It probably seems like two weeks since your kid was in diapers, and now you’re already thinking about college. Whether they have their heart set on one dream school or a list for days, they’re going to need your help. We consulted the experts to help make this next stage in your kid’s education go as smoothly as possible.
You have to narrow down your search
If your child is interested in a large number of schools, it’s probably impossible for you to visit each one — especially if they’re in different states. Luckily, most schools offer a virtual tour, meaning you can trim your list from the comfort of your home. The big question to ask your kid at this stage is: What type of school are they interested in? Small or big? State or private? Liberal arts or tech/trade?
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to select three to five schools to visit — ones you’re very serious about and have done your homework on — around six months before you plan to go.
There’s a good time (and a not-so-good time) to visit
The best time to visit a campus is during application time, in the fall of senior year when classes are in session, Dr. Randi Brown, a New York-based school psychologist and neuropsychologist, tells SheKnows. After all, going in the summer only gives you a chance to see the campus layout and facilities, not what the school is like when it comes to life. For obvious reasons, try to avoid reading or exam weeks, winter break or holidays. While it’s fine to visit schools on weekends while they’re in session, going on a regular-old “school day” gives the most authentic picture of what college/campus life is like. The perfect scenario? Visit for a long weekend to give you a sense of the school’s vibe on various days of the week.
Brown recommends visiting all prospective schools within a short amount of time rather than spacing visits out, which may be too disruptive to current high school classes. Plus, knocking them out at once frees up most of your child’s high school year to focus on their actual schoolwork — and having fun!
It’s wise to let your child take control (but you be the note-taker)
When you make your visit appointment, you’ll be given instructions (either over the phone or by email). Keep them in a safe place, and follow them! Most visits start in the admissions office, and this is when you should take a back seat. This is about your child, so let them do the talking. However, it’s a good idea to take notes, particularly when it comes to minor details your child might not think to ask about (or might not think are important). For example, what are campus safety precautions and are they apparent?
The more notes (and photographs) you take on campus, the better. Your child will need as much help as possible later on when they have to make their big decision. “Try to record not only what you do and who you talked to, but also your child’s thoughts and feelings about spending the next four years on the campus,” Benjamin Caldarelli, co-founder of Princeton College Consulting, tells SheKnows. “Photo and journal-style notes will help you think through multiple visits.”
“This is primarily a four-year investment of time and money,” Brown adds. “It’s worth gaining as much information as possible to make an informed decision.”
There are so many opportunities to learn about the school
Whenever you visit, make sure you plan in advance — at least one month to avoid the stress of last-minute scrambling. Visit the school’s admissions page to schedule your tour online, and keep your eyes peeled for special prospective student days that offer extended tours, dorm visits and even the opportunity to attend classes. Urge your child to “choose a class in [their] intended major, arrive early…and try to schedule a brief conference [with the professor] during their office hours,” advises Caldarelli. “And don’t be discouraged if they tell you they have nothing to do with admissions. Think of it as part of building your relationship with the college.”
Don’t forget: Some schools recommend an interview with an admissions counselor, which is something else to find out about and schedule ahead of time. Even if it’s optional (and the school might refer to it as “informational” rather than “evaluative,” Caldarelli reveals), kids shouldn’t miss this opportunity. “It’s a great chance to show you’ve done your homework researching the college [and have] reflected on what you like about it compared to other colleges and how you see yourself contributing to campus life,” he explains.
Make sure you visit the campus center, says Brown. Usually the hub on campus, this is the place students go between classes to relax, get something to eat and catch up with friends. Your child “can get a general sense of what campus life might be like by spending a little time there,” she said. “And if someone seems approachable, take the chance to ask for their opinion on what life on campus is like. Think of things you’d want to know about living on campus, being a student, and maybe what they know now that they wished they knew before.” So you might ask questions like: What happens at weekends? Are the dorms well kept? Do they feel safe? This is a good time to ask yourself some questions too: Do students seem stressed or preoccupied with their work? Overall, do you feel a good vibe?
“Students get ideas of what a school is like based on what the school itself puts out there,” Brown says. “Every school will claim to have just what you’re looking for. While that’s nice, I’d say ask the consumer, i.e. the enrolled students. It’s the equivalent of looking up reviews online for a particular site, professional or experience.”
If the school has an overnight stay program, this is another chance for your child to have candid conversations with students outside the admissions office, Caldarelli says. Plus, if they have a full day on campus, they can eat in the cafeteria, stroll around on their own, and check out any clubs or activities they might like to be part of.
It’s worth the effort to keep the conversation going
Finally, keep the conversation with the school going, even if your child hasn’t made their mind up yet. Caldarelli recommends collecting the names and emails of everyone you meet on campus, such as the students who gave you the guided tour and the professor whose class you sat in on. At the very least, they deserve a thoughtful thank-you note. And at the same time, you can ask them if it’s ok to contact them in the future with further questions — because you’re bound to have some.