Tips for making the most of potentially costly college visits
By Andrea Coombes, MarketWatch
Last Update: 10:40 AM ET Oct 17, 2007
The update of a story originally published Oct. 16 corrects the first name of Mark Wolff.
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- Your college-bound teen is interested in 10 different schools in as many states. Do you need to visit them all? The answer is a qualified "yes," college-admissions experts say.
Visiting a school before applying may increase your chances of gaining admittance, if only slightly. More importantly, during a visit students often find their top-pick school is nothing like they imagined.
Depending on the location of your student's choice schools, campus tours could mean thousands of dollars in travel costs, but there are ways to save money on the trip. And, by touring schools, you ensure your student's time completing applications and the $50 or $75 application fee are well-spent.
Not to mention the tuition. "This is such a tremendous financial investment. You really want to try to make a good fit," said Janet Rosier, an independent educational consultant near New Haven, Conn. "Nobody's Web site looks bad," she said. "Look at the dorms, visit the facilities. Not everybody can visit everywhere, but to the extent you can, it's very helpful."
For instance, after visiting some campuses, Mark Wolff's 17-year-old daughter came to realize that a diverse student body was important to her. "She may not have realized that going in," said Wolff, a senior vice president of communications with the Credit Union National Association in Washington.
Some students think "a school is going to be perfect for them and they visit and find out, for instance, that the attitude is, 'if you want a quiet place to study, go to the library -- we're not going to keep the residence halls quiet,'" said Dan Rosenfield, dean of enrollment management at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "That doesn't work for all students."
Plus, taking the time to tour campus shows your commitment, said Katherine Cohen, chief executive of ApplyWise.com, an online college admissions counseling tool, in New York. "To have made that extra effort is like a little extra feather in your cap when your application shows up."
These days, college applications are flowing in. A few years ago, students applied to about five schools on average, but that number has now jumped to about 10 applications, estimates Rob Franek, a publisher for Princeton Review's "Guide to College Visits."
To save money, some families wait for acceptance letters and then visit only those schools, but some experts say that's not the best idea. With acceptance letters received in about mid-February and schools expecting deposits by May 1, "it's not a huge amount of time," Franek said.
Also, if you wait, "the downside is that you're not taking advantage of every opportunity to convince the admissions office that you're the person who should be accepted," said Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant in Washington. That said, some families simply can't afford to visit numerous far-off colleges.
If that's your situation, try telling the school, Cohen said. "I would love to see your school, but I can't afford to visit. Does your college offer any way for people like me to visit?"
Also, do as much research from home as possible. Keep in mind that, even if you can't visit the school, attending the college's information sessions in your area and signing up for emailed newsletters count in the application process as a "contact" -- and the more contacts you make, the better, experts said.
Finally, visit local colleges to get a feel for big schools versus small schools and private versus public.
Ready, set, research
Whether you're planning to visit campuses or not, research is a necessary task. "You narrow the list through research," Cohen said. "Then you're being more efficient with your visits."
On her ApplyWise.com site, she has students write an essay in which they describe a typical day at each of their chosen schools -- even though they've never been there.
This includes a detailed description of the courses they attend, the professors teaching them and extra-curricular activities. This exercise forces the students to research the college's course catalog and assess local activities via the online student newspaper, the school's Web site and other resources.
"You may have a school on your list because your mom or dad went there or because it has a well-known name. Once you get beyond those things and look at the experience and what it would really be like, that [determines whether] the school stays on your list or not and that will inform you, 'do I visit that school or not?'" Cohen said.
Some counselors recommend narrowing your list to three types of schools: Safety schools are those you're highly confident you'll be admitted to; target schools are those that are a good likelihood; and reach schools are your dream schools, probably out of reach but there's a chance that something will set you apart and gain you admission.
To gauge your likelihood for admittance, check school Web sites to compare your academic record to recently admitted students.
"Colleges do an excellent job of posting" students' overall average SAT scores and grade point averages, said Joseph Connolly, a guidance counselor at New Oxford High School, in New Oxford, Pa. Schools also use other admissions criteria, but those measures are a starting point.
"If I have an 1,100 SAT and the lowest they usually accept is a 1,300, it's a reach school," Connolly said. "Don't rule schools out just based on those measures, but those ... narrow down your long list to a short list."
Connolly recommends a list comprised of two safety schools, about three target schools and one to two reach schools.
Make the most of your visit
Once you've narrowed your list of schools, get the most out of your time on campus. Before you go, let the school know you're coming by signing up for a campus tour and information session, and ask about sitting in on a class in session and meeting with professors. Some schools are happy to arrange this, others less so, experts said.
On a practical note, "wear comfortable clothes and shoes -- you'll be walking a lot," Cohen said. Also, "there's something to be said for sitting in the cafeteria, having a meal there, plopping down with people you don't know and asking questions."
Also, bring a camera -- pictures will help you remember each campus when you get home -- take notes, and collect email addresses and business cards for possible follow-up questions.
Come prepared with questions to ask, including questions about academics, life on campus and financial aid. "The visit is for the students and their families to find if that school is a good fit for them," Franek said. "That means some questions about academics, are the professors good teachers, are they available outside of the classroom, are classes being taught by teaching assistants."
Ask about financial aid
In his research, Franek said, "the biggest worry we found among students and families is the student would get into the first choice school but wouldn't be able to pay for it."
Financial-aid questions to ask include: What portion of the typical financial-aid package is loans versus grants and what percentage of need-based aid requests do you typically pay, said Ivan Nalibotsky, a financial adviser who specializes in college funding, at Capital Solutions Group in Bethesda, Md.
These questions will garner you general answers, but they can help you get a sense of which schools will be more affordable. Also, ask about scholarships for students with high SAT scores or other traits.
Find out how active the social scene is, how diverse the student population is, whether students of different backgrounds interact, what kind of food is served and what the residence halls are like.
Don't limit your questions to the admissions officer, but ask the student tour guide and random students on campus. Visiting the cafeteria, the stadium, and checking out what's posted on bulletin boards and in the student newspaper can all help give you a sense of what life is like on a particular campus.
Ways to save
Here are some ways to save money on your trip:
- Combine a number of college tours into one visit to a region.
- Ask the admissions office about discounts at local hotels and other travel-related deals. Hotels might offer discounts of as much as 10%, Franek said. Also, CampusVisit.com points to hotel deals in some Northeast regions.
- Consider the two-for-the-price-of-one Amtrak ticket offer available for families visiting colleges in certain locales. See the CampusVisit site for more information.
- Turn family vacations into college visit trips, or tack on an extra vacation day to visit a school. Bring your student on a business trip if there are colleges in the region. Also, check out colleges close to home, even if you're not interested in them, to compare large schools to small schools, for instance. "You learn what you don't want," Cohen said.
- If you'll need a hotel room, avoid busy college weekends, Connolly said. "Don't go on parents' weekend -- the rates will go up. The same thing with move-in weekend," he said.
- Find out whether your child's high school organizes college tours, as those might be more affordable.
- Narrow down your college list by checking out CampusTours.com, which offers free video presentations of about 1,000 colleges. Some of the videos include a narrated tour, with questions and answers very similar to an in-person tour.
- Another way to narrow your list: Cappex.com matches student profiles with schools. The service is free for students.
- Consider a company that provides campus tours, which can save you time organizing trips. An Internet search for "college tours" yields many providers.
Andrea Coombes is MarketWatch's assistant personal finance editor, based in San Francisco.