The adventurous college visit

When Josh returned from his six school tour of east coast colleges last spring he enthusiastically told me he had settled on a first choice, Tufts. Middlebury, Haverford, Penn, Boston College and Colby had varying attractive qualities, but at Tufts the students nicely balanced studiousness and sociability. The campus was pretty and there is a renowned international relations program. Things just had a nice feel. I didn’t outwardly question Josh’s choice. I’m sure he’ll be happy at Tufts if he gets in, but I was aware that he had spent only three hours on campus.

Josh had done what so many families do every visitation season when they descend on campuses during spring break and summer. They use the superficial college visit template. Parents and their children often take a student-guided tour, stroll the grounds, try on sweatshirts in the campus bookstore, perhaps eat in the cafeteria, and less commonly, have a pre-arranged interview with an admissions officer. The student tour leader is not only a guide, but becomes a prototype. She usually describes her representative career: how she chose a major, what dorm she lives in, the campus alcohol policy, the intramural sport she plays, and where to get the best pizza. It’s a helpful story, but the striking thing is that it’s the only one visitors usually hear during their visit.

Families visiting colleges and universities often approach the experience like tourists skimming the surface. They are essentially passive, listening to a tour guide, soaking in the atmosphere, generally gazing from the exterior. The key to a rich school visit is to engage. A college campus is a buzzing community, a structured laboratory of young adult life.

My advice to you the high school student is take at least a day and an evening and preferably 24 hours, not just an afternoon, and throw yourself into the vitality. Put away the camera and venture. Parents are welcome to tail along but the adventure is really yours. You need to get them to turn you loose while they go back to the hotel.

A good visit will benefit from some innovative planning. How do you find out if the academic program is for you? Not by reading about programs in a printed guide. Get beyond the public information sources a school produces by hooking up with a professor or two. Since Josh is interested in international relations, he could go to the departmental web page before the visit and pick out a professor who teachers an intriguing course, e-mail the professor, and ask if they can meet when he visits. It’s a bold move, but the fact is that professors usually enjoy talking with prospective students. They appreciate that you sought them out. It’s novel. The day of the visit, have tea, and visit one of their classes.

It’s amazing to me that high school students are willing to commit to four years of butt-busting academic work at a school where they have never sampled a class. Get out the course schedule, pick out that class on African-American literature (because you loved Native Son this year) and at the class location, politely ask the instructor if you can sit in. They not only are likely to say yes, but if it is a small class, might ask you to introduce yourself, opening the way for you to meet students afterward.

To find out about student life, an embarkation point is a campus bulletin board. Scan the flyers for clubs and meetings that interest you. On the day you’re there maybe the Capoeira club has practice, Hillel has a Shabbat meal, and the debate society will contest a controversial proposition on counter-terrorism. Just show up, explain you are a prospective student, observe and maybe participate. This visit could also be pre-arranged. Go to the school website and look for a list of clubs. Often there will be a contact. E-mail the contact, explain your mission and see if they are meeting on the day of your visit.

There is no substitute for hanging out with students, whether in the cafeteria, after a class, or sitting on the grass of the central quad. Admittedly, it can take some uncomfortable assertiveness to strike up a conversation on the library steps, but undergraduates will likely enjoy it. It can be fun for them to serve as emissaries and have a college junior interested in their assessment of the Greek system.

The ultimate way to embed oneself in the life of a school is to shadow a student. Many school admissions offices will set this up. Some schools allow you to spend a day and overnight. You will vicariously experience a full 24 hours of the undergraduate life. Let’s face it, to comprehend the full truth of the Tufts zeitgeist you have to know not only the grading policy for Calculus 100, but also what happens at Delta Kappa Epsilon at two in the morning.

Most students tell me they don’t have the luxury of 24 hours, nor will their parents want to spend time wandering a college town while you explore the campus. In fact, many students say they don’t have the luxury of eight hours. On the standard college tour families pack two or three schools into a weekend, or half a dozen during spring break (when many colleges are also on spring break and therefore virtually shut down). It’s one school a day, a lot of driving and some sightseeing. When visiting Tufts Josh spent considerable time exploring Boston with his parents, which would be fine if it didn’t make them feel like they were cramming in Tufts. I don’t think one should do an immersion experience at several schools, but one or two is possible. And it doesn’t take that much more time to visit a class, sit in a dorm lounge a while, or meet a professor during her office hours.

But making these kinds of visits does require more time. Students often fear missing days back at their high school because their grades might be affected. I understand this, but I encourage them, if needed, to take an extra day or two beyond weekends and spring breaks to make their visits. The irony is that while students are afraid of missing days because it might hurt their chances of getting in to certain colleges, they don’t want to spend extended time at these same colleges.

Many families deal with the problem of missing school days during the year by making college visits during the summer. I discourage such visits. They are the antithesis of what I’m advocating. Schools during the summer are generally hibernating. There are few students to hang out with, limited classes, professors on vacation, the soccer field grass untouched. In summer, one gets the extreme version of the surface glide.

The kind of visit I’m suggesting does require some reprioritizing and a willingness to stretch beyond the comfort zone. Brio is what will serve a student well when he arrives on campus down the road. For an undergraduate at virtually any school, opportunities abound to explore on many levels. The adventurous, enthusiastic and most of all active college visit can set the tone for the first undergraduate days. There is a risk that on some level a student will fall into college, letting it unfold as it will. A first step to really owning an eventual new life at college is to act alive on the visit the year before.

One additional benefit of making this kind of visit is that it can help the student get accepted to a school. A student who has an interview at the end of the visit or back home with an alumni can impress with a story of how she took the initiative to discuss President Hollande with a French professor or have dinner with the Asian-American student alliance. Many schools have an application question that asks why the applicant wants to attend the school. Students who have only consulted a website, read published material and made a superficial visit, often struggle to get beyond a generic answer. A student who has really explored a school can tell a better story. But the benefit of answering that question well isn’t just about getting admitted. It’s about being able to write with conviction for oneself, to know with more confidence that a particular school can be a home. There is no substitute for that awareness. One adventurous day on campus is hardly enough to establish a deep bond but it can be enough to establish the beginning of a vision that extends years ahead.