Crossing the campus at the university where I teach, I often pass groups of bored-looking high school students taking a tour with their over-interested parents. My school has outstanding student tour guides, but I find it unnerving that many of those visiting high school seniors and juniors will choose a school based only on a carefully designed tour of the campus’ high points. Figuring out if a college is the right choice isn’t easy, so here are some suggestions for how to dig deeper than the guided tour, and get the most out of a visit.
• Visit while classes are in session. For major universities that offer extensive summer courses, that’s a lot easier, but you should try to do it even at smaller schools. Campuses feel entirely different during regular semesters, and you and your child should get a sense of what it’s like to travel around with hundreds of students hurrying by.
• Make learning about the food situation on the campus you’re touring a must, especially if the freshman-to-be follows a restricted diet. If you can, arrange to eat in the school’s main cafeteria, pick up a copy of the menu if they offer one and ask the tour guide how the food is. Lack of choices and/or poor quality of food are the number one complaint I’ve heard students make about their school.
• Many tour guides take students through the campus library’s most picturesque areas—all of those towering windows and leather armchairs—but pay attention to the rest of the facility. You can always go back after the tour for a more detailed view. Many students spend a significant chunk of their college career in the library, and some will be there every day. Is it welcoming and functional?
• Pay attention to the fliers and posters posted around campus; they will tell you quite a bit about the student social life. If all you see are posters for free beer and your student is a bookworm, the school might not be a good match.
• Your tour should include a stop at a typical freshman dorm, but if it doesn’t, ask for one. And make sure you’re seeing a place where your child actually could be assigned to live. Also ask the tour guide to show you a typical dorm-room-to-classroom commute for a freshman. At my current school, many freshmen are housed at the top of a giant hill, and it takes them a few weeks to get used to the physical exertion required to get to and from class.
• Unfortunately, many American teenagers think classes in college will be just like those in high school, but that’s rarely the case, so ask the admissions office if you can sit in on the type of class your child will take as a freshman. And if they won’t or can’t schedule that for you, pop your head into a class, or stand discreetly outside and listen for a few minutes.
• I also recommend stopping people on campus to ask questions. I’m always happy to answer a question from someone who identifies themselves as the parent of a teenager considering my school. Just say, “We’re trying to get a feel for the campus and figure out if it’s right for my kid. What do you think this school offers?” If you have doubts about something you saw on the tour, ask about that: “What’s it like to live in a suite with six other people?” Generally, people who aren’t late for class will be happy to answer your questions … and if they’re not, well, you just learned something about this campus culture.
If all of this seems overwhelming, you’re right: It is. You can’t find out everything about a school on a single tour, and that’s why it’s great to have websites and email addresses to find out more. To make the best of the short time you have on campus, my final tip is to discuss what you most want to find out about each school with your teenager. Consider making a checklist. Then, on the way home, review what you learned, share impressions and get a sense of what your child liked and disliked. A campus tour is an opportunity to learn more about each other as well as about the school. What a lovely gift in the midst of a busy teenager’s last years at home.
—Shannon Reed | The Washington Post