Posted by Julia Wasson

Dec 9, 2014 8:59:51 AM

Would you purchase a car without taking it for a test drive? Would you buy a home just by looking at a listing, without a fair amount of house hunting and the customary inspections?

While the obvious answer to those questions is “no,” there is a significant difference between college visits and buying a car or house. It’s certainly a good idea to explore some on your own, but simply dropping in on a college campus to just walk around and get a feel for the place isn’t enough. You need a plan.

The following five tips for planning college visits with your student are designed to help your family extract the most from the experience:

1. Start planning college visits during the late fall of your teen’s junior year.
Spring break is a great time for college visits, so it’s best to get a jumpstart on planning in the fall before the spring semester. Early planning also gives you and your student enough time to plan for several college campus stops, evaluate options, and leave room to visit certain colleges after paring down the choices.

2. Schedule college campus tours while classes are in session.
College visits tend to be more enlightening when your teen is able to sit in on a class or two or grab lunch in the dining hall. When classes are in session, it’s also much easier to schedule meetings with admissions staff, meet certain professors, and even schedule an interview. Before arriving for a college visit, have a list of questions prepared about the campus, the freshman curriculum, and the social atmosphere.

3. Plan for your student to sleep overnight at the college.
Dorm life is a brand new experience for many college freshmen, and almost nothing else is going to give your teen a snapshot of campus life better than spending a night in a dorm. Set up a sleepover, complete with a school-selected host to show your child the ropes of residence hall life and answer any questions or concerns she may have. Spending a night in a dorm also gives your student a chance to chat with college freshmen about their experiences at the school.

4. Check out college campus bulletin boards.
Bulletin boards are everywhere on college campuses, from student centers to academic buildings and residence halls. These bulletin boards provide a quick and easy way for your teen to get a glimpse of student activity outside of the typical classroom setting. The bulletin board ads often include supplemental lectures, clubs, entertainment, courses abroad, or volunteering opportunities. You’ll both learn a lot about the school by seeing what gets posted on campus.

5. End college visits with the school your teen hopes for the most.
Ending your college visits with the “dream school” is a good idea, because it allows you and your student to develop points of comparison. By this time, you have also figured out exactly what questions to ask, where to go, with whom to meet, and how to handle the whole experience. And, instead of having a fantasy image of the dream school, your teen (and you) will now have points of comparison for a reality check. Her dream school may turn out to be nothing of the kind.

Planning college visits with your student may seem like an optional part of the college selection process. But without the full-on experience of each individual college campus, you and your teen will lack the firsthand insights that are critical to the college selection process. By taking the time to prepare for college visits, your teen will return home feeling more capable of making a highly informed decision about which schools are likely to be the best fit for him.

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