Making the most of college visits
May 4, 2019 2:35 PM   Subscribe

My son is starting his Junior year in high school next year. What do kids do when they visit colleges? When I did it, I was looking for how I felt about living there (UC Santa Cruz, if you're curious.) Now that I am possibly paying for this adventure, shopping for "feel" seems horribly fuzzy and imprecise.

When you went shopping for schools with your kid (or when you were the guest of honor), what were the important questions you asked? What helped you make a decision on where to go? What do you wish you asked?

We would like to take him to look at colleges over the summer. He thinks he would like to study something related to math and science.

How should we make the best of college visits? We are in Northern California.
posted by dfm500 to Education (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Go when spring or fall term class is in session if you possibly can. The main quad / plaza at a rush, the chatter at one of the big cafes, etc., can impart a huge amount of feel for the place. You can't get that on vacations or during summer term.

Take an organized prospective student tour - at some colleges the fact that you have a (recorded) visit is positive for admissions, and there will be a lot of compact information you'd have trouble getting elsewhere.

If he's thinking about a UC or a flagship public university in another state, make sure he sits in a big lower-division lecture; that's a core part of the academic experience of schools like that which high school doesn't prepare you to imagine accurately -- and if it's not for him, this is a good time to find out.

If he's thinking about a school with a non-traditional or very particular pedagogical approach, that's worth sitting in on more classes if you are permitted.

There isn't much on tours really to flesh out the academic opportunity beyond the above, but the extracurricular opportunity set is one that you can often explore more. If he's a talented athlete but not being recruited, he might be able to meet the club coach. If he's a musician, the band/orchestra leader, etc. Set that up in advance -- you're a lot more likely to get those meetings at schools which aren't highly academically selective, as the coach whatever won't think it's likely to be a waste of time. (The Stanford orchestra director probably doesn't take meetings with high school students wanting to talk about opportunities for violists, given 3% of violists who apply are admitted...)
posted by MattD at 2:46 PM on May 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

I just went through this with my kid, and honestly I don’t think you can tell much. It is a significant admissions factor for a lot of schools, so you kind of need to do it anyway, but I don’t think there’s much you can get out of it beyond a sort of holistic sense of the physical setting of the campus.
posted by LizardBreath at 3:12 PM on May 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

As a faculty member, I encourage you to ask multiple people (not just the 21 year old leading your tour) about class sizes, adjunct, temporary, and graduate student % of teaching, and opportunities for students to be in smaller classes.
It is my estimation that most parents have no idea about this stuff and envision universities as being like they were in the '70s, '80s, or '90s. They just straight up are not.
posted by k8t at 3:30 PM on May 4, 2019 [13 favorites]

Definitely only visit when school is in session - no summer, spring, winter or fall breaks. You really want to see the students on campus. See how friendly they are to one another and to tour groups (and even your tour guide).

Ask about graduation rate in 4 years and about how many transfer out after a year or two. Ask how easy it is to get the classes you need and want in order to graduate on time (a big issue on many campuses these days). Ask if online classes are offered if this may be something you are interested in.

Ask how many students remain on campus after freshman year if it is important for you or your student to stay on campus more than one year. Some schools practically no one will live on campus after the first year, other campuses have all levels still living on campus. If you aren't into on campus living, ask about the off campus options because it can be very limited in some places.

I am on my last of 7 straight years of having a college student, so these are recent observations.
posted by maxg94 at 4:04 PM on May 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

With some planning, your son can arrange a meeting with a faculty member in a department he is interested in, such as math or engineering. My son did this at a university he was considering, and the fascinating conversation he had with the professor was the thing that clinched his choice. I think feedback from the professor to the admissions people may have prompted a scholarship offer.

They talked about research in delivering drugs via patients' arteries using permeable, dissolving glass nanospheres, something the professor was working on for the treatment of conditions like liver tumors. The professor was in ceramic/glass engineering and my son was able to follow right along with this fascinating idea. This was not the specific program my son was interested in - he was simply the professor in the College of Engineering who was available for a prospective student discussion. Yes, this was undergraduate. The creativity the professor showed, and his willingness to have a real conversation with a mere highschooler was striking, and impressed us both. This was probably an outlier professor, but asking to speak to a faculty member will tell you a lot about the attitude of the professors toward undergrads, which can be dismissive.
posted by citygirl at 4:26 PM on May 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

It's been two decades, but I've spent most of my time around academic campuses and still work on one. For me, the most useful thing I got out of campus visits was wrapping my head around what schools of different sizes felt like. I knew how many kids were in my high school, and beyond that, trying to ballpark what a bigger or smaller place would feel like was near impossible for 16 year old me. I knew I wanted something bigger than my high school, but how much bigger? And what was too big? My mom recently reminded me that we went to one school that was around 2x the size of my high school, and I was completely creeped out by the fact that we pulled up to the admissions office and there was a white board welcoming me, and only me, by name. She had to twist my arm to even get me to get out of the car and give it a fair shake, but my gut instinct ended up being correct - that was TOO DAMN SMALL, so I did not apply there.
posted by deludingmyself at 4:31 PM on May 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

And to tag onto that: if I were planning a trip for a high schooler now, I'd try to start by hitting up nearby schools (perhaps more informally) to see if that informed any thoughts on what too big / too small means for this particular kid, because we drove pretty out of the way to nix that particular option.
posted by deludingmyself at 4:35 PM on May 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

One of my kids goes to school in Boston and is an orientation leader. Basically, they're charming and very well-trained salespeople who will say almost anything to sell the school. They don't say things like Dunster House is getting renovated with rooms decorated by Dior, but they may imply that housing is getting renovated a lot sooner than 2035.

It really is about getting a feel for the school, the classes for your interest areas, life on campus, stuff like that. All schools will tell you how your advisor will help, how you can take tons of amazing classes with world-renowned professors, how the housing is top-notch, the classes small and the campus is safe and wholesome.

It really comes down to how the school feels to your kid.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:56 PM on May 4, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'd invest a few hours in a college counselor- one that isn't particularly attached to any schools or any group of schools.

They talk to your kid. They know all the colleges in the US. They'll be able to narrow down a list to 5-6 that your kid will likely be able to get into AND like AND maybe even get paid to attend.

I think they're worth what you pay because your kid is more likely to get scholarships and less likely to drop out.

Also, as a northern Californian, I didn't know how damn many schools there are on the east coast that have stupid amounts of money to throw at someone who's a good fit, and it's not all about great grades or SAT scores. I grew up mostly only knowing about UC and maybe Yale or something. The west just doesn't have the number of small, well-endowed private schools. It just doesn't have the number of schools in general.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:31 PM on May 4, 2019

Someone said the most important factor in the prospective student's opinion of a school is the weather on the day of the visit. So yes, the typical visit is not very informative.

Have your son prepared to ask questions. There are lots of hot issues about social behavior (sexual misbehavior) and free speech on campuses right now. Other good questions are about required courses, choosing a major, strong points of a college, opportunities to play in a band or being involved in theater or whatever.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:58 PM on May 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Before you even start visiting, you need to either have him sit down with his high school college counselor, with a college counselor you hire, or with you and narrow down his choices using the Fiske Guide to Colleges and Universities, Colleges That Change Lives, and university websites. Stay away from US News and World Report's list. Look at programs, core curricula, location, size, student activities, and living options (a lot of schools have "living-learning dorms that put kids with similar interests together; it's pretty cool).

Don't forget that state schools are usually just as good or better than many private universities and they're less expensive.
posted by cooker girl at 6:13 PM on May 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

There's a lot of great advice above. I definitely agree that it's important to talk to current or recently graduated students. Ask the student worker at the library what they think of the school and how hard it is to sign up for the classes you need. Buy some cookies from the students selling food for their volunteer club near the Student Union and ask them what their major is and what they think of the program. Ask your cousin's best friend's son (that just graduated 2 years ago) how they feel the school prepared them for the "real world". Individual people may give very different answers but hopefully if you ask enough people you may get a better idea of the college beyond what U.S. News or the college administration tells you.
posted by mundo at 6:15 PM on May 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Definitely agree with cooker girl. Take the U.S. News ranking with a grain of salt.

If I could redo college, I would go to the excellent, less expensive, more real world preparing Cal State University nearby rather than the UC school I attended.
posted by mundo at 6:20 PM on May 4, 2019

When I visited schools, I found the opportunities to stay overnight on campus with students in a real dorm to be extremely helpful because it helped me see what students actually did/cared about - at one school my host was headed to a volleyball game, at another everyone was busy with homework but available for late night campus exploring, at a third there was a lot more theater/dance/etc going on, at a fourth there was clearly a very drinking-centric culture. Overnight stays usually aren’t available until senior year/post-admission decisions, but if you have a limited budget of time and money for visits I would save some for that and do more general size/feel visits junior year. Prior to that my parents took me to one big state school, one ivy, my “dream school”, and I had spent a bunch of time on campus at a mid-sized private university, which covered the spectrum of schools I was interested in as a STEM major. A bunch of those visits were opportunistic - if we were going to visit friends or family in a college town, my parents took me to see the nearby university.
posted by asphericalcow at 6:32 PM on May 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

And yet... your evaluation of ‘can I live here,’ while fuzzy and imprecise, is a fucking fine metric!

I say this as a multigenerational academic/professor with residential experience at all manner of university institutions, from small liberal arts colleges to big state schools to ubiquitously known super-famous international research universities. And the first university I attended as an undergrad was not a place where I could live.
posted by u2604ab at 6:32 PM on May 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

Another aspect of college visiting that I found useful was how long it took to get back and forth. There was one college in particular I was pretty interested in until I made that drive and felt like I never wanted to do that again. I know it's not something most people consider, but for me it was my first time on a long road trip like that and it made something that was kind of abstract before become very real. (Relatedly, my mom made me do the navigating on these trips (using paper maps) which on looking back I realize that was an extremely good skill to learn and a good time & place to learn it)
posted by bleep at 6:33 PM on May 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Now that I am possibly paying for this adventure, shopping for "feel" seems horribly fuzzy and imprecise.

Can I gently push back on this a little bit?

You're in California, and any UC or CSU will have the resources he needs to do fine in something related to math and science. Him actually doing fine will be in no small part a matter of vague, squishy emotional fit, of how happy he is being anonymous at a big UC or being part of a small department at, say, Humboldt, how happy he is to see LA around him or the Sierras from his dorm window (or whatever), etc etc etc.

(applies to non-UC/CSU schools too)
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:14 PM on May 4, 2019 [10 favorites]

When I visited schools, I found the opportunities to stay overnight on campus with students in a real dorm to be extremely helpful because it helped me see what students actually did/cared about - at one school my host was headed to a volleyball game, at another everyone was busy with homework but available for late night campus exploring, at a third there was a lot more theater/dance/etc going on, at a fourth there was clearly a very drinking-centric culture.

Bahaha I forgot about this but I scratched another lefty liberal arts school after getting lectured about veganism by multiple people in a two hour window, not finding anyone to talk to about the science programs, and then waking up to my extremely high host banging some dude at 2am. And while I know that might not sound like a ringing endorsement of sending your precious kid off to college sleepovers it totally is because that was 100% not my bag at age 17 but it was super useful to check it out in a setting with a defined, 12 hours later end time.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:23 PM on May 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

I don’t know how it works in California but I’m North Carolina the UNC system schools theoretically don’t try to compete with each other on a certain department. For example UNC Chapel Hill has the second best school of public health in the country- other UNC system schools aren’t trying to compete with that BUT UNC Greensboro does have a fantastic health education program. Obviously all schools with have bio/chem/lit/language/whatever but it might be good to figure out if a school has a specialty, even if they don’t have the highest overall ranking.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:48 PM on May 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Don't forget that there is a lot of data already publicly available online for most U.S. colleges and universities e.g., College Navigator, College Scorecard, the Common Data Set information hosted by most institutions, the other information available from institution's Institutional Research units (they're the ones who produce, collect, and share nearly all of the information the previous sources use). Those data sources are limited but they're a great start and they may help you ask more focused questions. At a minimum, they can provide answers to some of your questions so you can keep those expensive campus visits focused and productive.
posted by ElKevbo at 8:30 PM on May 4, 2019

I'm pretty pessimistic about school visits. The best thing they can give you is uncensored access to the student body, if you escape your handlers for a few hours and talk to normal students.

At the school I ended up attending, I went to the main library, introduced myself as a prospective student, and asked if they could print me a day pass so that I could look at the compact shelving in the basement. (It's unclear how much I needed the story about the compact shelving.) On my way to and from the basement, I introduced myself to a few study groups as a prospective student and asked if I could ask them some questions.

Note also that tours can be pretty high-variance. I once came across a tour guide who had just started in about how our main quad was closed to automobile traffic when someone drove a car over the curb. The tour guide started yelling at the driver, in front of the prospective students, only to be told, "I'm picking up the chair of the math department. He's a double amputee." I'm pretty sure some prospective students went home thinking, "If these are the people nice enough to lead tours..."
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:11 PM on May 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I feel like there's not much else you can get from a college visit aside from feelings and instinct. (Definitely do not go during summer: all you'll see is other lanyarded high school students attending various cash-cow camps getting a prestige boost from being on campus)

What clinched my school choice (granted this was on a visit for admitted students)? I saw a girl from my home youth orchestra heading to orchestra practice and she invited me along. It felt nice. The buildings weren't too large or intimidating.

I had no idea that if I had become a poli sci major as one of my friends did, that the department offers very little direction, community, or career help, whereas the department I stumbled into provided all of that in spades.

Maybe that hints at questions you can ask current students: Do you feel like you have enough support in making academic / career decisions? Where do you get such support? (what grapevines are available to students who look roughly like your kid?) How do you find out about classes / professors?

I visited another school and decided it was not for me when the tour guide showed us her tiny hovel of a dorm room and I sat in a class and felt "geez this is incredibly basic". However, it was also cloudy and cold that day, so maybe that's why I didn't have a good visit.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:36 PM on May 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you are near a college, which he doesn’t want to attend, book a tour as a “throwaway” to see how they go. I work at a college and did this with my oldest so that when we visited places she was interested in, she would know what campus tours don’t show you or talk about (because we had discussed it afterwards).
posted by wenestvedt at 4:09 AM on May 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

As someone who works at a university, I think the official tours are pretty useless. They're always going to focus on making everything look perfect. I agree with all the suggestions that he talk with actual students who aren't leading the tour.

After your son has cut the list down to his top 3-5 choices, I'd highly recommend that he do an overnight stay in a dorm (during the semester, when students are around, & assuming it's a residential college). I think you get a much better sense of student/life community that way. Go to a few classes during the day: do people participate? Does it seem like they have actually prepared for the class & are engaged in learning? Eat in the dining hall: can you see yourself eating this food for the next 4 years? It's 8pm on Thursday: what are people doing? Is the library full of people studying? Are people at play practice or choir rehearsal? Does it seem like everyone you see is getting started on the pre-weekend partying? Are they hanging out and talking with people in the dorm lounge? Are people willing to talk to you or are they cold & unwelcoming?
posted by belladonna at 6:51 AM on May 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Bit of an unconventional answer from me, but I had to visit a college campus I hadn't been to to take an exam for an online course I was doing at another college (long story).

I wound up really impressed and that school is sort of top-of-mind if I wind up doing grad school or something because the experience was so nice. And it wasn't an official visit, just a "I need to use the testing center." So here's some things I would think about, t'were it me going to school on campus. Lots of these are quality of life things for me.

Campus size: Does it feel right? Obviously if you went to a small school and you're going to a state flagship, there's going to be some culture adjustment, but are you comfortable walking around that much? If it's a big campus, are you going to get a bike to get around or a car or is there a shuttle? When does the shuttle run and do those hours match with the kinds of hours you want to keep? Does it feel safe to walk around at night?

What is the parking situation? If they're going to bring a car, can they actually find parking? Because I have been to schools where they give away way more passes than they have spots and every day is a knife fight for spots and it's the kind of thing that grates on you. This is doubly important if it's a big sports school and the stadium/facilities are near the academic buildings.

The town itself: Is it a college town where everything orients around students and student activities (and is that okay with you?) or is it a town where the students are just part of the landscape? Like is it expected you'll go to The Big Football Game and everything shuts down for it or does no one care? (And is that cool with you?). Where do you see yourself hanging out and going for fun off-campus? And if there's not off-campus options, are you comfortable with that? There's a ton of variation between "a tiny college in the sticks" and, like, UCLA.

Go ask for help from the staff about various things. It's great to meet the professors and everything but you're going to be doing a lot of interacting with sort of the low-level receptionists and people working in the Registrar's Office and that kind of thing. One thing that really impressed me about the campus I visited was how friendly and helpful people were when I needed directions or had to ask them something. Again, a small but important quality of life thing.

Check out the facilities and buildings for the programs and extra-curriculars you'd be interested in. You can tell a lot about how a department is doing just going through the buildings and classrooms. There's a difference between "charmingly run-down" and "alarmingly run-down" in terms of funding, and that can lead to things like "not many sections of important classes" or "overstuffed classes taught by adjuncts and TAs because we don't have money."

Get away from the tour group and talk to the students. I seriously came away from my campus visit like "Wow, what a nice place to be, everyone was so chill and friendly". And I was just "a dude showing up to take a test," they had no reason to try and sell me. So I'd feel good about going there.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:38 AM on May 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

...but the one I chose made me feel really welcome.

When we were doing this with our kids a few years ago there were definitely schools where we felt like they really wanted our kids there, and there were schools that just wanted to fill up the freshman class and any of the kids that made the cut and got accepted were fine. There is a lot to be said for going where you feel wanted.
posted by COD at 8:07 AM on May 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

These are excellent, Thank you for answering!

We will start the discussions soon, and your insights will be very helpful!
posted by dfm500 at 12:19 PM on May 5, 2019

COD: There is a lot to be said for going where you feel wanted.

Much of the higher ed "product" is available at many schools, and so finding the school for your student can be largely determined by how happy they think they will be there. (Of course, some schools are true standouts for a particular sport or science or superstar professor -- but for the folks in the middle of the herd, studying English Lit. or Accounting or whatever, you have many good choices.)

In this way, college selection is a lot like interviewing for a job: the "cultural fit" is key. And a lot of that boils down to the student believing that they will be happy. Some students want to be among people who seem like them, while others want a diverse student body; some want to be in the heart of a city while others want a separate campus; and some want a huge student body to meet new people while others prefer a small community where they can really build relationships.

The tour gives you a better chance to see this for yourself then relying on campus web sites or the College Confidential message boards. But even better, talk to someone who's gone there, like an alum or their parents (who may have some objectivity about how their child felt during & after their experience). Our neighbors had two of their three sons go to a small school, two states away from us, and their recommendation was important in us even learning about the place -- and now my daughter is finishing her Sophomore year there, and loves it. After we started asking around town, we got a lot of positive feedback about the school...but we hadn't really heard about it before that, so we're really grateful that our neighbors let us know.

Last, take a deep breath, and see what shreds of perspective you can retain. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 6:30 AM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Nthing that the official tours are useless. I work at a school and routinely hear our tour guides saying things that are misleading at best and sometimes actually factually incorrect. Both the parents and the kids on tours look bored (and cold and/or wet), it's a lot of walking, and you don't actually get to DO anything.

I've often dreamed of a better method: find a way to have your kid spend that time shadowing another actual student, someone as 'like' your kid as possible but in college already. Have your kid go for three days and actually attend classes, go to dinner at the dining hall, see what kinds of clubs are on offer. The school I work at has a million options for extracurricular activities and thousands of subcultures (some toxic, some delightful--frat houses vs Haitian club vs crew team vs model UN vs beekeeping club etc etc), there is definitely something for everyone. And the classes are amazing and have incredible faculty and teaching assistants. Likewise, it's too big and too diverse for many students. But there is just no way to know any of that on a tour.

I loved the bucolic beauty of the small school I went to, until I realized the drama at such a small school was insane and I'd be taking classes with the same four professors over and over again. It took me two semesters to realize that and then transfer; I am pretty sure I could have figured that out in a weekend visit a lot faster.

This is something the school will not want, for liability reasons, but it may be possible if you know someone whose kid is willing to oblige -- a college friend of yours or someone through an alumni network? And if not, whatever you can do to get your kid access to the 'real' life of the school and not the PR pitch will be more worth the money and more informative.
posted by epanalepsis at 8:18 AM on May 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

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