What I learned on my college campus visits

I was talking with someone this weekend, who told me that his three children did not undertake the traditional ritual of visiting college campuses before they applied but rather applied, got an admissions decision, and then decided to visit the campus as part of the final decision-making process. Now, I get that approach, particularly if a student is living overseas or does not have the time or the funds to see a handful of schools before applying.

Over the past several months, I’ve found our pre-application college visits to be incredibly eye-opening – and I think they’ve given our son some sense of these different campuses and what it’d be like to be on that campus for four years. I can’t imagine going into the application process without the information that we gathered during those various visits. These campuses are not “all the same” and therefore not worth visiting, as this gentleman told me the other day; to me they’re very, very different.

Now, yes, they’re not all that different when it comes to athletic facilities (stunning) and dining halls (with their innumerable choices). I was more interested in what I could pick up about the culture of each admissions office and, therefore, the culture of the college.

For example, on one tour, the admissions officer spent an inordinate amount of time on facts and figures as it relates to the admissions process – such as deadlines for applications – facts and figures that we could get online. It felt like a lecture, and I was reminded of our sour kindergarten orientation when we were told what forms to fill out and when. Contrast that visit with another during which the admissions rep gave an elegant description of the three “campuses” that students inhabit – the college itself, the city that surrounds it, and then a national/international context – all without a PowerPoint deck. It told me a great deal about the school, its beliefs, and its hopes for its students – and I can go look up the application deadline if I need it!

I appreciated the care that went into preparing people (such as the person that spoke about the three campuses) and materials for our visits. On one campus, we sat in an auditorium waiting for the info session to start, and running was a promotional video, its upbeat music soundtrack by various groups from the college.

There were wonderful unspoken moments on these tours too: At one college, in the wing where the office of admissions was situated, there was the college president’s office, right at the very front corner, the first office you saw as you walked in, the door to it wide open. That was a very obvious choice by the college to put that office there, and I loved the symbolism of it being front and center. (An added bonus: Stumptown coffee was served!) In contrast on another campus, our (poorly prepared) tour guide pointed to a window high on a tower and said that’s where the president resides. We squinted up at the window through the sunshine – and then hustled on to the next stop on the tour.

There were few moments of outright honesty and transparency during these visits, as colleges and universities pay a lot of attention to the story that’s told the moment that potential applicants land on campus (even if that story falls flat, as it did with our facts and figures lecture). Perhaps my favorite moment from one of our first tours was the care and attention that we got from a member of the college’s music department, outside the control of the admissions office. He’d just finished teaching, it was a hot and humid Southern afternoon, and he was sweating through his blue blazer, mopping at his brow. But that did not stop him as he excitedly walked us around the music building, up and down stairs, even interrupting a student’s lesson to intro us to the professor giving it. This music department tour guide was a wonderful mess – and it told me a lot about that department and how things might work at the larger college and the city surrounding it. Luckily, there were more unscripted moments like this during other campus tours.

The college application process can be stress-filled for high school students and their families, but the college visit part of that process is not at all, in my opinion. Each visit is like an archaeological dig, unearthing information about the college or university with each utterance from a student guide, with each dorm room selected to see, with each slide from the PP deck used for the info session. For me, these visits were a great kick off for the rest of process; they told me a lot about what turned out to be very, very different places.

I got the first pic from here. I got the second one here.

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