Good school hunting

Bus tours for prospective students are a growing trend. Parents don't come along on these visits.

Before Alexander Jackson and his father set out on trips to visit seven college campuses last spring and fall, both had already planned their Batman-and-Robin approach to the task.

It was Alex's job to research schools in depth to figure out the best questions to ask. Once the duo arrived on a campus, he also would ask most of the questions at the information sessions. His dad's main role was to keep mum and leave his son in the limelight.

After the "canned tour" was done, William Jackson joined in. Father and son would visit the cafeteria to interview students, each taking one side of the room. Later they compared notes. It was a double-team approach that helped Alex find a school that granted a full scholarship - and was a good fit, too.

It's that time of year when students and families begin planning a familiar rite of passage - the college visit, or more often, visits.

More college-bound students than ever are planning campus visits, not only to find the right school but also to get a leg up in the admissions process.

Campus visits have risen steadily in the past five years, says David Hawkins, public policy director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va.

Yet despite its growing popularity, the campus visit can also be an expensive bust. Pitfalls include the common "how-many-campuses-can-we-do-in-a-day" approach, which is meant to minimize trip cost but often yields visits far too brief to be meaningful. Another is the "how-many-books-are-in-your-library" style of generic questions that yield little useful information about how well the school will fit a student.

By doing their homework and planning well, the Jacksons avoided several such blunders, like visiting when school is not in session. The best time to visit is when the campus is in session, but late August, when many university students are already back and high school hasn't begun yet, may also work well.

Having real students on campus is critical since they provide both atmosphere and raw information. Refer to the school's academic calendar when planning visits so that the people you need to interview are actually on campus.

Another blunder that vexes admissions officers all year long are the super-intense "chatterbox parents" who won't be quiet and let their student ask a few questions, too. They don't seem to realize that yapping while their student sits meekly beside them can be a big turnoff to admissions officials - the opposite effect most hope for.

"All too often, parents assume far too much responsibility for 'presenting' their son or daughter," says Michael Maxey, dean of admissions at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. "It is always the student's presentation of self that interests us during a visit."

Avoiding such mistakes is more important than ever because campus visits are becoming a significant factor in admissions decisions, experts say. Admissions officers are increasingly worried about "yield," the percentage of admitted students who accept the school's invitation to attend. That number affects the school's national ranking.

Savvy students now make sure to sign the admissions department guestbook or fill out a card during a visit. Then, when it comes time to decide between two equivalent students, the admissions nod may go to the applicant who has visited the campus.

"The student visit has become more important in the eyes of the college as we see larger application pools," says Mary Lou Bates, dean of admissions at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "A student's demonstrated interest in the college could be a factor in the admissions decision. We want students who know about us. We're increasingly asking students for demonstrated ways that they've interacted with us."

Of course, students have a higher stake in the visit, too. As the cost of college goes up, the imperative grows to make the most of their investment. A campus visit can help slice through superficial impressions made by slick brochures and websites.

Not all students achieve this "right fit" factor, judging from the 26 percent of undergraduates who transferred to another institution during a recent six-year period, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

There's also the trip that's overly ambitious. "Many students and their families plan to see too many colleges in one day," says Janet Spencer, a law professor who visited dozens of campuses with her own college-bound children. She later wrote the "Visiting College Campuses" guide. "It's a good idea to give yourself plenty of time to absorb what you're seeing so it doesn't all blur together."

Two campuses in one day is plenty. Be sure to set aside time after information sessions and tours, Dr. Spencer says. One all-too-common mistake is allowing oneself to be unduly influenced by the campus tour guide - for, or against, attending a school.

"You may not like the person, or it may be someone you really relate to," she says. "But you have to be careful, because typically tour guides are picked because they represent the best of the school. It's just human nature to be influenced that way."

Another key is asking the right questions of the right people. Don't believe it? Just ask George Kuh, a professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington.

"Tour guides and admissions people get into a pattern of talking about what makes their institution shine," Dr. Kuh says. "But the number of books in the library or the number of faculty with [doctorates] is not really that helpful. What you need to do is find out how students spend time or what they get out of college, how much they learn."

As director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, Kuh has been trying to evaluate colleges on the basis of what students actually learn on campus, rather than such proxies for academic quality as size of the endowment or numbers of tenured faculty.

Kuh's group has created a new pocket guide of questions to help students burrow into the real life of the campus. Just a few of the 55 questions in nine categories are: How and when are majors selected and can they be self-designed? How often are things learned in class discussed outside the classroom? How much time do students spend on homework each week?

More than 300,000 of the pocket guides were mailed out to more than 500 high schools nationwide. (For a printable copy, go to www.iub.edu/~nsse/html/pocket_guide_intro.htm.)

Not everyone goes on a college visit with mom or dad. Student bus tours of campuses is a fast-growing industry - moms and dads need not apply.

"We set it up that way because we find students really begin to understand what it means to make independent decisions and have a major voice in where they are going to attend college," says Mark Corkery, president of the National Institute for Educational Planning in Irvine, Calif.

Students get to ask all the questions at each campus, probing issues that matter to them. Then they pile back on the bus, each recounting their impressions in front of the group. Mr. Corkery, a former admissions official at Boston University, says advance preparation and detailed questions are critical.

Not everyone likes the group approach, however. Ms. Spencer, for one, worries about undue peer influence - students liking colleges because their friends do. But, Corkery says, "something magical" happens on trips when friends who grew up together discover they want different things out of a college.

James Heryer, an independent educational planner in Kansas City, sits with each student and parent to go over homework: the books to read, the background of colleges, the questions to be asked, the schedule - all things that make the trip pay off.

It did for Alex Jackson. After visiting campuses of selective schools in Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, and Kansas, Alex settled on St. Louis University. Just hours from his Kansas City home, the campus had a laid-back atmosphere he liked - and offered a full scholarship. He'll also get to try out for the baseball team. "For me, it was just the best thing all around," Alex says. "I'm not sure I would have realized it without visiting all those other campuses."

The dos and don'ts of campus visits

An informal Monitor e-mail survey of college- admissions officers solicited the best and worst of questions and behaviors seen among visitors over the years. Below, officials offer helpful hints and recommendations on how to make the most of a campus visit.

Teresa Duffy, dean of enrollment management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, writes that the best question she gets from visitors is: "So, what kind of student really loves it here?" She doesn't really have a worst question. Still, kids "who snooze through the information session and/or throw a hissy fit at the front desk screaming at their mom and dad really get our vote for not ready for college."

While Ms. Duffy doesn't mind questions that come from parents, she does note, "The parent who likes to show off in front of the other parents about how much he or she supposedly knows about the college-search process often looks a bit foolish."

She advises parents to "rein in your instincts to show off ... [because] your sense that you know it all may really turn off the person you are talking to."

Don Hossler, associate vice president for enrollment services at Indiana University in Bloomington, likes academic questions first.

"I chafe at students or parents who start focusing too quickly on scholarships," he writes. "Getting a scholarship will not assure a good fit, success, or happiness with your college choice. I wish more students were trying to determine what they will have to do to be academically successful."

His advice: Ask good questions about the curriculum or a major. Visit a residence hall, student union, and the library to get a feel for what students do and say about the school. Most students don't fully explore all their options and so may make poor choices, he adds.

Michael Maxey, dean of admissions at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., says the best two questions he is asked are "Describe for me the kind of students who thrive here - and the kind of students who are most unhappy here."

On the other hand, the worst question he has heard was asked to a student tour guide: "If you experienced a natural disaster in Salem and you had no food, which of your faculty members would you eat first and why?"

Larry Metzger, dean of enrollment planning at Ithaca College in New York, offers a bit of visiting etiquette: Definitely do visit the school to show interest. Do make reservations. Do plan a list of specific questions and concerns. Do not take cellphone calls during an interview or campus tour. Do not just "drop in" with expectations of getting all the benefits of a planned visit.

Among the types of questions he has heard asked that should be avoided: "What percentage of your students eat breakfast?" "What is the worst thing on your campus?" "Why should my son or daughter come to your institution?"

Charles Howard, dean of admissions at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., recommends making a list of "quality questions" and being an active participant in an interview.

Do not, he advises, invite a boyfriend or girlfriend to join you on the visit. Do not visit with the idea that the admissions representative is there to entertain. Do not ask nonessential questions such as: "Are cars allowed, sheets furnished? What is the weather?"

The worst question he has heard: "Can my Rose-Hulman scholarship be used at the University of Wisconsin?"

What to ask on a visit

The following questions have been drawn from the pocket-book guide "College. What You Need to Know Before You Go," produced by the National Survey of Student Engagement at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and Planning.

Academic challenge:

• In what ways do faculty challenge students to leave their comfort zones in order to excel?

• What do faculty expect of students?

• How much time do students spend on homework each week?

• What types of assignments are given - i.e. papers, exams, problem sets, rehearsals, research projects?

• How much writing is expected?

• How much reading is assigned per class?

• What types of tutoring opportunities are available on campus?

• In what ways are students given the opportunity to express themselves creatively in class assignments?

Student-faculty interaction:

• How often do faculty meet with students outside class?

• How many students do research with faculty?

• What does the school do to promote student-faculty contact?

• What kind of feedback do students get on course work, and how often do they get it?

Active learning:

• How do students receive help in selecting classes?

• How often are the things learned in class discussed outside the classroom?

• How frequently do students make class presentations?

• How many courses require community service?

• What types of internships are available?

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