There are two common types of visits.
"If possible, we encourage students to participate in both a preview day and an individualized tour," Christiansen says. "The open house allows students to look at the breadth of the institution, while individual tours allow them to look at its depth."
In some cases, students know "State U." is THE place to go to school, but during a visit they realize it doesn't fit their needs. Or even worse, they don't make any visit, show up for the fall semester, and then realize they are going to be miserable.
"You can't know what a campus is like until you've seen it for yourself," Christiansen says.
"If you have purple hair and don't see any purple hair in the campus' publications, it's probably because there aren't any people with purple hair on campus. If you want to be where purple hair is accepted, then you need to visit that school and see for yourself if you fit in."
Christiansen, who directed a college fair for 130 universities in the Rocky Mountain area for four years, says it is vital for parents to be involved in the selection process, but he encourages them to remember that ultimately it is their son's or daughter's choice.
"Higher education is a significant investment, and many parents pay some, or all, of the bill. They need to know where their money is going, but final ownership of the decision must fall on the student," he says. "Parents are jeopardizing the success of their son or daughter if they control the investigation."
Typically, parents are very involved early in the selection process. It's much like negotiating a contract, Christiansen says. Parents lay the ground rules -- in-state vs. out-of-state, public vs. private, co-ed vs. single-sex -- and allow the student to pick schools that meet those criteria.
When it's time to visit a campus, it is important to find out about the social scene, but prospective students should be sure to talk with some students about academics, too. Are tests usually standardized or essay? Is there much opportunity for discussion? How many classes are taught by teaching assistants? Do freshmen get much attention from their advisers? What's the process for changing majors? Is help available when needed?
The other must-see: the freshmen residence halls. Keep in mind that most students spend more time in the hall than in the classroom, Christiansen says. Is it clean? Does it smell? What's the visitation policy, the quiet hours? Does it feel safe? Is there security on hand? What time does the front door lock? Talk with a resident assistant and a current resident, if possible.
Christiansen recommends that students start making official campus visits in the 10th grade: "If you start any earlier, there's a chance things might change. Entrance requirements may be altered, majors may be added or dropped, and you may change your mind significantly in three years. Many campuses offer summer camps and programs designed for younger students. These events are ideal for students to check out campuses they think they might be interested in attending.
"The college visit also can be a great family outing. Younger siblings can get a head start on the selection process by being around during the search. If you're headed to the lake for a vacation or going to visit grandma in the next state over, take an afternoon to check out the nearby campus. If you call ahead, admissions offices are almost always willing to set up a visit for your family."
Some things to keep in mind when setting up a visit:
Christiansen urges visitors to arrive a half hour early for their visit. "Ask three different times where to park, how to park (on the street, in a garage, near the building), where the building is, which time zone the university is in, and what time the appointment is," he says.
"If you and your family have invested the time and money to make a college visit, make sure the experience is worth your while. Take advantage of everything while on campus. It may make for a long day, but there's a reason why each office or department is on the agenda. Colleges want to make sure you see as much as you can. Let them give you all they have. It will make your decision a lot easier."
If you absolutely can't make a college visit, or want to narrow your list of possibilities, Christiansen suggests several options:
Source: Doug Christiansen, (765) 494-7014; e-mail, email@example.com
Writer: Jenny Pratt, (765) 496-3133; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, email@example.com
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