Visiting Colleges and Universities: When is the Right Time?
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Visiting colleges and universities can be an exciting and informative adventure!

Parents of high school students often ask me whether they should invest time and money visiting colleges and universities in advance of the college application process. While I understand that some students want to see the campus in person before deciding whether or not to apply to a particular school, visiting a college or university is not really essential to applying. I have been advising college-bound students for over thirty years, and I have long held the opinion that the best time to visit a college or university is after a student has actually been admitted to that school, not before.

Of course, if a student and his or her family have plenty of free time and the required resources to visit colleges and universities during the student’s junior year in high school, during the summer before the student’s senior year, or even much earlier in the student’s high school career, then by all means a student should visit the schools he or she truly wants to see. Visiting colleges and universities can be an exciting and informative adventure! The student and his or her family would do well to remember, however, that a visit, even one that includes a stop in the admissions office and a pleasant interaction with admissions personnel, will have no effect on the student’s admission to that school. At that point, the student has not even filed an application; the admissions committee does not really know anything about him or her, and certainly cannot evaluate his or her chances, or even ethically comment on his or her eventual admission. In addition, it can be heartbreaking for a student who has visited a school and completely fallen in love with it to later be denied admission. The only real, significant advantages of visiting colleges ahead of applying are to help a student write one of those “Why (Name of School)?” essays – a task that can certainly be accomplished by other means – or to perhaps eliminate the school altogether from the student’s college list because he or she for some reason found the place repellent.

A student’s college list should be quite broad and certainly not limited to schools he or she has visited. A college list is not a list of schools where a student will absolutely attend if admitted, but rather a list of possibilities and potential choices; having visited a school should not be a prerequisite to that school being included on the list. A student can learn enough about a particular college or university these days to place it on his or her list of prospects without ever setting foot on the campus. A student can research the school on the Internet, take a virtual tour and/or e-mail a professor who is conducting research in which the student is interested or who has written papers or books in the student’s chosen field.

The best time for a visit to a college or university is after a student has actually been admitted to that school, when he or she knows for a fact that he or she could actually attend. A visit at that juncture takes on a much deeper meaning; as he or she walks around the campus, sits in on classes or stops at the coffee house, the student knows he or she could actually go there! Every experience on the campus at that point becomes truly meaningful, from staying over in the dorms (and eating dorm food) to talking with a current student. Everything becomes real. In fact, very often the best way to decide where to attend, when a student has several wonderful choices, is by visiting all of those schools to see how he or she feels when he or she is on the respective campuses. Apart from all the considerations that went into deciding to include a school on the college list – reputation, facilities, the caliber of professors and the student body, location, opportunities for internships, etc., etc. – the visit after acceptance, an experience of what it actually feels like to be a student on that campus, may be a – or even the – crucial factor in deciding where to put down a deposit.

I have a student now who is currently visiting four schools at which she has been accepted. She could not go wrong by choosing any one of them; they are all stellar. I spent an hour with her and her parents last week, trying to help them decide which of the four is the right choice. We discussed the intellectual environment of each school, the relative strength of the student’s chosen department, the ease of entry into graduate or professional school after doing undergraduate work there, the size of the campus and the size of the classes, the opportunities for
internships and so on – and on and on and on. We could come to no definite conclusion. What I told them, at the end of the meeting, was that now was the right time to visit all four schools, for the reasons I stated above. I told the student in question that she would know, probably the minute she arrives, at which school she belongs. She is a remarkable, intellectually-gifted young woman with a strong sense of self, so her feeling of being “at home” at a school would not be a fleeting or superficial assessment; I firmly believe she will know – and that her feeling can be trusted.

Sometimes a student will also immediately know where he or she does not belong, when visiting after acceptance. Such was the case with my older son, who visited one of the schools in the magnificent array of top-flight colleges and universities at which he was accepted, and returned with the comment that the school was “interesting.” That school was clearly not where he spent his college years.

To conclude, visiting colleges and universities should be undertaken when a visit represents a journey to a campus community where a student can not only envision himself or herself, but of which he or she could actually be a member, if he or she so chooses. A visit means the most when it is the real deal.

By Susan Packer Davis , ThinkTank Learning Admissions Consultant and Academic Counselor