Episode 57: Another Look at College Visits

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Another Look at College Visits on NYCollegeChat podcast http://usacollegechat.org/episode57

Welcome to a new year—2016—but a continuation of our current Series 5 about higher education in the news. We have been looking at news stories of all sorts about colleges—some that might immediately influence your teenager’s decision about where to apply or later about where to attend and others that might take longer to impact your family.

In this episode, we are going to look at an article from a somewhat different news source: not the usual newspapers or education newsletters, but rather a college alumni/alumnae magazine. You might guess that it is one of my own alma mater’s magazines, and you would be correct. The article is from last fall’s Cornell Alumni Magazine.

1. Cornell University’s Campus Tours

The article, by Beth Saulnier, is cleverly titled—“Tour de Force”—with a tour de force, of course, being an impressive or highly skilled performance; but, in this case, those performances are actual campus tours. Ms. Saulnier’s article tells the story of Cornell University’s campus tours, which are provided every year for some 50,000 prospective students and parents. The capsule summary of the article in the Magazine says this:

They’re a familiar sight on East Hill: the University’s friendly, helpful, backward-walking tour guides. For the eighty or so undergrads who serve as guides each year, showing visitors around campus is a passion and a calling. It’s a competitive gig, with only 10 percent of applicants selected. And it can be a high-pressure job—because, as the guides well know, a campus tour can make or break a prospective student’s impression of their school. (quoted from the Magazine)

So, listeners, it’s even harder to get to be a tour guide than it is to get into the University, which has an acceptance rate for students of about 14 or 15 percent compared to the 10 percent acceptance rate for tour guides. The University must think that they are indeed important.

The article quotes Taiya Luce, the director of visitor relations, as saying this about Cornell tour guides:

We’re looking for people who can work with diverse groups, who are flexible and charismatic, who can answer tough questions honestly and authentically. Parents are looking at this tour guide and thinking, Will you be my kid’s friend? Is my student going to have a community here? . . . We’ve moved away from a lot of facts and statistics, which make people’s eyes glaze over. We focus more on authentic storytelling. (quoted from the Magazine)

Interestingly, Cornell tours run regardless of weather—which, given Ithaca’s long snowy and rainy season, is an impressive claim. Ms. Luce said that she has cancelled a tour only once—in the midst of tornado watches. And, by the way, tour guides are not allowed to wear sunglasses or hats with brims, because eye contact with the visitors is thought to be critical in building rapport.

2. How Important Could a Tour Be?

Because it is certainly true that facts and figures are readily available on college websites, perhaps it is that personal touch that will make the difference in how your teenager feels about a college and, subsequently, in whether your teenager will apply to it. You might think that meeting one student on campus would not be so powerful, but many researchers will tell you that the value of a case study of one individual can sometimes weigh more in people’s thinking than mounds of data; a person somehow just makes a more vivid impression.

I believe that is true. I recently took my niece to meet with an alumna from a college I thought she might find attractive. Sydney is interested in theater, and I have a young friend (here’s a shout-out to you, Holli Campbell) who graduated just a few years ago from the University of Evansville in Indiana. Holli, who majored in theatre management there, was the youngest company manager on Broadway last fall at the age of 24. The University of Evansville is a relatively small, private university with a total enrollment of about 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students, offering about 80 undergraduate majors in liberal arts, business, education, health sciences, and engineering. It has a lovely campus.

Now, I knew that Holli would give the University of Evansville a big pitch. And I knew that she would be persuasive—in part because of her sparkling personality. But, I can tell you that I would have gone to the University of Evansville at the end of that meeting. So, you cannot underestimate the value and the influence of one person who is talking about a college that he or she loves.

But let me get back to college tours. While my niece Sydney was visiting, I took her to see Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. We recently talked about Pratt in Episode 53. Pratt serves a total of about 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduates can pursue degrees in architecture, construction management, fine arts, photography, digital arts, graphic design, industrial design, fashion design, interior design, film, writing, the history of art and design, and more.

We were on a tight schedule, so we thought we would just look around and get a feel for the campus—and it is quite an attractive campus with clear boundaries, albeit in a very urban setting. As luck would have it, a tour for a handful of families was just starting from the admissions office, and we happily joined it. The tour was led by Pratt student Joe Mendoza, who did a great job.

We saw a lot of the campus: the library so beautiful that I took pictures inside it, the on-campus dorms (including a look at an actual freshman room), the athletic facilities, the cafeterias, the cool old building where you looked down on the old mechanical stuff (I know there is a more precise description of that, but it escapes me at the moment), and more. We learned a lot about Pratt’s history (including the reason that there are well-cared-for cats on campus), about its services for students (including the career services office, which helps students get internships while they are students and helps graduates forever with their career moves), about the security on campus (a really helpful and reassuring discussion, given Pratt’s urban Brooklyn surroundings), about the pros and cons for the different freshman dorms, about when the public is allowed on campus and when it is closed, and more. Because two students on the tour (including my niece) had an interest in the film program, Joe took us to the building that houses the film program, with its theater, stages for filming, and state-of-the-art recording studio. Not a theater student himself, Joe really went out of his way to accommodate the interests of the tour group. At the end of tour, I wanted to go to Pratt. He sold that institution in the subtlest possible way.

3. The Lesson Learned

So, here’s the lesson I learned—and I really should have known it already. Whenever we went to museums with our children, my husband would always say, “Let’s take the tour.” This was not because he loved to spend time in museums, but because he knew that the children would get much more out of the visit if they heard someone knowledgeable talking about what they were seeing.

Well, the same is true for college visits. Take the tour, parents and kids. There is probably not a better way to spend an hour or an hour and a half during a college visit. Why?

  • Because you will be able to see lots of things you would not have access to as a visitor wandering around the campus on your own
  • Because your teenager will likely feel more comfortable asking a question of a student guide on a tour than asking a question of a college staff member in a group information session or even in a private interview
  • Because you will be able to get some of your questions (and maybe all of your questions) answered in a relatively straightforward and honest way (That’s not to say that student tour guides aren’t trained in how to answer certain questions, especially sensitive ones—like about safety issues, for example. Because, of course, they are trained carefully—at Cornell, training lasts a full semester.)

3. What To Do Next

Our new book (that’s How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available electronically and in print at Amazon.com) talks about visiting colleges. We said that college visits are very important—because there really is no substitute—and that it is only the when and how of those visits that needs to be discussed.

We talked about the luxury of visiting colleges before your teenager applies, though that can be a time-consuming and expensive proposition. We explained that not all colleges of a certain type are the same. For example, my niece visited three urban colleges—two in Manhattan and Pratt in Brooklyn. They couldn’t have been more different in every respect: small and large, faith-based and not, selective and not so selective, broadly liberal arts and more focused academically, tiny campuses and not-so-tiny campuses (even multiple campuses in more than one borough of New York City). So, if you have the time and money to visit colleges at the beginning of the application process, that’s great.

However, visiting after acceptances have been received makes a lot of sense, too. As college application deadlines loomed this month, I have been saying not to worry about doing a lot of last-minute visits. Just wait. If your teenager is accepted at more than one college, spend the time and money in April to visit those colleges your teenager is trying to decide among. It might be that visiting your teenager’s first choice is all that is   needed—if the visit is successful and confirms that college to be the right one. That is a great cost-saving method.

Of course, sometimes visiting a college is simply not an option. In that case, as we said in the book, talk to anyone you can find who has visited the college. That might be a family friend, a high school friend, a teacher, a school administrator, a guidance counselor, or someone else. Some colleges have alumni/alumnae interviewers, who could serve this function nicely, too. In the case of my niece’s late-in-the-game interest in the University of Evansville, we had Holli, a proud alumna—as good and reliable a substitute for an actual campus visit as you are going to get.

Remember, too, we said in the book, that it is not only about the physical surroundings on a campus, but also about the intellectual and social surroundings. Photographs in a brochure or on a website or even a virtual campus tour on a website might resolve your teenager’s or your questions about the physical surroundings, but probably cannot answer questions about the intellectual and social surroundings, which are more likely to affect your teenager’s satisfaction with his or her college choice. So talking to current or recent students—sometimes even one student—can make all the difference.

Most college websites have a place for signing up for a campus visit, including a tour. Do that before you go—in case you are not as lucky as we were at Pratt to happen onto a tour that is about to start. I believe that a tour is likely to make your teenager (and you, too) like a college more—partly because you end up feeling more comfortable with the college and feel as though you know more about it. And that’s a good feeling when it comes to choosing a college.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • What you should watch out for on a campus tour
  • What you need to do on campus besides a tour
  • What parents can do that kids can’t

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

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  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
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Episode 12: To Visit Or Not To Visit?

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about campus visits.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
When your teenager should visit a college without you
How to take advantage of financial help from colleges to cover travel costs
How to arrange a weekend visit to a college for your teenager

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/12

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Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how many colleges should be added to your list.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat Episode 12: To Visit or Not to Visit? - How important is the campus visit?For many decades, one rite of passage for American high schoolers and their parents alike has been the “college tour,” where a parent takes an anxious or blasé teenager (depending on your child) on a tour of colleges that might or might not turn out to be appealing schools to attend. During these college visits, there are campus tours led by college students, question-and-answer sessions with administrators, sometimes a chance to sit in on a class or two, and perhaps the nerve-wracking one-on-one admissions interview.

So, as you and your teenager enter the college applications process, let’s ask this question: How important are college visits? You will actually hear, in our three options, that the answer is always “very important.” Just the when or how those visits occur is what we are going to talk about.

1. Very Important, So Visit Now . . .

. . . because there is no substitute for standing in the main quadrangle or in a classroom building or in a dorm or on the soccer field or on the library steps. It is impossible to convey the feeling of a college’s physical and social and intellectual environment without being there. Why would anyone want to sign up to spend two years or four years at a place that he or she had never seen? By the way, this is true for students who are living on campus and who are living off campus. Your teenager will spend a lot of time at the college—regardless of living in the dorms—and should want to get a feeling for its buildings and its grounds and its setting within its surroundings and, of course, its students, staff, and faculty.

Visiting colleges before applying to them makes a lot of sense because even all colleges of a certain type are not the same. In other words, you cannot visit one or two private four-year colleges and, based on them, know what private four-year colleges are like. You cannot visit one or two public community colleges and, based on them, know what public community colleges are like. You cannot visit one or two urban campuses (or urban colleges with barely any “campus”) and, based on them, know what urban colleges are like.

Visiting a college before applying might convince your teenager not to apply, thus saving you that time and effort and money. But, visiting colleges is not free—especially when they are not in your hometown. Many families cannot afford to take the time off or spend the travel money that it takes to make a college swing through several states—or even through your own state, if it is as large as New York, where you cannot make an inexpensive day trip from one end to the other.

On the other hand, if you have decided to limit your applications to colleges in your hometown or very close by, then you absolutely should visit before applying. Make sure you take a tour of the campus, that you talk with current students, and that you sit in on a class or two, if possible. There is no reason to miss out on this chance to find out what everyday life is like on that campus and how different it might feel from another college campus that could be just minutes away. For example, if you live in New York City and want to stay in New York City for college, you would find out how different the campuses of just these four-year colleges were if you were to visit them: New York University and The New School in Greenwich Village, Columbia University and Barnard College in Morningside Heights, Fordham University at Lincoln Center, Hunter College in midtown, Pace University in downtown—and we have not left Manhattan yet. All of these schools are just a subway ride away for New Yorkers.

2. Very Important, But Visit Later . . .

. . . after acceptances have been received and your teenager is trying to decide which college to attend. After all, it is cheaper to pay the application fee for a college than to spend the money to visit it ahead of time (unless it is in your hometown).

If your teenager is accepted at more than one college, perhaps that is soon enough to spend the time and money to visit those colleges if you are trying to decide among them. It might be that visiting your teenager’s first choice is all that is needed—if the visit is successful and confirms that that college is indeed the right one. Nothing is more cost-effective than that.

3. Very Important, But Visiting Is Not an Option

Sometimes it is just not possible for a family to arrange for a campus visit to several colleges or even to one college, even after acceptances have come in.

In that case, you all can—and should—talk to anyone you can find who has visited any college on your list as a kind of substitute for making the trip yourself. That might be a family friend, a high school friend, a teacher, a school administrator, a guidance counselor, or someone else. Some colleges use alumni interviewers, who could serve this function nicely, too.

Firsthand impressions from someone who has walked on the campus in different seasons of the year, has seen inside the dorms, has talked with faculty or visited a class, has talked with current students or recent graduates, has eaten in the cafeteria, has attended a sports event or a cultural event—all of these impressions can help your teenager make a better decision about where to enroll. Ideally, at least some of those substitutes would be individuals who had been on the campus recently—and preferably someone with a more in-depth feel for the college than one can get from simply walking across the campus. A current professor or current student or recent graduate would be a great choice.

Remember that it is not only about the physical surroundings, but also about the intellectual and social surroundings, which the casual visitor might not be able to pick up on so readily. Photographs in a brochure or on a website or even a virtual campus tour on a website might resolve your questions about the physical surroundings, but cannot answer your questions about the intellectual and social surroundings, which are more likely to affect your satisfaction with your college choice.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • When your teenager should visit a college without you
  • How to take advantage of financial help from colleges to cover travel costs
  • How to arrange a weekend visit to a college for your teenager

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…