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College road trip

By the time your child is entering her junior year in high school, you should consider visiting colleges. Back in the last century, my folks never took me to visit any colleges until I was accepted, but it is a different world today.

One mother was incredulous when I told her that visiting a school might increase a student’s chances of being admitted.

“They don’t really look at minutiae like that, do they?” she asked.

Yes, they do — sometimes. Most colleges will not admit it. These days, the college-admissions process is very competitive, and many even ask on the application if the student has visited the school or spoken to a representative. The schools want to know how effective their outreach is, but they may also use this data when they are having trouble deciding if they should admit a particular applicant.

Colleges want you to visit so that they can show you their facilities and encourage your child to apply and if accepted, to attend. Their goal is to have as many students apply as possible, accept a limited number and raise their yield by convincing the accepted students to attend. They are focused on filling their incoming class with the most qualified freshmen. Students should have their own reasons to visit: to see if they like the school, to ask questions, and, if possible, to interview.

“You can get a feel for where you will call home, learn about the academics, the surrounding area, [your preference for an] urban or rural [environment], and be able to narrow down the number of applications [you will submit],” says Tom Mariano, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Franklin & Marshall College.

Ask if the college encourages interviews and uses them in its decision-making process. Some offer interviews for informational purposes only; that is, for your information. Your child can avoid the extra stress and ask questions by e-mail, on the phone or at an information session.

If your child is interviewing, have her prepare by going on the school’s Web site and on collegeboard.com — this way she does not ask basic questions that show she did not spend any time researching the school. She should have some questions prepared for the interviewer — this is her chance to sell herself and charm the interviewer with her personality. Have her do her first interview at her safety school, as a practice run.

Before hitting the road, create a list. The initial selection of potential schools should be made taking into account cost, location, social life, and perhaps religious life on campus. Do research online to find out basic information like available majors and minors, male-female ratio, ethnic diversity, sports available, and geographic breakdown of the student body. Often, high school guidance counselors make useful suggestions. Once you have a list, you can plan your trip(s).

Many schools require students and their families to sign up in advance for tours and information sessions. Interviews require appointments. You will need to figure out how long each portion of your visit will last and schedule in a lunch break, if you are visiting more than one school. We always leave early to get in a tour, information session, interview and time to walk to parts of the campus not included on the tour — checking out the bookstore, the sorority houses, the surrounding neighborhood and the Hillel House.

Athletes can arrange for a meeting with a coach, and all prospective students should try to make an appointment in advance to speak with a professor or teaching assistant in the student’s chosen department, unless she is undecided. This way she can get a good idea of the available coursework in her area. Ask at the Admissions Office for a course catalogue from the previous year, which can usually be found online, as well, and see if there are limited offerings in the area of interest. I know of a student who transferred out of a school because he ran out of courses in his chosen department. In most schools, all majors are required to take some courses outside their area, so the prospective student should think about how much math and science or humanities she can stomach.

Some people prefer to visit the cold-weather schools (the “snowbelt” ones) in the winter to be sure their child will be happy there. Apart from my personal fear of driving during white-out conditions, one friend told her son he could not attend a particular cold-weather school because the door to her car froze shut during their winter visit. Many prefer to visit when school is in session, if possible, during high-school vacation time. Some visit while high school is in session and miss classes. Most schools will excuse the absence if the student provides proof of the visit.

Visiting a campus will help your student think of questions and issues important to her, which she cannot even think of asking until she is on campus. Tell your student to look at collegeconfidential.com, collegeprowler.com, and unigo.com to get the students’ point of view, although, what other students post is not the gospel. Nothing replaces her being there and looking around herself.

About half of the schools I have had the pleasure of visiting (nine and counting) will show you a fake dorm room, usually completely decorated by our friends at Bed Bath & Beyond. Some schools have the student guides share their own small abode with you. This will give you a better idea of how an actual college student lives and the opportunity to ask an actual resident specific questions about what it is like to live there, the cleanliness of the bathrooms, the reliability of the air conditioning (if you are lucky), etc.

Talk to students you see on campus, most of the time they will be very friendly and happy to help. Talk to other people taking your tour. I usually stalk other potential students with my daughter’s major and ask where else they are applying, just so we leave no stone unturned. It’s an opportunity to give and receive valuable information, and people are generally quite receptive.

When visiting a school be sure to ask about the commuter population. I have known students who have been excited about their first year away, only to be left in a dorm, empty on weekends because all the locals go home.

Being able to eliminate a school or move one to the top of the list can be very important. Not only can your student save money by not applying to a school, but deciding if and where to apply early decision, which is binding, can help her to prioritize her selected schools. Students who apply early usually have an advantage. Also, most colleges ask the applicant to submit an essay describing why they have decided to apply to the school. These essays are much easier to write, having seen the school and learned more about it during a visit.

Know your student. Many teens are not ready to make an educated, adult decision like the selection of a college. Some do all the research and evaluate schools in a rational manner. Others judge schools by their proximity to the best shopping venues or how one student is dressed. Most high schoolers can use guidance and input when weighing all the important factors.

Deciding where to apply and if one should apply early, while trying to calculate one’s chances of being accepted, is a daunting and bewildering task. If your student is able to travel to most of the schools on her list, she has an advantage. Your student cannot control the school’s decision-making process, but to some extent, visiting and marketing herself to the schools she determines may best match her needs can put her in the driver’s seat.

Of course, showing interest in and visiting a school is a plus, but it will never get a student admitted with unsatisfactory grades, standardized test scores or lack of extra-curricular activities — so, as always, it’s important kids hit the books!

Risa C. Doherty is an attorney, freelance writer and mother raising a high-school senior.

Copyright 2010 by Risa C. Doherty