Test drive a college: Guidelines for your visits

A file photo of potential students and their A file photo of potential students and their parents during a tour of campus at Duke University. (April 24, 2006) Photo Credit: AP

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These days, the cost for four years of college can be upwards of $60,000. And that’s at a public institution. For the same amount it will cost you to attend the college of your choice, you could buy a luxury car, or a few old junkers. It might not be as easy to kick the tires or check under the hood of a college, so here’s how to take a college for a spin.

For Starters

Make a “Dream List” of all the things you’re looking for in a college. Include majors, accommodations, job placement, average class sizes, security, location, and all the other features you can’t live without. Put this list into a spreadsheet form and you can use it as a grading sheet for college visits. Take the list, a pen, and a camera with you on your trip.

Polish and Prep

First impressions are lasting ones, so ditch the baseball caps and ripped jeans. Arrive on time, or call if you’re going to be late. Familiarize yourself with the college before you get there – the website is a good place to start. Bring a small notebook and a pen to jot down any details about the college you may forget.

Get Going

Visit while school is in session. Any other time is like buying a car on Ebay – it looks good, but how does it run on the highway? When you see the college in action, you’ll gain first-hand information about exactly what this college is like. You will meet, and size up, students and faculty. So while not all colleges require interviews for admission, you should visit to interview them. Look over the literature before you get to the parking lot. That confusing and seemingly boring fine print might suddenly produce a great question.

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The Official Tour

Use the tour as a “live map” – let it help you get acquainted with the location and geography, but don’t let it be the deciding factor. You wouldn’t buy a car based on the salesperson or the location of the dealer, would you? Tour guides are almost always enthusiastic, and are a great source of information. Use it, but take it for what it’s worth.

Owner Loyalty

Stop those students! Scary? Maybe, but talking to the current “owners” will help you determine customer satisfaction. You can grab them in the student center and say, “I’m thinking of coming here in the fall. What should I know that no one in admissions will tell me?” Talk to the students in residence halls, or stop by student government or student activities offices. Pick up the newspaper and read it. Make sure you speak to a minimum of five people who are not employed by or set in front of you by the admissions office. You’ll find some who hate the place and some who love it, but by talking to those ten people, you will have a good idea of what the place is really like.

Take a Spin

Eat in the cafeteria and listen in on the conversations at the next table. Would you want to be part of these exchanges? Who sits with whom? How are students integrated or divided? As you walk around, look at the walls. Read all the posters and flyers to see what this campus does in its’ spare time. Sit in on a class you’re likely to take your first year. See how far classes are from the dorms and whether you feel comfortable walking at night.If you can’t, ask which building has the most classes for undergrads. Peek into those classrooms to see who’s doing most of the talking. Don’t be shy here. An afternoon of classes now is a vision of the next four years of your life.

The Sleep Over

“No way,” you’re thinking. “I’m not going to be babysat by college kids.” While it may seem uncomfortable, it usually ends up a lot of fun, and an excellent way to get the inside scoop. Students will be dying to tell all, so take this time to see what these people are like. Is it too quiet or is it like “Animal House?” Are the accommodations plush or roach motel? This stuff you won’t get on the official tour. Most colleges provide this opportunity if you ask.

Post Test

After your visit, don’t forget to write down your reactions, and have your folks do the same. Once you’re home, include questions that have popped up in your handwritten thank- you note to the admissions office. Take a look at the notes and the pictures from your trip and compare them to your Dream List. If the college matches the list, you may have just found your dream school!

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