The College Visit: One Family's Story
The college visit can be an exciting experience for the prospective student and the parents, but don’t be surprised if you both experience a high stress level during the process. Knowing that the visits are emotionally loaded events can help both parents and students feel that their emotions and reactions are normal.
My husband and I have been through the college visitation and selection process with two of our children and are in the midst of it with our third child, a high school junior. As in all things, my three children were different in their approaches to this process. My oldest, Christine, turned her thoughts toward college soon after kindergarten. We began visiting campuses the summer after her seventh-grade year, at her request. That year we visited the North Carolina School of the Arts, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University. Christine wanted to attend all of them! But even though she was too young to ask the questions that a high school student would, the visits were worthwhile. She began to think about whether she should choose a highly specialized school or one with broad and diverse offerings, a school with a large student body or a small one. She got an accurate picture of how competitive the admissions process would be, and she began to understand tthe importance of taking tough courses, participating in community service, and having a passion for some area of interest. After her ninth-grade year, we visited Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Amherst, and Williams. This time she was much more discerning and made note of the size of the libraries, the average size of classes, and faculty access for undergraduates.
Finally, during her junior year, Christine visited the University of Virginia, Davidson, Emory, and Duke once again. We had arranged with the schools for her to stay with host students in the dormitories and to attend as many classes as she could, allowing her to come away with her own, independent impressions.
Christine decided to apply to eight schools, most of which we had visited. After being admitted to all of them, she narrowed the field to Duke and Harvard. Again, she visited each school as part of the prospective students’ weekends. Fortunately, she had won enough scholarships to cover much of the cost of each school, so her choice was not influenced by finances. On the last possible day, she made her decision, marked her postcards, and faxed them in, shedding a few tears for the paths not taken. She decided that Duke would be her future, and she never looked back.
Three years later, my son Paul, then a high school junior, began his official college visits with an overnight stay at Georgia Tech. At the beginning of his senior year, he decided to apply to Georgia Tech, Duke, MIT, the University of Texas at Austin, and Rice University. Having been offered admission to all of them, he reluctantly eliminated Georgia Tech because he was not certain that he would stay in engineering, and he didn’t. Much to our surprise, Paul also chose Duke, where he is now a sophomore.
Based on our experiences, I offer the following suggestions for parents about to embark on college visits with their child:
- Try to make some casual visits before the stress-filled senior year.
- Take the campus tours, but don’t let the occasional ineffective student guide turn you off to a fine school.
- During the junior and senior years, encourage your child to stay overnight with a student host. This will give your child a more accurate picture of the school.
- Attending classes is essential for making a good decision.
- If your child is interviewing for competitive scholarships, send him or her alone.
- Encourage your child not to make the decision solely because of his or her intended major. As many as 80 percent of college students change their majors during their studies.
- Encourage your child to take a good look at the community surrounding the college. Eat at popular student hangouts. Walk around on campus and in town.
- Visit the campus security office and ask to see campus and community crime statistics. Being informed can help your child be safe on and off campus and can bring you peace of mind.
- Encourage your child to ask as many questions as possible of admissions staff and students on campus.
- Visits are time-consuming and expensive but rarely wasted. Your child is constantly forming opinions during every visit.
Remember that within the realm of what is financially feasible, the ultimate choice should belong to the student. Be supportive and assure your child that there is no one correct choice. Much will depend on what he or she invests in the college experience.
We were fortunate to see two of our children make college decisions that were great choices for them, but every child is unique. Our youngest son, Scott, aspires to be a filmmaker—so the adventure is beginning all over again!
Peggy Varnado is an instructor of reading and children’s literature at the University of Southern Mississippi; she conducts creative writing classes as a volunteer in the public schools.