October 2007 Issue
Experts tell students and parents how to get the most from a walk through the halls of ivy.
You can’t miss the college tour guides: They’re the ones walking backward and pointing a lot.
Nearly everybody who’s been to college, and gone through the challenging and exciting process of deciding how to get into the school of their dreams, has gone on a college campus tour.
At every college or university you’ll see gaggles of prospective students trying to look cool and noncommittal, parents trying to look interested and/or hopeful, and younger siblings who just seem bored. Polite, articulate student leaders — yes, those backward-walking ones — lead these small herds past red-brick academic towers and down oak-lined pathways, answering questions from mom about late-night dorm security and questions from the potential student about the quality of the food.
For some students, this 60- to 90-minute tour is the time in which a key, life-changing decision is made. For others, Ohio admissions officers say, it’s just a first step — the chance to get an initial impression of how a school feels and to decide whether he or she might fit in there comfortably.
“It should be like a first date,” says Teena Bresson, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, near Cleveland. “You should go online to narrow your options down, and the campus visit is the best way to get a feel for the place. Some students know in five minutes that they don’t want to go there.”
“For the most part, a student will know by their gut in the first half-hour or hour whether the school is right for them,” says Gary Swegan, director of undergraduate admissions at Bowling Green State University. “But it’s absolutely the most memorable pro or con experience a student will have with that university. Even if they decide right away they don’t like a school, that non-positive experience can be valuable in deciding what they do like” about someplace else.
And so, as you and your child approach the college-selection process, you may wonder: How do you get the most from such an important trip? The simplest suggestion came from Ben Shoemaker, associate director of admissions at Otterbein College: “The tour is a great litmus test. But get off the tour and get out onto the campus.”
Conversations with Shoemaker and his counterparts from Ohio colleges large and small, public and private, provide plenty of helpful tips.
Figure Out What You’re Looking For
Families should be talking during the child’s junior year in high school about what kind of college experience the student wants: Large state school? Small, intimate liberal-arts college? Suburbs or city? A lively social life or someplace quiet? A religious-based education? What sort of academic major seems interesting? These conversations will get you started in the right direction.
Do Your Homework
That starts with the school’s Web site. Admissions information is abundant online, and you can learn a great deal about a campus long before you set foot on it.
Many offer sophisticated, detailed virtual tours that are very helpful. Wittenberg University in Springfield, for example, has a good one (www4.wittenberg.edu/tour/). In addition to a tour map, plenty of 360-degree views of campus hot spots and charming video interviews with student tour guides, the site provides photos, histories and loads of information on key campus buildings that are written with an eye toward what students want. At the Kuss Science Center, the site says, a “Starbucks coffee stand, located at the bottom of the grand staircase, is perfect for students on the go. Those students in between classes or studying can enjoy their coffee by lounging in the plush chairs in the area or in the courtyard outside the second-floor balcony.”
A college’s site can also give you a sense of the personality of the school, and how the campus community regards itself. Oberlin College (www.oberlin.edu
) shows itself off to prospective students with an action-oriented theme called “Oberlin: Fearless,” that sets the school’s arts orientation and tough academics into a colorful, forward-moving context that may make you rethink your previously held notions of the place.
At many sites, the students talk directly to incoming freshmen. Otterbein College’s site offers “Otterbein Confidential,” a range of student blogs that capture the mood of life on the 3,100-student suburban campus. Jayme recounts all the stuff she had to buy to outfit her dorm; Auggie gripes about the new campus computers; Eric talks about looking forward to a visit from his parents and quotes Springsteen. They seem like friendly kids, which is the point. “Student blogs are the big thing right now,” says Todd Pilipovich, assistant director of admissions at Youngstown State University. “Everybody’s doing them, and students love them.”
BGSU’s Swegan advises, however, “Don’t use the Web site as a substitute for a campus visit.”
Plan and Call Ahead
Nearly every school offers campus visits on special days during which you can see and do a lot in a short period of time. You’ll need to register in advance, either by calling or going online.
Large-scale visit days are usually designed for convenience. Expect a panel of students who will discuss campus life, a panel of selected faculty members, and talks with admissions and financial-aid staff. At Muskingum College (www.muskingum.edu
), for instance, three “Friday Freshman Days” in the fall let you “have lunch in a dining hall, meet professors and other students, and live a typical day in the life of a Muskie” while parents get the scoop elsewhere on financial aid and the like. If Fridays don’t work, the “Fall Open House” on Saturdays includes a football game.
Remember that there may be hundreds of prospective students and family members attending those special-visit days, so many admissions officers strongly recommend a second, individual campus visit for the student who is really interested in digging deeper. The University of Dayton’s campus visit coordinator Carin Andrews says, “A second visit is very important. The visit is very comprehensive, and we help you get the most out of it. We don’t leave much up in the air.”
Don’t Overdo It
Take your time and try to visit one school per day, even if you’re looking at several in the same region. You may end up spending three or four hours on campus, and you’ll remember each visit more clearly if you don’t cram in too many on a single afternoon.
Take Notes and Pictures
A digital camera is a must, especially if you’re looking at a lot of schools. You’ll want to go back and compare. “Four months later, you may not remember what the gym looked like,” Ursuline’s Bresson notes.
If the student feels self-conscious jotting down notes, this is something Mom and Dad can help out with while son or daughter is looking around. Bring a small notepad for questions, observations and thoughts on what you see. What sets the campus apart from others you’ve seen? What do you see that you don’t like? Are the facilities well-kept? Does the library look busy? How are the dorm rooms?
Ask Lots of Questions
Students should speak up when they’re on campus. Know what you want to find out, and keep asking questions until you’re satisfied with the answers. Notes Otterbein’s Shoemaker: “A lot of times, the students feel a bit intimi-dated, which is understandable — for a lot of years, they’ve been told that this is one of the most important decisions of their lives. But get in there and ask.”
Sit in on a Class
This is invaluable, and should be something students do on any visit to schools that they are serious about. It may be the first time students see the difference between high school and college classrooms — many students are struck by the combination of laid-back atmosphere but intense concentration that characterizes a college classroom. Remember in your planning that most schools only offer class visits on weekdays.
BGSU’s Swegan suggests that high school students should make time to sit in on college classes in their hometown before they graduate, even if they aren’t interested in attending that school. “We recommend it. It’s eye-opening.”
Sit, Look, Listen
No matter how rushed you feel or how bewildering the visit may seem, try to take some time to slow down and simply observe what is going on around you. “Be sure to take 15 to 20 minutes, get a cup of coffee and just sit in the student union,” Swegan recommends. “Watch and learn. Get a feeling for the place. Engage a student in conversation. Just sit, watch and listen.”
And Most Importantly…
Ursuline’s Bresson puts it simply: “Be honest.” Know what you want and decide if this school will give it to you. Otterbein’s Shoemaker agrees. “Every school is different. Some students will ask me, ‘Why should I go to Otterbein?’ And I tell them, honestly, ‘I have no idea.’ I say it’s not just about the college — it’s about themselves and what they’re looking for.”
“Trust your gut,” Swegan says. “Nine times out of 10, if you had a good feeling about the place, great. If you didn’t, nix that one.”