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14 Tips for good college visits

With spring break ahead, many families are planning campus visits with their juniors and sophomores.  Demonstrating your interest to a college by visiting the campus is a good thing, but not the most important reason for the visit.  Rather, you are exploring a place where you may choose to spend four years of your life, and as such the visit is far more for your benefit than for the college’s sake!

With a bit of planning and forethought, you can make the most out of the experience:

  1.  Do not fit too many campuses into a single trip or day.  It makes for an exhausting time and after a few of these ‘drive-by visits,’ every campus will begin to look the same!
  2. While it is a lovely idea to jump in the car and make a spontaneous visit to a campus, organizing your trip can help you maximize the moment: downloads maps, locate admission offices and parking garages, confirm tour schedules and register for information sessions, sign up if informational interviews are offered, check out class schedules, and see whether there are student performances you wish to attend. Prior preparation makes for more productive visits!
  3. Prepare for the trip in other ways too. Don’t forget to learn about the college itself – its interesting history, unique programs, and residential arrangements, for example. This will allow you to identify what you don’t know and should learn during your visit.
  4. Take notes.  This will help jog your memory later as you reflect on your visits, and come in handy when you are completing that college’s Supplement to the Common Application where you are asked to explain your interest.
  5. Get the name of the person responsible for applications from your city or country.  Admission offices may not always advertise this information, but they will give it if you ask! Geographic assignments can change over the summer, but having an individual’s name is helpful later when you have questions or minor crises about the application, or you simply wish to send a short note of thanks or of introduction.
  6. Register at the admission office when you arrive.  Some schools do indeed track ‘demonstrated interest,’ but even when they do not, being on a mailing list means that you will be invited to admission events offered in your city.
  7. Make your visit an academic experience.  College is not primarily about fitness facilities and dining halls – trust me, your good time at college will probably not depend on the quality of these! Colleges are about libraries, laboratories and lectures, so check these out by attending a class or even by emailing a faculty member whose work interests you, to meet and learn about it.
  8. Listen to ‘official’ presentations with an enthusiastic but critical ear.  These paint the most appealing picture, but there are other possibilities and you need to listen for them. I always suggested to my own children that they identify those words that are the stock in trade of every admissions person (passion, engagement, research, advising, community, etc.), and then differentiate them from those that are specific to one college (curriculum, residential colleges, cooperative experiences, etc.).  These are what matters most.
  9. Listen to the questions and conversations of fellow visitors. You may learn concepts (retention rates, yield, academic standing) that you did not know to ask about yourself beforehand.
  10. Parents, listen with an open mind to your child’s opinions. Parents are driven wild by children who step foot onto a campus and instantly decide they hate the place. But your students may be responding to something significant even if they are not good about articulating their concerns or fears.
  11. Students, listen with an open mind to your parents’ opinions! I often sympathized with blushing teenagers when parents monopolized conversations, asked inappropriate questions and boasted about their exceptional child to scare off the competition! But consider the wise words of Mark Twain: “When I was 16 my father was the most ignorant man in the world.  By the time I was 21, I was amazed at how much he had learned.”
  12. Resist the temptation to hang onto each other like life rafts during your visit, and spend time apart.   Going on separate tours, for example, will allow each side to develop its own perspective.  There is much to be said for giving teenagers the chance to interact with prospective classmates, and for giving parents a moment of respite in the coffeehouse!
  13. Enjoy yourself.  For many families, college visits will be one of the last times to explore together before separate lives and college obligations make family trips a thing of the past.  Enjoy it while you can and begin to build your future relationship as equal adults.
  14. Bring quarters for parking meters and leave extra time to find a parking space.  Of the many things colleges share, inadequate parking space may be the most common and aggravating!

 

 

From junior year to college admissions

For the last few months high school juniors stood by as seniors wrestled with college applications, stressed about choices, and finally, exhaled as they picked their colleges.  Now the focus shifts and it is their turn to get ready for the wild ride towards college.  Given how early the application process happens in the academic year and the inevitable strains of that first quarter of senior year, juniors need to use the coming months wisely as they lay down the foundation for their application.

Let’s consider the different elements of that application process and the things that those of you who are juniors ought to be thinking about:

  • Transcripts: admission officers at selective schools point out the unavoidable fact that your transcripts ARE the single most important element in their assessment.  If you are applying early, your junior grades may be the last ones they see before making their decisions. Even if there are no senior grades available, they can see your senior curriculum, and this too is crucial in weighing your academic heft.
  • Scores and letters of recommendation: admission officers also weigh your academic profile by looking at your standardized test results and by the quality of letters of recommendation, and you cannot wait until 12th grade to grapple with these. At some larger schools, for example, some of the most popular teachers begin to turn away requests for letters of recommendation well before the summer. There are also few test dates available early in the senior year for you to complete the required roster of tests, much less leave time for the almost inevitable retake.
  • List of activities: while most of us quite rightly abhor talk of “resume building” when referring to high school students, the activities list is obviously a very significant part of your college application.  Admission officers ask themselves what it is you will contribute to campus life. This summer will be your last chance to answer that question. It is a good idea to draw up a comprehensive list of your high school activities outside of the classroom, in order to assess both the cohesive “story” that your application will tell about yourself as well as the potential holes in your self-presentation.
  • Summer before senior year: the summer college trip has become something of an American tradition, and for good reason.  Not only does the wonderful range of possibilities make such exploration useful and necessary, but for many colleges these visits have also become a significant way to gauge “demonstrated interest.”  As more kids apply to more colleges, those institutions are finding it ever harder to accurately pinpoint their yield (the number of students who will accept their offers of admission). Your knowledge of a school and appreciation for what it has to offer can encourage a college to read your application with a more benevolent eye.   Growing numbers of high school students will also attend summer camps on college campuses, to learn more about the college experience, about life at a particular college, or about the range of academic options that await them.  As Dean Karen Sibley of Summer at Brown, one of the largest such programs for high school students in the country, points out, the liberating summer experience “validates the student’s ability to be far from home, intensely academically challenged and able to function independently in very new surroundings.”
    • Writing the college essay: For many of you SAT testing seems the most exhausting part of applying to college, but writing the personal essay causes the biggest anxiety. There is little reason to wait too long before jumping into the writing process.  It will give you time to consider essay topics, but also leave space for rewriting and editing before the full onslaught of the senior year.  Reflecting on her own experiences this year, one senior, who will be attending an Ivy university in the Fall, encourages juniors to “start doing something concrete regarding college essays and supplements by May!  Summer is actually too short  – it’s only eight weeks.”

    The Common Application will be available for students by August 1 (and its preview is already available online). The Common Application organization has already reported that the essay topics on the application will remain the same, though the length requirements will be adjusted. For high school juniors, this is the equivalent of a long-distance runner coming into the last few hundred meters of the race: a successful end is in sight, but to get there you first you have to throw all your energy and focus into the last lap.

     

     

     

     

    Summer Studies . . .

    Summer vacation is when we take a deep breath after a long year and relish a sense of wellbeing after the strains of the school year. We vegetate mindlessly in the sun and we laze days away in a hammock. But we also catch up on our reading, argue with friends about ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with homework and linger over a volume of poetry that was never required for school. Rather than putting our minds on hold, the summer gives us time to recover a joy in exploring ideas for no better reason than our interest in them.

    This is indeed exactly what high school students need to do with their summers, and one way to do so is by attending a youth program with like-minded peers.

    But in deciding to send a student to one of the many such programs offered in the US and across the world, parents often have far more functional intentions – they hope quite bluntly that attending pre-college at College X, or a few weeks helping the poor in a developing country, or traveling to exotic locales will impress admission officers and increase the student’s chance of admission at College X. Having countless students pursuing summer programs for the same set of reasons has, however, helped to dilute the impact of this strategy. Yet there remain excellent reasons for students to seek out a summer program that excites and intrigues them:

    • the opportunity to explore an academic field – economics, archaeology, computer science – with peers that share that interest
    • to travel to a new city or a far-flung country
    • to meet students from all over the country and even the world, enlarging their perspective
    • to develop their English language skills if that is not their native tongue
    • to expand their sense of service to those far outside their own community
    • to get a taste of college life and remind them of the adventure ahead
    • to leave home and begin to develop an empowering sense of independence and self-sufficiency

    Will any of this have any impact on their college applications? Definitely. But the impact will in fact be far more intriguing than many parents anticipate. Pre-college programs are offered either by for-profit organizations or as a money-generating venture by a unit within a college that is completely separate from the admission office of that institution. Doing such a program at College X therefore does not in itself improve a student’s chances of admission at that college. But that does not mean that admission officers will not notice that a student attended. Instead they will notice:

    • because it suggests that a student is actually interested enough in the college to spend time there – a form of “demonstrated interest” that colleges have to care about as they fret about their admissions yield
    • that the student has enough intellectual engagement with a subject to spend time on it
    • that the student has the social and emotional maturity to spend time away from home
    • that an international student has sufficient English skills to cope at an American college

    Colleges will of course take note of the academic and social growth that attending such a program can generate. But the value of a summer program extends far beyond a college application. Instead, the student will have spent a week or more of their summer having fun, making new friends and talking about new ideas, while expanding the horizons of their world and of themselves.

    For an overview of summer programs, please download the Summer Programs PDF on our Resources page.