Summer College Visits: What Questions Should We Ask? What Should We Notice?

The whole family is going on a two-week college tour to the East Coast in July! It’s all very exciting and it seems like a good idea as my kids (I have twins) get ready to apply to schools. However, I’m struggling to understand what they are going to “figure out” by walking around the campuses. (Most of the places we plan to visit aren’t allowing visitors into the buildings.) I’m a little nervous all the schools will blend together in a great mass of green quads and old stone buildings and that we’ll fly back to California no clearer on college choices than when we left.

Yet, over and over I read on CC that students knew that a school was for them the moment they walked onto the campus. For those who have toured before, can you say what helps some kids know: “this is the one”? What made magic happen?

And if love at first sight doesn’t emerge, what should we be looking for when we tour? What key questions might help my kids understand the differences between schools?

I would love to hear the go-to questions you had for tours as well as what helped you sort through all the qualitative data you got. Did you have checklists? Take tons of photos? Keep running video journals of responses? Basically, please please share your secrets for making good use of college visits.

For those who are curious or might have specific tips for particular schools, we are visiting (listed by the day):

  • Tufts & Brandeis
  • Wheaton & Brown
  • Clark U & Conn Coll
  • Mt. Holyoke & Amherst
  • Bowdoin
    For this first set of nine colleges, we are staying in Boston as our hub and driving out and back each day. Coming from California, everything on the East Coast seems so close and doable. (I realize I might be wrong.) Then we drive down I-95 (stopping in on Yale) and establish DC as our next hub.
    The second set:
  • Yale
  • Swarthmore
  • Georgetown & American
  • Dickinson & Gettysburg
  • Johns Hopkins & Goucher

Thank you so much for any suggestions or feedback you might have.

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Wonderful question! I’m bookmarking this one!

Have a great trip.

I’ll start by saying that you are going to have too much driving in here to be happy if you plan to “home” to Boston every night. This is designed to be a blur. The distances are short enough to get from one place to another in a day but maybe such that you won’t be excited about driving back… I’d strongly recommend staying overnight closer to your first school each day. That also will give you a chance to see the area of each which will also make them more memorable.

Tour guides usually have pretty good patter and will give you answers to most basic questions without asking and create good opportunities for follow-on questions. Some of our favorites were:

  1. What are the classes that are super popular/hard to get into? (This answers a couple of questions, including class availability, who gets priority, etc. Answers were also surprising, from Yiddish literature to creative writing to geology.)
  2. How did you meet your closest friends here? This may give you a glimpse into the social scene. Teams, freshman dorms, orientation trips, clubs – this can provide some insight into the social scene. Add to this…What is a typical weekend like?
  3. What have been your favorite experiences here?
  4. If there was one thing you wished the school did differently, what would it be?

Of course, if you have specific questions about core curriculum, research opportunities, study abroad, etc, ask. I know families that made brief recordings of their impressions and others that took notes. We found info sessions to be largely redundant in terms of basic info but they filled in some holes and offered a second perspective to the tour guide’s.

If your kids are rising seniors, summer is a great time to interview. But you definitely need to stick to a schedule for that to happen.

As for “this is my place”…, I think students need to be on campus and classes in session for that to happen. But many campuses do have a number of students there over the summer and that can give a feel.

Lastly, based on your list, I would try to see Bates - looks like it would fit. (I usually suggest that if you are going to Maine that you check out “all three” because they are definitely overlaps but Colby is just too far.)

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17 schools in two weeks is a lot! Distances may be short but traffic will be heavy.

D also asked the “what would you change” question of students when visiting. She also asked why the student picked the school.

Most other questions centered around her major and activities.

What she looked for when touring -
did students look happy? Were students smiling and working together? Or, were people looking stressed out ? Did students cluster in groups in the library and dining, or was everyone alone?

After each visit, D wrote down her impressions and a pros and cons list.

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I am not sure summer visits are as useful since students are mostly not there. We did the usual tours and info sessions but liked to hang out in the dining hall, library, bookstore and on the green to soak up the vibe. Not possible now.

You will be able to see the location, the campus, and hear from tour guide and admissions’ info session, but it will be hard to get the student vibe. Still, the trip might be useful in terms of hearing about curriculum, EC’s and so on.

Conn College and Brown could be on the way to Yale. Are you seeing Clark on the way out to Amherst and Mt. Holyoke?

Glad to see Clark and Goucher on there. I believe both are on the Colleges that Change Lives website.

Tufts, Conn College, Amherst and Bowdoin are “little Ivies.”

Any way to get this list down? Size, location, academics, vibe?

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Might skip in person if campuses are still closed. Georgetown and Johns Hopkins are still closed for in person tours. They may open up as conditions have improved greatly.
Georgetown is allowing some students for summer courses.

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Yes, as I wrote, the usual explorations are not possible right now- both because it is summer and in many cases because of COVID.

Check out the area/town around campus - several schools came off D20’s list after seeing the area just off campus. This was more important than seeing a dorm room to her. Also look into curriculum for requirements and majors, special programs, etc. Some of the core requirements were very clear, others a little less so (Conn College). That is a lot of driving in cities that are not easy to get around (Boston, DC) and a lot of schools. I do think you can get some good ideas on what they like and dislike.

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Fingers crossed for good weather during your trip!

Been down this road three times and we found that ‘sunny day’ schools were almost always favored over ‘cold’ or ‘rainy day’ schools. Made no sense to me, but I’m just a dad.

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We did a one week tour through PA with D and saw 7 schools in 5 days and honestly, it was just too much. The pressure of staying on schedule plus trying to get a feel for each area was a LOT. Plus, the days we needed to hit one in the morning and one in the afternoon were too rushed. I think some schools were penalized simply because we were hangry. You need to schedule time to sightsee or relax because this list is just stressful.

There is also a really big range in the schools - a women’s college (but only 1 when there are 3 on your route), size range from 8,000 to under 2,000, urban areas/small towns/rural (the entire town of Bowdoin has a population that is half the size of undergraduate enrollment at Tufts). I think you would do yourself a big favor if you really think about what you are looking for and cut the list down. (We started by looking at schools close to home just to get an idea for size and setting and built a list around those characteristics when deciding where to visit when we hit the road). I know you are “shopping” for 2 kids but maybe limit each kid to picking 5, if there is no overlap. Understand that visits will be more productive when students are on campus and you may likely need to return at some point to interview or investigate front runners more thoroughly.

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I recommend this resource a lot on CC. Take a look at the website Daytripper University - very helpful information on many of these colleges with a lists of things to do, see, ideas for snacks, meals and hotels.

Agree with others that the back and forth to Boston seems rough and staying at hotels around your route allows for a bit more exploration of each area.

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It’s certainly not true for either of my kids that they fell in love with ANY college at first sight. In fact, my son now really loves his college, but on our first visit, he thought it was ugly and never imagined attending.

Summer visits, IMO, are really hard. Visiting a college with no kids on campus is a bit like visiting a zoo with no animals. However, this seems to be your vacation, so I strongly encourage you to find lots of other interesting things in the area, as your visits are probably going to be on the shorter side. For instance, I see you’re visiting Gettysburg, so you will definitely want to do the audio drive around the historic site, which is very cool.

My experience with summer visits, which we avoided after doing a few, was that they were mainly useful in helping eliminate a couple of colleges simply based on the general location and appearance of the campus. I’d ensure your kids ask a lot of questions. How helpful the staff are can be reflective of the college in the absence of students. But I alos wouldn’t immediately knock schools off the list if staff aren’t great. Better to do virtual info sessions when kids are back in school.

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I’ve been thinking about this since I posted and wanted to come back. Both sets of schools are in places where I have lived/travelled very frequently. The part of I-90 between Worcester and Sturbridge is frequently a parking lot. In the summer, it is filled with boats and campers around the I-84 interchange and it often can be a good half hour of creeping along. While that may not sound bad coming from California, to pass through that stretch twice in a week in both directions will waste a bit of time. Ditto for traffic from Boston to The Cape/RI and NH/ME, especially on weekends.

I have also sat in many a traffic jam on the Capital Beltway in drive time. The day you go to Baltimore, you potentially hit drive time in both cities, maybe even both times of the day.

Someone recommended staying overnight closer to schools and I think that might make getting there in the mornings better.

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You probably do not want “love at first sight” to happen with colleges. What if the “love at first sight” college is too selective for the student to be admitted, or it is too expensive?

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I agree with several previous posters.

Don’t spoke travel. Go point to point. Having done similar trips on both coasts, we tried to do one per day, but occasionally did two. Doing two AND traveling back to a centralized location will be an unenjoyable grind.

If you can, work in a non-school day in the middle. We saw a play on Broadway.

When you do one per day, you have time to see the surrounding community. That’s hugely important. Take USC for example. It’s a great campus, but it’s an enclave surrounded by some the highest violent crime neighborhoods in the nation. Other campuses are in uninspiring areas. Make time to grab lunch off campus, but close by.

The thing that I’ll add is that happiness was palpable on some campuses. There seemed to be three groups. At Cal Poly, WPI, Tufts, and Colorado State, seemingly every student walking on campus was beaming. Then there were the middle schools, which made up the bulk of them. Some students were happy while some had closed/worried(?) faces…USC, LMU, Lehigh, Bucknell, Brown, UCB as examples. Lastly, there were schools where students appeared to be going to jobs they weren’t excited about. RPI was the one that felt like that to us. Everyone seemed dour.

This is a HIGHLY subjective, gestalt, gut feel, but that doesn’t matter. The whole process is highly subjective. All that matters is that something resonates with your student.

In a perfect world your student will develop a list they are highly conflicted about because there are things they like about all of them, even the safeties. Like @ucbalumnus recommended, I’d discourage falling in love.

It’s also important to recognize that some schools will be attractive to you and not your student. Don’t try to influence them to see the things that you find attractive. This is their journey. You’re just the Sherpa. :hugs:

Have fun!

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What awesome questions! Exactly what I was hoping for. Thank you so much.

As to Bates, I ran a NPC and Bowdoin offers much better potential aid than Bates. I’m guessing it’s about how the two colleges assess the value of my house - we live in an area where housing prices have exploded. As a result, we can’t afford Bates at all, but could potentially afford Bowdoin.

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The ship has sailed on point-to-point travel. :grin: We have a nonrefundable AirBnb near Boston. When I was making decisions, the idea of all four of us in one hotel room every night sounded dismal (and we couldn’t afford two rooms.) We have fun weekend plans, so maybe that will help.

But the rest of this advice – the “it’s all subjective,” the “hope for conflicted feelings”, and especially the recognization that the parents may like some schools more than the kids, and vice versa – is perfect. Thank you so much.

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As the parent, consider the following:

  1. Run the net price calculator on each college’s web site. If it is unaffordable, check whether realistic merit scholarships can make it affordable. If not, drop the college from the visit list.
  2. Encourage the students to research the colleges on the visit list and write up specific things that they want to look for at each college (i.e. things that cannot be found on the web sites but can be seen on a visit).
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Because of sports schedules, we did a number of summer visits. I would never suggest that someone make an ED decision without visiting while school was in session, but we did find them valuable. There will be a chance to visit in the spring for admitted student events (God willing!), so no need to feel like this isn’t worthwhilefor being imperfect. This is a more leisurely time on campus so while it may not be super lively, it’s also quite likely that the folks there will have more time to engage. (This is, admittedly, harder when you’re squeezing in two tours a day and lots of driving.)

There were students leading tours, in the admissions office, and generally around and about. While they may not have fully represented the student body, they did have time to chat - often in a more leisurely way than if they’d had to run to class or practice. We had little trouble arranging interviews which were, by contrast, quite hard to organize in the fall. Traipsing around in the heat beats running from building to building in the sleet or snow. In a few cases, faculty approached the tour and chatted with us.

Having said that, DS was considering ED at one on your list which we visited in summer… At his CC’s urging, he returned in the fall to sit in on a class and he left certain he should not ED and having moved the school down several spots on his list, so I do acknowledge that having students on campus makes a difference. But then, so does the weather, the other families you tour with, whether you click with your guide, and whether you had a good breakfast…

Have fun! It’s really delightful to be with your kids while they are thinking through what their future might be like.

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I think walking around campuses can be useful. We have knocked at least one off the list doing that and added one to the list as well. For my kid, she is really interested in being near stuff (restaurants in the town/city, coffee shops, boba tea shops, vintage clothing shops) so the last trip we did since the campus buildings were completely locked down to non-students, we just looked at the outside of the library, the outside of the building where her potential department would be (English), and the outside of a few dorms, and then we spent the rest of the time in vintage clothing stores and funky shops. She loved it and said she would definitely like to come back when students were on campus and she could take a real tour.

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