Don't Wait for the College Admissions Sales Pitch. Get in Front of It By Doing the Right Things on a Campus Visit

The college where I work hosts hundreds of prospective students over the summer months. Rising seniors and juniors and their parents dutifully follow backward-walking, slick-talking tour guides through buildings and along the paths while getting a glimpse of the college. These early campus visits are part of an annual ritual that continues to be critically important to the college search and selection process.

Often I have the privilege of welcoming students and parents to help to set the tone for their visit. I usually take a different approach to the welcome, and rather than focusing on the "hard sell," I tend to offer suggestions about how students can personalize and get the most out of their college visits. In recent years I've tried to simplify my advice.

I recommend visiting students do three things during a campus visit:

Ask your question. Parents and guardians have lots of questions and tend to dominate in the asking. But, what admissions really wants to know is what does a student want to know? Students really should think about the most important question they want answered, and ask it everywhere they go, to everyone they meet. I don't know what that question might be. Do you want to know if it makes a difference how many students live on campus? Do you want to know if the dining hall can accommodate a gluten-free diet? Do you want to know if you can change roommates if you can't get along? Do you want to know if you can audition for a role in a play or musical, even if you're not a theatre or music major? Do you want to know if you can host overnight guests? Do you want to know if the faculty work on research with students? Do you want to know if the career services office really can help you with a future career? What is your question? Think about it and be prepared to ask it on your visit.

Make your connection. Making connections throughout your life is important in general; in college they are crucial. Connecting with students, your admissions counselor, faculty members, advisors, coaches, music director, on-campus employers, etc., are key ingredients for a successful college experience. Testing those connections during the campus visit and college search will tell you much about the strength of those connections once you are a student. If you find it very difficult to meet with someone when you visit a campus, it could be a sign that making that connection as a student also will be difficult. If you want an appointment with a professor in your main area of interest and it can't be scheduled, that could be a sign of things to come. Similarly, if your campus tour is led by an admissions counselor rather than a student, or is on a DVD for your drive around campus, you might wonder, what are the students really like? Think about the connection that matters most to your college choice, and make it.

Use your imagination. Tour guides, faculty and others you meet on campus will discuss programs, experiences, people and opportunities that may seem unreal to you -- unless you commit to using your imagination while visiting a college. College is a new and unfamiliar experience for any student. Your parents' college experience, if they had that, is probably not a very good barometer for you. College is new, opportunities are abundant and the learning is unlike any in your high school experience. Imagine a classroom debate that continues from day to day, and outside class. Imagine meeting your roommate for the first time at fall orientation. Imagine completing a course assignment while studying in Cambodia, Ghana or Ecuador. Imagine wearing a lab coat that matches the one worn by the professor working beside you. Imagine going crazy at a basketball game, because your team just clinched a trip to the Final Four in the nationals. Imagine taking part in a protest, and becoming part of the media spotlight on that issue.

Your college experience will be more than you can imagine -- but try, anyway, to get the most out of your college visit.

After a recent visit day at my college, a family provided feedback that my welcome to the group of visitors didn't do enough to sell them on the college where I work. Of course I lament they felt that way. Yet, I hope my three recommendations to students result in the opportunity to make the "sale" more personal.