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How to Make the Most of College Visits: For Students and Parents

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jun 12, 2013 9:09:00 AM

It was two summers ago. My daughter Eliana and I are driving across the Tappan Zee Bridge, running late for our college visit info session at Amherst when traffic stops. “Eliana, what do you have on your iPod?”

“I made us a play list.” She plugs it into the dashboard. We roll down the windows and start singing...

So rock me momma like a wagon wheel
Rock me momma any way you feel
Hey momma rock me
Rock me momma like the wind and the rain
Rock me momma like a south bound train
Hey momma rock me

At some point the traffic started moving again. We sang the whole way through Connecticut and western Massachusetts, arriving at Amherst early, our first college visit in a 21-day junket that included planes, trains and automobiles, six states, a bunch of bland hotels, plus the delightfully decadent Hotel Zaza in Houston.

Eliana created 21 Days of Summer to give herself a sense of control across the dizzying cavern that is the summer after junior year, the summer that the college admissions process gets real for most families. I offer the 2013 version of 21 Days of Summer to you--updated this year by Story2 Student Ambassador Sammi Greene (Lehigh ‘16)--with the same advice I gave Eliana on that trip: “You can dread this process, or you can use it to explore who you want to be in college and in life.”

Students, here are three more tips for college visits:

Get past the surface: What you feel when you walk onto a campus is just a feeling. Emotions are capricious; they come from things that are unreliable like the weather or the tour guide’s accent. Ask questions that get past the obvious, and really listen to what people say when they are off script.What courses and programs does the school offer? What are the rituals that bind the community together?

Take notes: After each college visit, write down a few things that you noticed--not what you felt but what you saw and heard. There’s no right or wrong, and you don’t have to show anyone, but be specific. In the fall these notes will help you answer the “Why I Want to Attend this College” essays and stand out from the crowd. My notes after visiting Mt. Holyoke in the summer of 1975 said, “My mom loves this place. I’m not so sure. Milk and chocolate chip cookies.”

Follow up: Take a business card from each person you talk to (the tour guide, the admissions counselor who runs the info session, anyone who shows you a special program), and write thank you notes--an email is fine; a handwritten note will set you apart from 99% of the students who dash through each summer.  

Parents, your job is to drive safely and remain neutral. Ask questions that encourage your children to figure things out for themselves. Let your child make the play list, and remember to sing out loud!

Topics:college admission

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