By Judith Hodara, EdD.
Spring break is a great time to visit some of the schools you may be considering applying to in the fall of your senior year. For those of you who may be at the beginning of your college process, it can be helpful to visit a school or two in your local area before spring break to get a sense of what may appeal to you, and what kinds of activities you can participate in while on a campus, sort of as a trial run. While those of you who are a little further along, your spring break can be a great time to visit five or six schools that may be of interest.
Most colleges and universities will post their visitation schedules on their Web site, and this should be the first point of departure for you. Usually schools offer information sessions and a tours several times a day. Depending on the size of the school, it can be helpful to register for these sessions beforehand so that the school can accommodate you and your family. Needless to say, it is great to print out ahead of time all of the information related to your visit, including directions to campus and schedules for campus activities.
The Information Session
A member of a school's admissions department typically leads the information session. The session is a chance for you to get acquainted with the school overall. It generally contains an academic overview, and an opportunity to learn more about the extra- curricular activities as well as the environment of the school. The best part of these sessions can be the student panelists, who will frequently assist the admissions officer by sharing their own experiences with the audience. Remember to get the name and e-mail address of the individual who led the session. You may want to follow up with that person later in the application process, and it's always easier to get an answer if you have a specific name!
A member of the student body typically leads the tours, showcasing campus facilities as well as sharing with you insights about their own experiences. Walking close to the tour guide will give you a great opportunity to ask questions you may have about specific departments or activities. Some families choose to go on two separate tours, which can be a great way to compare notes after you have developed your own set of impressions.
You may want to develop a list of specific questions to as at many of the schools you visit so that at the end of the week you can easily see how the responses from each school compares to one another. For example, you may not want to ask how many volumes are in the library, but you may want to know how many hours a night a typical student would study in the first year, or how stressful/relaxed the academic environment is. You should also plan to carry a notebook around with you to note things that are of particular interest or concern (i.e., dining services on weekends, condition of the first-year dorms, availability of housing in sophomore year, etc).
In addition to the information session and tour, many schools will offer you the chance to sit in on class with a current student. It's a good way to see what the teaching style is like (although keep in mind that this will really vary from class to class and professor to professor!) You may need permission to sit in on the smaller seminar type classes, and you will want to make sure that you do so before showing up!
If you have specific interests (i.e., you're the editor of your high school paper, you are a great soccer player, you would like to get involved in community service or you are actively involved in your synagogue youth group) think about contacting individuals involved in the campus activities related to those interests before you arrive for your visit to set up a chance to speak with them about those particular activities. If the interest extends to into a realm of academia/research, faculty members are generally glad to meet with you as well.
Another great way to build your database of institutional knowledge as well as get a good sense of the general atmosphere of a school is by spending some time in the student union (if such a place exists) and asking current students what they think of their education and other experiences.
If you are looking to get a fuller sense of what a particular campus is like during both class hours and evening hours, try planning an overnight visit. You should plan to stay on a weeknight because, while college weekends can be fun, it is also important to see how the campus feels on a daily basis. You can arrange overnights with people who have graduated from your high school and currently attend the college or university you are considering, or ask the admissions office about their overnight hosting program. Hillel is also a wonderful resource if you would like to be set-up with a Jewish student or simply experience Shabbat on a campus.
Your day should generally include no more than two schools -- a morning tour, information session and lunch at one campus followed by a second visit in the afternoon. Each visit will provide quite a lot of information to take in and you will want to give yourself enough time to digest what you have seen and experienced. In all likelihood you will be visiting some of the schools on your list again to get a second impression and you will want to be able to refer back to a clear set of thoughts from your initial visit!
After the Visit
It is important to keep in touch with an institution after your visit, even if you are not planning on applying. Sending an e-mail or handwritten thank-you notes to a professor you met with, the members of the admissions staff who led your session and your tourguide would be appropriate as follow- up.
The college visit is a great time to learn about the possibilities that are available to you and to begin a discussion with your parents of what kind of school appeals to you. While you begin to build your list of schools this kind of first-hand interaction can really help you to make informed decisions and allow for some great conversations about the exciting four years ahead.
Judith Hodara, EdD. has been an admissions professional at the University of Pennsylvania since 1990. Her passion for working with students and their families has been a motivating factor in her work at the University of Pennsylvania, where she serves as a Senior Associate Director of Admissions for the Wharton School of Business. She also serves as an educational consultant for high school students and their families (www.ivystonegroup.com). Judith can be reached at: Judiths@wharton.upenn.edu for questions and follow-up.