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5May2014

Deeper College Visits

by Originally Published in Hindustan Times Education Supplement

As summer approaches many families are planning to visit college campuses abroad. Whether you are touring a foreign country and visiting every campus where you hope to apply, or you are just stopping by a nearby campus while on a family holiday, you are one of the lucky few with a unique opportunity, so be sure to make the most of it.

The standard advice includes tips about planning ahead by checking the college website and making sure you can attend an info session and campus tour on the day you are visiting. Also sit in front, listen carefully and do not ask questions that are easily answered on the college website or marketing brochures. Vistit a dining hall, check the dorm/hostel bathrooms, and transportation options.

But the most overused word in college admissions is ‘fit’ – that is, making sure you are the right fit for a college and communicating it to the admissions committee. While ‘fit’ is a nebulous concept, here are some ways you can gauge a college’s culture and discover whether it is the right fit:

1. Check out campus media – newspapers, radio, magazines, bulletin boards etc. will give you a diverse view of campus life. While its important stay on top of a college’s web and social media presence, most online materials are approved through the marketing department and present a sanitized picture. Student-run publications will give you a more balanced view so find as much authentic material and opinions as possible to get an idea of what really happens at the college.

2. Schedule a meeting with faculty in the department of your intended major. You can find the professor’s email address on the department webpage or schedule throught the department secretary. This type of meeting can help you understand the faculty’s approach to your interests and give you a sense of the way instructors engage with students in the department. If possible, sit in on a class before the meeting so that you can refer to the lecture topics. You needn’t show a mastery of the material, just be able to speak intelligently about what you found interesting.  In this meeting you will also have the opportunity to ask questions about academic requirements and course offerings, class sizes and options for adding minor subjects or joint programs. Finally, ask the professor if he or she can put you in touch with a current student from the department so that you can learn more about the student experience.

3. Meet with the admissions office. If you are meeting with faculty, then schedule the admissions office visit after the faculty visit so that you can show the admissions representative the degree of knowledge you already have as well as demonstrate your initiative to find out more on your own.

4. Attend the meeting of a student group that interests you. You may not be majoring in music, but if you are an avid guitarist you might like to know what other recreational musicians are doing on campus. Find out when and where they meet, contact the student leader for information. You can also find out about student groups and clubs by contacting one of your seniors from school who is now attending the college. They are usually more than happy to help their juniors experience all that the college has to offer. Meeting current students gives you a sense of the general academic environment, and the varying levels of academic and extracurricular engagement at the college.

As you do all of the above, collect the visiting cards and email addresses of people you meet. Follow up with them and stay in touch when appropriate.

Finding the right college is not an easy task, and unfortunately too many families blindly plonk down significant sums of money for colleges that are sight-unseen. Nobody would do the same for a new house or even a car, yet we do it for education. With so many options from which to choose, and only 6-12 applications, you should know you are submitting yours to the right place.

Once you leave a campus visit you should be able to identify a minimum of three unique qualities about the college. These may be the course of study, the college’s isolation from, or integration with, the local community, the origin of the student body, the caliber of faculty, the weather or the winning sports team. Whatever it is, it must matter to you so that you can weigh it against other colleges to find the perfect fit.

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