February 6, 2010

College visits: some good, bad, and ugly ideas

Valerie Strauss's blog entry yesterday discusses the standard advice for high school students' visiting colleges and then provides links to the College Board and ACT college-visiting pages (which are surprisingly slim). Again, Strauss is speaking directly to parents -- "Be sure to contact the school in advance... If you child can sit in..." -- which has good programmatic advice and horrid parenting advice.  The high school student should be doing the contacting, maybe, if it's her or his college experience at question? But aside from that quibble, here's my take as a parent of a high school student waiting for admissions decisions:

Good: Strauss's advice for students who can't travel long distances to visit local colleges like the ones they're interested in in some way, to get a sense of what it would be like to attend a metropolitan university, a private liberal-arts college, a public regional state university, etc. That way, questions students have can be focused on the issues most likely to be relevant for a type of institution.

Good: Strauss's advice to visit classes. Wrong: her assertion that it's  "probably best [to leave that] for schools at the top of the desired list." As a parent and citizen, I think high school students should see what it's like to be in a college class as often as possible, especially in discussion classes that are never going to be on iTunes. My not-so-hidden agenda in pushing that with my daughter was to make sure that by the time she went to college, she'd know she belonged. 

Good: Strauss's advice to read student publications, and the College Board's advice to scan campus bulletin boards. I'd expand that: during tours of dorms and classroom/office buildings, look to see what's taped, plastered, and otherwise attached to the walls. 

Good: the College Board's advice to browse in the college bookstore. My daughter was interested to see if the general-books sections had her favorite authors. I wanted to know what was on the shelves for classes.

Good: Strauss's point that visits when classes are out of session or students are preparing for or taking exams is ... uh, not so wise. She takes for granted that the only way that you can visit colleges without taking an unexcused absence is during spring break. Not true! Many school districts will assign excused absences for college visits, and my local district will let students take up to three days per school year as official school business for college visits.

Good: eat in the dining halls. Caveat: this is assuming a residential college or university. But it's definitely a good idea, and many admissions offices will let one parent and the student eat lunch without paying (one reason why you head to the admissions office first).

Bad -- in fact, pretty horrible: The College Board's advice to "Try to see a dorm that you didn't see on the tour." This is a fine way to get arrested or warned off campus by the campus police or security. Dorms should not be accessible to strangers, such as high school students or their parents. Of course, if you try to get into a dorm that's not on the tour and no one stops you, that tells you something about the place, too, but I suspect you can find that out simply by observing whether the tour guide has to unlock a dorm entrance.

Not mentioned by anyone: how to ask questions of current students. The ACT page has several suggested questions, but there's something very important to keep in mind, both in asking questions of campus tour guides and other students: you can ask about the college in general, about the student's experience, and about the students' friends and classmates. Campus tour guides are trained to talk about the campus in general, but if you're a high school student, you need to know about real experiences. Best suggestion: ask about the experiences of friends and classmates. That's a healthy compromise between the generic "students here" and the privacy-invading "so tell me why you're really about to transfer at the end of the term." 

Not mentioned by anyone: if you've been accepted to a place and you don't think you can travel to visit it, ask the admissions office to put you (the high school student) in touch with a few current students who are willing to talk to you about the college. If you're interested in specific majors, ask for people majoring in those  (or related) subjects. See if it's possible to use Skype rather than a cell phone because if it's a Skype video call, you might get the benefit of talking not only with the current student but also with whoever's in the dorm room at the time. And here is where visiting a similar type of college locally can help you figure out the crucial questions to ask.

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Posted in Higher education on February 6, 2010 5:20 PM |