8 Things to Do Before Your College Visit

on April 14, 2017

At this time of year, you’ll find a great deal of advice about how to make the most of a college visit.


But the key to ensuring a successful campus visit should happen many weeks before the trip begins.


Before planning a road trip or booking airline tickets, make sure that the colleges on your itinerary are worth visiting and don’t represent a huge waste of time and money.


To boost your chances of experiencing a worthwhile college trip, here are eight things you can do in advance:


1. Avoid Colleges Where Admission Odds are Terrible


Visit colleges where you have a legitimate admission chance. The good news is that the vast majority of colleges and universities accept most of their applicants.


In contrast, institutions like the Ivy League members, Stanford and MIT require near perfection from their applicants. It might be fun to walk around the Harvard Square and imagine being a student there someday, but if the odds are nil don’t bother.


You’ll want to compare your SAT/ACT scores, unweighted grade point average and class rank with the most recent freshmen class.


You shouldn’t assume that receiving marketing literature from elite universities mean that they are interested in you. Highly rated colleges and universities want to keep their rejection rates high so many of them work hard at attracting applicants that they can ultimately spurn.


2. Don’t Visit Until You Know the Price


During college visits, you’ll often hear staffers urge teenagers to apply with promises of bountiful financial aid and scholarships. Admission representatives will sometimes brag about the percentage of undergraduates at their campus who receive assistance. Another common practice is to mention the range of awards from a few thousand dollars to a full-ride.


Rather than rely on generalities, however, you need to use net price calculators for any colleges on your potential itinerary to make sure you visit campuses that you can afford.


A net price calculator will provide you with a personalized estimate of what a college will cost after potential scholarships and grants are factored in. A good calculator will require you to input financial information from the tax returns of the parents and the teenager, as well as the child’s academic statistics such as grade point average and test scores.


Federal law mandates that colleges must post their net price calculators on their websites, but it often can be easier to use Google to find them. You can also use the U.S. Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator Center to find college net price calculators.


3. Look at Secondary Scholarships


Many families don’t understand that colleges and universities often offer a wide variety of supplemental scholarships for accepted students majoring in certain academic disciplines, as well as talents and backgrounds. It’s unlikely that a net price calculator will pick these up.


When researching these scholarships, Cappex can help you with its in-depth database of scholarships offered by the colleges themselves. On the Cappex website, use the search box under the heading, Merit Aid Scholarships Offered by Colleges to see what scholarships are available at individual institutions.


When visiting a campus, be sure to inquire about the likelihood of qualifying for these in-house scholarships that you spotted on Cappex.


4. Read Campus Newspapers


Colleges spend tremendous energy and marketing dollars creating their brand and protecting it. Consequently, it can be difficult to cut through an institution’s carefully cultivated image to determine what a college is really like. That’s why reading campus newspapers online can be so valuable. 


With First Amendment protection, campus reporters and columnists can cover topics such as overcrowded classrooms, unresponsive administrators, poor race relations, freedom-of-speech intolerance, binge drinking and sexual assaults that you would never hear about from college admission officers.


5. Check Out Academic Departments


Don’t be mesmerized by a university’s brand name. A campus isn’t uniformly excellent, average or meh. Within one college, the quality of academic departments can very significantly.


The economic department at a university, for instance, could be excellent with accessible professors, small class sizes, opportunities for undergraduate research and internships that have created a pipeline for jobs for graduates. On the other hand, the biology department could be weak with poor facilities, classes confined largely to lecture halls and indifferent professors.


That’s why it’s important for you to do advance research on the academic department(s) that interests you. You can start with reading everything you can on the website of the relevant academic department. Before a visit, try talking with students (preferably upper classmen) about their experience in that academic discipline. If you decide to make the trip, book an appointment with a professor in the department.


6. Cost of Living


Students who go away for college often will live in a dormitory for just one year. Universities often aren’t equipped to house many undergraduates after freshman year. Consequently, it’s important to assess how much it would cost to live in expensive areas that could dwarf the price of tuition.


The tuition at San Francisco State University for residents, for instance, is just $6,484, but renting an apartment in the Bay Area is outrageously expensive. According to one report, the median monthly price for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $4,560. You might need to get a roommate or two or three to afford the cost.


7. Check Graduation Rates


Parents typically assume that their children will graduate from college in four years. It usually doesn’t happen.


The four-year graduation rate at public universities, according to federal statistics is 34 percent and at private institutions it is 53 percent. (The six-year Bachelor’s degree attainment rate increases to 58 percent at public universities and 65% for private universities.) At the California State University campuses, which represents the nation’s largest college system, only 19 percent graduate in four years.


Before committing to visit a college, check its graduation rates. And don’t just look at the overall rate. You should examine the grad rate by gender, as well as by race and ethnicity.


You can obtain all these figures by heading over the College Completion, a microsite of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Another valuable site for graduation rates is College Results Online, which is a service of the Education Trust. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator web site also includes college graduation rate information.


8. Contact Admission Reps


Many colleges and universities that evaluate applicants holistically want teenagers to demonstrate that they are actually interested in their institutions. Doing so can boost their admission chances.


One way to indicate your interest is to contact an institution’s admission representative for your state or area before a road trip. Not only will reaching out show your interest in the institution, but it can also make your trip to a campus more meaningful. The rep could help connect you to students or professors to talk with and arrange visits to a department or offices on the campus that would be relevant to you.


You can easily find the right rep by visiting the admission section of a college’s website.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on Amazon.com.

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