A parent of a senior asked me the other day about college visits. When is the best time to visit?
The answer is, “from whose perspective?”
There are two different reasons for visiting college. The first is the student’s need to get an idea of what life would be like on that campus. Students often have a gut reaction to a campus, and that instinct can determine whether a student will feel comfortable there for the next four years.
From the student’s perspective, then, the best time to visit a campus is when it is alive with students: classes are in session, the varsity teams are practicing and playing, the student center is a hub of activity, professors can be found in their offices, the fraternities are rocking, and the library is full of eager students working on their assignments (or not). A college or university is not just a set of buildings, facilities, and landscaping. A school is a community of people. So think more about visiting a college community, rather than visiting a college campus.
[By way of comparison, would you ever choose a doctor by visiting her office on a Sunday? Would you select a lawyer just because he had a nice office?]
So from the student’s perspective, the answer to our question is clear. From the perspective of the admissions office, however, you have a bit more leeway. Colleges don’t care as much about when you visit as they do about the fact of your visit. All they want is to know that you paid them the compliment of making a visit.
Everyone prefers to make friends with people who like them back. Likewise, it’s difficult to extend the hand of friendship to someone you’ve never met. Colleges prefer to accept people with whom they’ve had an opportunity to get acquainted.
Think of it a bit like Internet dating. Would you invite someone to come live with you for the next four years if you had seen only his or her Faceook page? Sometimes a couple of people do build a nice online relationship, so strong that it seems that it’s a match made in heaven. But when they finally meet when one shows up with all his earthly belongings on the doorstep of the other, both may look at the other and exclaim, “who the heck are you and what are you doing here?”
College is a two-way commitment. Students make a commitment to pay tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars, to move to a new place, attend classes regularly, and participate in and contribute to the life of a brand-new community. By the same token, the college is making a commitment to welcome you to their community, offer you services, educate you, nurture you, guide you—all in the hope you will make a significant contribution to the life of their community.
Furthermore, they would strongly prefer that you not make a mistake in choosing the wrong college. Colleges need to report their retention statistics to the federal government. They’d rather not that you left after freshman year because you suddenly realized you didn’t fit in. They’d rather feel confident that you will graduate in four (or maybe six) years, so that they can report high degree completion rates. They want you to be happy, so that you’ll go back to your hometown and tell your friends and neighbors how thrilled you are with your college choice. They want you to graduate, get a great job, and forever be a positive reflection of the community that nurtured you in your youth. And, of course, they’d really like it if you left so happy that you wrote regular checks to the Alumni Fund.
College visits are vital, both for you and for the college. You both need the opportunity to scope out one another.
So to return to our question, when should you visit? Again, from the point of view of the admissions office, the timing of your visit is less important than the fact of your visit. So if for some reason you cannot visit when the campus is alive, then visit whenever you can. Even if you visit as a high school freshman or sophomore, admissions offices will count that as a courtesy call.
[Tactically, you want to visit at a time when you can leave a paper trail. You want to be able to visit the admissions office while it is open and fill out that all-important visit card. Colleges keep track of that information in their massive databases. If you show up on a Sunday when everything is closed, you lose the benefit of leaving your calling card—to demonstrate to the admissions office that you really do care enough to drop by for a spell.]
As a college counselor and student advocate, I strongly advise my clients to visit when classes are in session, when they may have the best opportunity to get an idea of the community of people that will become their new family. They can meet students, chat with faculty, attend a few classes, spend a night in a dorm, perhaps work out with a team or take in a drama production or student recital. A visit during the school year is much more informative than a visit during the summer.
But if a visit during the school year is not possible, then go whenever you and your family are able. A summertime visit can still give you a good idea of the setting—the town, the campus, the facilities, the dormitories. You may have to use your imagination a bit, but at least you made the effort to get acquainted. And the admissions officers will appreciate your demonstration of affection.