Between my three sons, I have been on a total of 27 college tours ranging from Colorado to Connecticut to Georgia and anywhere in between. Throughout these trips, we learned several helpful things.
1-Tour When School is in Session and Stay on Campus
When possible, it is best to tour during the school year when classes are in session so there are students on campus. It is hard to get an idea of the school when it is empty. If there is a hotel on campus, we try to stay there to get a true feel for the campus. There are usually students walking around campus so you can see what the student body is like. Are they approachable? Does everyone dress up for class? Is the campus filled with skateboarders or people on bicycles? Is everyone racing by looking totally stressed out? Are many students smoking cigarettes? Do students walk in social groups or is everyone alone? There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions – the best fit is where your child feels comfortable.
We were always favorably impressed when a student would stop to ask if we needed directions when we were looking at a map. This is often an indication of the friendliness of the student body. On the flip side, we were not impressed at a very well-known school where everyone raced by us studying a paper map in the raging wind, no one held a door for us, and a student spilled orange juice all over me in the dining hall!
2-Eat on Campus
We always tried to eat on campus – typically breakfast in the Student Union and lunch in a main dining hall. It would be hard to spend 4 years at a school where you hate the food so it is better to find that out on a tour. Colleges have so many options these days that it is hard to imagine the food would be truly terrible on any campus but anything is possible! At my oldest son’s college, the dining hall only serves meals during certain hours and he had band practice during those hours 3 days per week, requiring him to eat a sandwich most nights. We never thought to ask about the hours they served meals when we toured. This would not have been a deal breaker as the school is perfect for him in so many ways but it would have been nice to know beforehand.
3-Schedule an Info Session and Guided Tour
We always schedule both an info session and a guided tour. The info obtained from students is as valuable, if not more so, than the official presentation from admissions. On the guided tour, try to ask the tour guide what students do on weekends, what they do for fun and other such questions to get an idea of student life. There always seems to be that one family on a tour who monopolizes the tour guide with their questions so you may have to be assertive. My favorite tour guide of all was the one who made a point of walking with each family on the tour so she could answer their questions. I am not sure if that was university-driven or her own idea but it was awesome.
A good question to ask is if most of the students go home for the weekend. If all they do is study, your student may be bored silly if they like to socialize, go to sporting events, etc. On the other hand, if the entire campus is one huge party from Thursday to Sunday every week and your child is a serious student, that may not be the best fit either. For the most part, I believe that every school has both partiers and serious students and a student can find the group they prefer. However, it is a good idea to ask.
By the time the second or third school you visit tells you about the blue light emergency system or the flexible dining dollars, you may think you can plan self-guided tours in the future as most of the schools have the same features. There is some truth to this, however, there are fine details that distinguish each school that are helpful to hear. The fact that the library is not open 24/7 or that the dining halls do not serve meals on weekends may be a tipping point for some.
After the tour, I would encourage you and your child to jot down notes while the visit is fresh in your memory. We did this in the car on the way home or back to the hotel. It is easy for first impressions to fade once you are away or on to the next tour. We tried to cover all the bases in our notes including, feel of the campus, appearance of the campus, friendliness of the students, ease of navigation, comfort of dorm rooms, programs of study, availability of music practice rooms (for my oldest son), quality of engineering labs (for my middle son), and quality of the swimming pool and weight room (for my youngest son).
Sometimes a seemingly minor factor will become a deal-breaker. My middle son discovered that he just did not care for divided campuses where he had to take a bus from the main campus to the engineering campus. He preferred the overall feel of the entire university being included in one campus, even if it was very large. It may sound like a ridiculous thing to base a decision on but he ruled out 3 schools for that reason alone. He had so many schools on his list that I was happy for any reason to exclude a few as you can only write so many essays and pay so many application fees!
I would urge you not to rank the schools although it is very tempting. We put them in categories, such as “will apply”, “might apply” or “will not apply” or even “would like it here”, “might like it here”, “would not like it here”, or “need more info”. If your child ranks the schools then is not admitted to their top choice, they may feel like they are settling if they end up elsewhere. Also, the research process does not end after the tour so rankings can easily change. When making a final list of college applications to complete, the notes and categories are helpful to review.
Hopefully you can wait to go on second tours to compare schools after the acceptances come rolling in! This is a big time in your swimmer’s life so do it well and enjoy it.
Michelle Lombana is committed to helping parents like her whose children want to swim in college. When she’s not touring colleges, she can be found at www.collegeswimmingguide.com.