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Peeling the College Onion

Students can access lots of college info from the comfort of their own bedrooms. You can read about courses, majors, and activities. You can read student reviews and even take virtual tours. You should do all of the above. But no matter how much time you spend surfing the net for information about a school--and let’s face it, you could spend a long, long time--there comes a moment when you need to make it real. That means visiting the campus. Because until you set foot on campus, you won’t know if a place is truly for you. But don't trust us. Listen to what some students had to say:

Bianca said, "After visiting my dream school, I was highly disappointed. Something about the atmosphere and interacting with the students didn’t satisfy me. But when I visited the college I’m at now, I felt an instant sense of comfort ... I knew this was the campus I had to attend, and I do not regret my decision." Julian said, "In the end, the most important thing for me was getting a feel for the environment. … Some schools are intensely competitive. Others incorporate two extremes, partying hard and studying hard. The college visit will give you a gut feeling as to what is most comfortable for you." According to Gregory, "Looking online and through college catalogs helped me narrow down which institutions matched my academic needs, but I didn’t realize that [my college] was the place I could call home until I stepped foot on campus and stayed overnight with a student." If you can take your student on a college trip early in the process, he can visit a variety of campuses and get a feel for his likes and dislikes. But if you don't visit before he applies, you may find it absolutely necessary to visit one or two campuses once he gets in, so that he can make the most informed choice possible. On your visit, you and your child will certainly want to take the tour and attend the information session. But you can go far beyond those basics by calling ahead to get help planning some or all of the following activities:

  • An interview with an admissions officer

  • Sitting in on a class or two

  • Talking to a professor (or two) in your child's chosen major(s)

  • Talking to a coach in your student's chosen sport

  • Talking to a student or counselor in the career center

  • If at all possible, have your child spend the night in a dorm with a current student. (Check to see if anyone else from her school is attending the place you’re visiting and would be willing to host her.)

Have your student take advantage of some informal ways of peeling the onion, as well, by:

  • Reading the student newspaper and listening to the college radio station

  • Trying to find other student publications—department newsletters, 'alternative' newspapers, literary reviews

  • Eating in the cafeteria

  • Asking a student why he chose this college, what his favorite part about it is, what he dislikes, and how he spends his weekends

  • Eavesdroping on students to hear what they’re talking, or complaining, about

  • Wandering around the campus by herself

  • Spending time in the library

  • Reading the bulletin boards in the student union and in the academic department he's interested in

The campus your child chooses will be his home for the next four years. Making sure it fits his needs is essential.

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