
Whether your adventures take you to Washington, DC, or Walla Walla, WA, keep these tips in mind and you are sure to have a rewarding experience.