My parents didn’t take me to visit any colleges when I was a teenager. I’m sure they would have, if I’d asked, but neither of them attended college, so it never occurred to my mom and dad that they should have a look-see at the place their first-born would spend her post-high school years.
In those pre-Internet days I did what research I could on my own, and I landed at a fine liberal arts university 45 minutes away from home. While there, I learned to write a decent newspaper story and met my best friend. But if I were issued a do-over, I’d spread my college net much wider.
Happily, I’ve been given something better: two daughters, the eldest of whom is a high school senior with good grades and test scores, and plenty of interests and talents. This encourages me—until I ask her what she wants to do with the rest of her life. “I’m only 16 years old,” she says. “How should I know?”
Besides, “one can’t know what one wants until one sees it,” Beth Kissileff wisely wrote in a recent New York Times column about shopping for colleges.
“I love to browse physical stores,” Kisseleff explained. “When a book catches my eye, I peruse the table of contents…this, I then realize, is what I must read next. The book wouldn’t have occurred to me until I saw it. When I am in a store, I can pick up an object, try on a piece of clothing to check the color, the feel of the fabric, and most importantly the fit.”
When Mary Kwiatkowski, a Virginia Tech freshman who graduated from Albemarle High School last spring, was touring colleges, she sought “that feeling,” a sense of belonging. “It was an atmosphere thing,” she said, something you won’t find unless you visit a school. While on campuses, Kwiatkowski asked herself, “Could I live here? Will I fit in?” Because even if a school is right for you academically, “if you don’t feel like you belong, and you hate living there,” you won’t be happy. Or successful.
Gigi Davis, a career counselor in the guidance office at Charlottesville High School, agrees, which is why she thinks college visits are so necessary—and the more schools you see, the more you’ll realize how many “great options are out there,” she said. A double-’Hoo, Davis is obviously a fan of the University of Virginia, but she frequently reminds her students that UVA “is not the only game in town. Well, actually it is,” she said with a laugh, and then quickly added that Virginia Tech has a very strong engineering school; JMU’s computer science program is top-notch; and “if you have a clear sense that art is what you want, VCU is a great school.”
Davis advises her students to speak with many people when they take a campus tour. The admissions person and your student tour guide are “always going to be very enthusiastic, so it’s important to reach out to other people. Try to talk to a person or two or three in your [academic] area of interest. Reach out to people you know who have attended that school.” Signs posted on classroom doors at CHS let students know where the adult inside went to college, so “they can come talk to us,” Davis said.
Since my own daughter has no idea what she wants to study in college, I decided the least her father and I could do was help her find where she wants to study. Like Mary Kwiatkowski, my girl is after what one parent called “that ineffable moment when, through some alchemy of atmosphere, setting, or vibe” her gut tells her she’s found the place where she wants to live and learn. So we hit the road, and tried on seven campuses in four days to see how they fit. Here’s what we learned:
Information sessions are overrated. When you visit most colleges, you’ll attend an hour-long information session, followed by a student-led campus tour. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll already know many of the facts and figures the admissions person throws out—and then much of it will be repeated on the campus tour. Median SAT and ACT scores, as well as financial aid and scholarship information, are available on schools’ websites. The Department of Education has something called a FAFSA4caster, an online tool that estimates your eligibility for federal student aid.
Student tour guides are terrific.
They’re smart and funny, and they share loads of vital information and interesting anecdotes— all while walking backwards so they can see their audience. At William & Mary, our guide stopped in front of a bronze Thomas Jefferson statue that UVA gave to the college in 1992. He told us that TJ, a W&M alum, borrowed $24,000 from his alma mater in the 1800s to start the University of Virginia —and never paid it back. At the statue’s dedication, then-UVA president John Casteen said he hoped the gift would wipe the slate clean. A request was also made to have Jefferson face his true home: Charlottesville. Not only does the statue face away from C’ville, but some crafty William & Mary students figured out that the author of the Declaration of Independence looks directly into the ladies room in one of the dorms. “So you might call him the original Peeping Tom,” our tour guide said.
As CHS’s Davis said, questions are crucial—especially of students who are enrolled in the university you’re visiting. They’re the ones who will tell you how big the freshman seminars are, and if classes are taught by professors or teaching assistants. They know if professors are easily accessible, even during non-office hours. Ask the students if they like their classes, why they decided to attend this college, what their major is, and if there are research opportunities for undergrads. What about internships? When do you have to declare a major? What happens if you change your major? Do they feel connected to the town where the university is located? What do they do when they’re not attending class or studying?
It’s their path, not yours.
My daughter’s guidance counselor (and her father) reminds me of this all the time, and it was never more apparent than on our campus visits. I was dazzled at one university when a student told us that her professor recently won a Nobel Prize, which he brought to class so his students could see it and pass it around. Even better “were the people the professor had access to who came to speak to us,” she said. This barely registered with my daughter, who’s still talking about a science building’s wall of whiteboards where students frequently copy homework problems they’re struggling with, only to return later and find that someone else has solved them.
They’ll probably bloom where they’re planted. It’s good to have a first choice, a second choice, a fifth choice, and the all-important “safety school.” That said, several college students I know aren’t currently enrolled in their first (or second) choice.And they couldn’t be happier. Just ask them.