Resources for Parents of College-Bound Students Challenges for the college-bound student



newsletter — March 7, 2020

Beyond the Tour:
Getting the most from your college visits

by Diane Speed

Getting the most from your college visitsAt this time of year many families of high schoolers are piling into the car and setting out on college visits. The itinerary usually includes an official college tour; worthwhile, perhaps, but essentially a sales pitch — sanitized, standardized, one show for everyone.

So don't stop there! — You and your student can get much, much more out of your college visits! In particular, your student can use them to develop key relationships with:

  • administrators in admissions and financial aid;
  • professors & department heads.

Few parents seem to realize their student can meet with individual professors and even department heads, so my thoughts below focus on those meetings in particular. Such meetings can lead directly to opportunities for your student to stand out from the crowd.

Advance vetting

Before you visit, you and your student should already know a good deal about the school. Your student should have already investigated the school's website and determined that the school does indeed offer the program of study your student seeks. Find out as much as you can in advance — for example:

  • If your student is a performer, look into what what teachers/performers at the school he or she might want to study under.
  • If your student wants to pursue a STEM program, investigate any hands-on research opportunities, the school's access to industry, its co-op or internship programs.

If your student digs deeply, she may be able to find professors doing research she's interested in, even video lectures or interviews by prominent professors in her areas of interest.

This initial vetting process is worthwhile and may even lead to eliminating a school or two — and eliminating schools is progress. The ones that remain on your list will represent high-value targets with the specific features your student seeks.

You can be certain that your student's meetings with department heads and key professors will become part of your student's admissions file. And that entry in your student's file can make the difference not just in whether your student is accepted, but even in
the types of aid awarded.

This advance vetting enables you to tailor your visit.

Department heads

As soon as you nail down the dates for each visit, have your student reach out to department heads to arrange a meeting; ask to discuss the details of the program your student is interested in.

Contact information for such faculty is usually easy to find — just search the college website's faculty pages. Surprisingly few prospective students take this opportunity, and what I've found is that department heads are not only available for such meetings — they're delighted to take them. They love the chance to talk to prospective students about what their program offers that other schools don't.

They can also tell you about opportunities you might not be aware of:

  • Getting more from your college visitsspecial scholarships your student should apply for when applying to the college;
  • activities that their department makes available to motivated students — like study-abroad programs or independent projects;
  • key professors or departmental areas doing ground-breaking work and that are leaders in their fields.


The department head can also connect your student with key professors. When communicating with professors before the visit, inquire whether the student may sit in on a class or two; your student will gain real insight into what it would be like to study there.

Professors can also arrange for the prospective student to meet with students currently in the program. Such casual meetings often provide the real scoop on the school and program and may even lay a foundation for future camaraderie.

Getting more from your college visitsThese meetings and activities will give your student a clearer sense of what the school offers. More important, they will demonstrate to the school that your student is seriously interested in the school and the program. Colleges want to attract students who are excited and passionate about their school. In fact, universities now routinely track the number of times and occasions your student connects with the school. [To learn more about this trend, see "Student Tracking, Secret Scores" in the Washington Post.]

You can be certain that your student's meetings with the department head and key professors will become part of his or her admissions file. And depending on how well your student comes across in those meetings, that entry in your student's file can make the difference not just in whether your student is accepted, but even in the types of aid awarded.

Questions to ask

Shown below are samples of the kinds of questions a student might ask when meeting with a professor or department head. The questions shown here are basically generic; you and your student can beef up this list with questions specific to the area of study your student will pursue.

  • How many students are in a typical class?
  • What is the ratio of students to professors?
  • Do you offer honors classes? How does a student get admission to those? How are honors classes different from regular ones?
  • Is there room in the curriculum for the student to pursue his/her interests? For instance: I love (unrelated subject); can I combine my interest in that subject with this major?
  • How doable is a dual degree?
  • Who are the key faculty in the department, and what are their areas of interest? What kinds of research or other projects are those professors doing?
  • What makes for a good professor in this subject?
  • Do students ever collaborate on projects? How does that work?
  • What do you consider a sound education at the college-level that prepares someone to be a [name targeted profession]?
  • Is the aim of the curriculum to prepare students for employment? What percentage of students go on to post-graduate studies?
  • How soon do students get to do real-world work? — internships? — co-ops? Does the school have connections to industry?

Please note: The questions above are taken from the workbook for my workshop for parents, Homeschooling the College-Bound Student.

With both my son and daughter, the professors they met with were later consulted by the scholarship committees, and the pull of those professors and departments — their giving their two cents about our students — was instrumental in the aid packages offered to our students (one received merit aid worth around ninety percent of tuition; the other received 100% tuition, plus room and board).

Your student's role

In setting up your visit, encourage your student to take on some or all of the planning tasks. By having your student shoulder the research and preparations for the visit, you will provide an opportunity for your student to learn about the target school and also develop important skills.

Some students are capable of doing the preliminary research about the target school, reaching out to department heads and finding key professors, arranging meetings, and more. You need to gauge your student's competence for each task, provide coaching where necessary, and touch base frequently during the process.

In the meetings themselves, encourage your student to take the lead, pose the questions.

You the parent should come prepared to take notes; your student will, I assure you, find the statements you capture invaluable when completing the college-specific supplements or applications as well as scholarship-application essays.

In one visit, a professor told my student that "the student sitting next to you in class is as important as the professor in front of the room. We have students from around the world in our classes." — This statement resonated with my son, and he used it when writing his (successful) scholarship-application essay for the school.

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Mother of two


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