When should you start visiting colleges?

I’m prepared to get some push back on this post. But read it all the way through because I’m not crazy. I want students to submit the strongest applications for admission they can. I also want families to approach the college admission process informed and on the same page. And that starts with visiting colleges as sophomores.

I know you are thinking, my child has no idea where they even want to go or what they want to study. How can we possibly start looking at colleges? That’s a perfect reason. Go see what’s out there. Check out a small private, a large state school and what’s in between. Learn about costs, scholarship opportunities, admission requirements and majors. Some will feel too big, some will feel too small, but like Goldilocks–some will feel just right. Don’t rule anything out based on tuition until you hear about their scholarships and what percentage of students receive them.

More importantly, starting sophomore year gives your student time to bring up grades, add coursework and improve test scores. The majority of students will submit applications in the fall of their senior year, typically by November 1 deadlines. Their transcript will show all of their grades through the end of junior year. Nothing is worse then visiting your dream school the fall of your senior year to hear that you are missing a class they require for admission, or that your grade point average is fair below their middle 50% (colleges will publish the range of where the middle of their applicant pool scored–25% will have scored less, 25% will have scored more, but being in this middle 50% is typically an indication you should apply). What if they want to see activities related to your academic interest and you have none. You’ve got time to fix all of the above.

To get started, visit a college website, click on admissions, and then visit (might be called visit opportunities, visit days, visiting), and look for open houses or information sessions. These programs typically include a campus tour (do the optional residence hall tour as well so you can see some living options) and a presentation by the admission staff. The presentation will include general information about the college or university, majors, academic programs of interest–for instance a small liberal arts college might talk about its liberal arts core curriculum. There should be information on the admissions and financial aid process including deadlines, high school coursework recommended, if they require test scores, and how to apply (school application, common application, coalition application). They should include information about campus life and most importantly how they prepare you for your life after college.

Then come back as a family and discuss what you heard and saw. Get past who had the biggest residence hall rooms or Chick-fil-a in the student center. Did you like what you heard about career preparation, support services, academic majors? Did you see students who looked like you? Will you be comfortable there? Do faculty teach undergrads or is it mostly graduate assistants? Does it sound like their financial aid or costs line up with what you can afford?

Then as a junior return for a more personalized visit to campus. Depending on the school and their visit policies this may include a one on one meeting with an admissions counselor. They will look at test scores, transcripts, high school involvement and help counsel you on whether or not to apply. They can also suggest areas to improve to strengthen your application. They may have a program for juniors that include student panels or faculty talks. Check their website or call their office to learn more.

Senior year might require an additional visit for a formal interview if that is required for admission. Once you are admitted, you want to take a test drive. Some colleges may let you spend the day shadowing a student with similar interests to you–attending class, eating lunch in a cafeteria, meeting with faculty. Some offer overnight programs where you stay with a student host and spend the day going to all their classes and activities. It helps you discover if the college will be the right fit for you. It also demonstrates your interest in the college. If admission decisions or scholarship decisions are made by a committee, they can see you have been to campus multiple times.

Building a relationship with your admission counselor can be helpful at some schools. When they know you, they can advocate on your behalf as appropriate. Smaller schools will often have their admissions staff call, email, text you–answer and ask questions. They are there to help you figure out if their school is right for you. The better they know you the better they can connect you to opportunities on the campus.

If you are applying to colleges that are not where you live, sign up to receive information from the school. They may offer virtual programs you can attend or a regional event in your area or a nearby city. They may offer alumni interviews. There may be online chats with students or the admissions staff. Read the emails they send you so you don’t miss out on these opportunities.

If you would like advice on how to research colleges, what should you bring on visit, what questions should you ask, and how to prepare for your interviews, Coffman Consulting can help. We provide hourly consulting for specific situations like these as well as more long term contracts to meet a variety of needs. Being prepared can make a visit go smoothly and help you learn what you need to be admissible.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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