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Visiting a college on the weekend
Question: I am only free to visit colleges on a weekend when the admission office is closed. Can I get enough out of this visit to make it worthwhile?
While I acknowledge that visiting a college on a Saturday or Sunday when the admission office is closed is less than ideal, you in fact can glean a great deal about a school if you are assertive. I would, however, advise visiting on a weekend during the school year when students are on the campus versus over the summer, when there will not be enough representative students.
I just experienced this same situation over spring break when I headed to New England with my 16-year-old daughter to visit schools in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont. Since we were trying to visit a good number of schools, we found ourselves at Williams College on a Saturday when the admission office was closed. Ironically, this turned out to be the one place where we left having the strongest sense of the school and what type of student would best fit in this environment.
As someone who visits colleges for a living, I knew that we had to maximize our time and plan a strategy if we were to learn about this school without the benefit of admission officers and student guides, as their admission office is only open on Saturday during the fall. I wanted to learn more about Williams before we visited, so I researched their Web site about majors, general education requirements, student admission data, student housing and clubs. I also familiarized myself with what college guides had to say about this school prior to my visit, in order to guide my questions and not waste time asking students things that I could glean for myself in print or online.
Experience told me that we could probably find a map for a self-guided tour at the admission office, as most schools have maps and a “view book” that highlights the school in pictures and key features in a mailbox outside the door of the admission office. Williams did not disappoint, and we were able to gather enough reading material to start our search. Saturday also turned out to be a good day for parking on the street, as many schools require you to get a parking permit from a designated parking area, which adds time.
We found students throughout the campus eager to share their stories and their feelings about the school, both positive and negative, just by asking them how they liked the school. Like most of us, students relished the opportunity to talk about themselves and seemed to enjoy the attention as they reflected about their experience on campus and their time abroad. Once we had talked to enough students in the dining halls, dance auditoriums, outside on picnic benches and walking the campus green, we were able to hear enough consistent themes that probably spoke more truth than what we would have heard from the admission director or from a student guide. Having been on dozens of college tours I found it refreshing to learn about the school from random students who were free to voice their own opinions and not from the tour guides who espouse the party line. It is so much more natural to talk to students when they are stationary instead of when they are walking backward on their tour and trying to ensure that they have not lost anyone in their tour group.
While visiting Williams, we took the time to read the campus newspaper, which addressed some recent racial tensions that never would have been brought out in an informational session. We made a point to visit cafeterias to check out the food as well as the student groupings. We poked around libraries, gyms and the student union to learn what type of student activities were posted on either bulletin boards or posters lining the walls. Knowing that it is important to like the town where the college is situated, we scouted out the amenities that might be available by foot within a mile or so of the campus. Like many of the East Coast colleges we visited, Starbucks was nowhere to be found, although there were a few nearby restaurants and ice cream shops within walking distance of the campus. We also could not help wondering why so many of the students were wearing shorts in 40-degree weather and wondered if this day was considered relatively warm for this part of the country.
We left with questions and answers and, most importantly, the chance for my daughter to compare the opportunities and limitations of being in a small school, such as Williams, with a larger college, such as Dartmouth or Yale. Was it ideal? Probably not, but then again, these trips rarely are. So often on college tours, our impressions are colored by the personality of the student guide, the weather, the students we happen to encounter and the charisma of the admission officer giving the informational session. Perhaps because the sun was out and we had been visiting many schools, we had more fun poking around on our own and doing the visit on our timeline.
Joan Franklin is the owner of The College Source, an Independent College Consulting Practice (www.thecollegesource.org). She is also a certified school counselor in the Issaquah School District. She lives and practices on Mercer Island and can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.