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The college visit: When to go, what to ask, and how to take them during the pandemic

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College Ahead

They may be attracted by a specific sports team or academic program, the setting, or proximity to home. High school students can be drawn to colleges for a multitude of reasons—with the campus visit looming large in determining which institution they ultimately choose to attend.

No other part of the college selection process gives prospective students the real feel of what it’s like to live, study, or hang out at the institutions on their list. Although the coronavirus pandemic has complicated in-person college visits—and in many cases suspended altogether—there’s really no other way for a high school student to decide if they’re genuinely comfortable at the place where they’ll spend the next four years.

 “One of the things I always tell students when they’re on a campus visit is to go find a bench somewhere on campus, sit down by yourself, take in the atmosphere and get a sense of if you feel like this is the right place for you,” said Will Chase, Associate Director of Visitor Services at the College of Charleston. “You can check off if it’s got the academic program you want, if it’s the right size if it has the sports you want. But when you boil it down, being able just to sit and get a feel for it can really help.”

Will Chase, College of Charleston.

Will Chase, Associate Director of Visitor Services at the College of Charleston.

Indeed, finding that bench on the right campus can help prospective students find clarity and comfort in their college decision. However, getting to that point can be overwhelming, thanks in part to platforms like Common App that allow students to apply to dozens of colleges with the press of a button. Organization is critical, both in narrowing down a list of potential colleges and determining what information is needed out of each visit.

 “If a parent or a student hasn’t been through the process yet, they have no idea where to start,” said Lisa Gastaldi, Director of School and College Counseling at Bishop England High School. “So one thing they have to do is plan ahead. They cannot just show up to the colleges and expect someone to take care of them. So planning ahead is always a good thing.”

Lisa Gastaldi,  Bishop England High School

Lisa Gastaldi, Director of School and College counseling at Bishop England High School

Students who look like you

College visits begin as early as the spring of a high school student’s junior year, with students having until May 1 of their senior year to decide—although that deadline may be pushed back this year due to the coronavirus. Campus tours peak in March and April, and it’s vital for prospective students and their families to try and take them when classes are in session.

 “You want to be strategic as to not just the time of year, but down to the day they go on campus. You want to get the most real example of what that institution is going to be like,” Chase said. “So that would be on a normal class day, like on a Tuesday or Wednesday. You’ll be able to see the students walking around, going to class, and really get a sense of what it’s like on an average day on a college campus.”

Take the time to get the most from each visit. “Give yourself at least a half a day at each college,” Gastaldi said. “Usually the way it’s set up is the colleges do an informational session to go over majors and clubs and sports, and that usually lasts an hour. Then they take you on a walking tour, which lasts about an hour. And visits can help you take schools off your list as well as put them on the list—if you go to a school and it just doesn’t feel right, it’s still educational to have done the visit.”

Also, take advantage of proximity—if you’re planning to tour a school in a city like Boston or Washington with multiple colleges, Gastaldi adds, consider visiting more than one. Be aware of any interviews, especially at smaller schools that may require a certain standard of dress. Pick up a campus newspaper, which offers a glimpse at what’s important at each school. Gastaldi also advises talking to students already studying on campus to get more than the admissions department’s sales pitch.

College group diveristy

 “I always tell kids to look around and see if you see kids who look like you,” she added. “Look at posters and things like that—is it your way of thinking, or does it challenge you in any way? Try the food, maybe by eating in a dining hall, and catch a game or something. I always tell kids to try to see a professor in their potential major and see if they’re able and go to a class.”

 Many students choose to wait until they’re accepted at specific schools before going on visits or narrowing their list, and Gastaldi said some would return for a second visit to help pare things down even more. She advises keeping a notebook, so specifics about each visit won’t be forgotten. And colleges today allow prospective students to build visits around their interests, making them more personal experiences.

 “If you’re a student of color and you want to see what the environment is like for students of color on campus, see what resources they have connected with that office,” Chase said. “If you have a disability, connect with the disability office and see what opportunities they have to accommodate your needs. If you have questions about financial aid, hop on over to the financial aid office. If you really want to get a sense of the multicultural experience, come to one of our overnight experiences called MOVE, which stands for Multicultural Overnight Visit Experience. Those are all things you want to consider taking advantage of when you’re on campus.”

 College visits go virtual

 Of course, the presence of the pandemic has temporarily halted activities like overnight visits at many schools. Other institutions are not even allowing tours to enter academic buildings or residence halls. College of Charleston is one of many schools that have used the virtual realm to augment their limited on-campus tours, which resumed Sept. 1.

“We tried as best we could to make the virtual experience unique, and not necessarily trying to replicate what we do on campus online,” Chase said. “So we have things like one-on-one counseling sessions where students can log in and chat with a counselor at a predetermined time. Many of our academic departments were doing information sessions and chats with the deans or with academic leadership where students could ask questions and join in on that discussion.”

Prospective students can access virtual tours through the websites of respective colleges, or through sites such as campustour.com, youvisit.com, and campusreel.com, which offer tours of hundreds of institutions across the country. Individual high schools also have resources to help students gather as much information as possible.

“If you want to do a campus visit, you need to call the college first and find out if they’re on,” Gastaldi said. “Some schools are offering them, and some aren’t. So it’s the responsibility of the kid and the parent to find out if they’re happening.”

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