Taking Advantage Of College Extras how offered “extras” can help your teen choose the perfect school
by Sue Henninger
Parents may remember their own approach to college selection as being pretty laid back. We filled out a few applications and drove out to inspect a campus or two before making our final decision. Things have changed dramatically since then. The skyrocketing cost of a college education – often ranging from $20,000-$50,000 per year – makes choosing a college today comparable to purchasing a new car each year. Just as you’d never dream of plunking down a huge sum of money without taking the car on a test drive, researching it, and asking lots of questions about how it performs, it’s equally unwise to select a college without visiting it and experiencing it to the fullest.
Luckily, once you’ve taken part in the standard tour and informational meetings, most colleges offer all sorts of additional opportunities to get a genuine feel for their campuses. Taking advantage of as many of these “extras” as possible helps ensure that teens will choose the college or university that’s the best possible fit for them, academically and socially, so they can be happy and successful there for the next four years. Here are some things prospective students can take advantage of:
Attend a Class
This is an excellent way for teens to gain a realistic understanding of the classroom setting, teaching styles, and type of student interactions they can expect from the college if they decide to go there. Some of the classes can be huge, especially the introductory ones, while other more specialized seminars may only have 10-15 students in them. Depending on the teen’s personality and learning style, some will find the former overwhelming or the later too intense so it’s not a bad idea to have them try out both. My youngest son sat in on a seminar in English Literature and came away really impressed with how the professor interacted with the students, how engaged the kids were, and how students had obviously read the material before class and came fully prepared to discuss it in-depth – quite a difference from his high school English class!
Talk to an Admissions Counselor
Surprisingly, this was one of the strongest influences on my middle son’s final choice of colleges. He drove an hour and a half to one school to meet with the counselor, only to find that she was unable to answer any of his questions about the engineering programs, didn’t offer to find him someone who could answer them while he was on campus, and they ended the meeting after only fifteen minutes. I was thrilled when he took the initiative to contact the school and relate his experience. They apologized profusely and had someone else call him to discuss the curriculum at length. But their initial lack of responsiveness definitely influenced his decision.
Meet with a Professor or Department Head
The same son really wanted to attend a college that offered opportunities for meaningful undergraduate research, a strong co-op program, and possible summer jobs in the type of research he’s interested in. However, when he first started visiting colleges he wasn’t quite sure which type of engineering he was most interested in. Talking to faculty members at various schools about their current projects and classes really helped him narrow things down. My older son, who is majoring in music, sat in on student ensembles and auditioned individually with the music professors at each school he was interested in. Ultimately, how they provided feedback on his play style was the deciding factor in his college choice. As he so aptly phrased it, “If they can’t make the time to talk to you when you’re still thinking about becoming a student there then how will they treat you once you’re in their class?”
Teens can also request to meet with athletic coaches or other college professionals to answer their specific questions.
Schedule an Overnight Visit with a Current Student
It’s not always enough for the teen to hypothetically ask themselves, “Could I see spending every day for four years with these kids?” Sometimes it’s best to have a hands-on experience where your son or daughter can get an authentic (rather than admissions-directed) feel for the college. Each of the overnights that my boys participated in was totally different. Some were well organized; others seemed haphazard (to say the least!). Some student hosts made a real effort to incorporate them into their schedules and introduce them to their friends while others basically left them to their own devices. Though it was hard at times, I managed to keep my opinions to myself. After all, they will be on their own soon enough!
Take Part in Special Events at the College
Encourage your teen to attend something at the college that the general public is invited to, for example a concert, a conference, or a reading by a famous author. Most of these are free and open to the public. Some universities even hold free or low-cost annual events on their grounds that can be quite enlightening. My eighteen year old went to both “Imagine” at Rochester Institute of Technology and “SPLASH” at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which elevated those schools to his “top three” list.
Arrange an Alumni Interview in Your Home Town
Most teens enjoy meeting with a local alumni who can share some of their own college experiences and help them assess how they’d fit in the school intellectually and with the student body. For example, if the college social life is primarily focused around athletics and your teen is more interested in cultural events, they might find themselves bored and lonely on a Saturday night when everyone else is at the big game. In this economy and tough job market, making sure that the school has a strong Career Services department is essential. Its alumni should be committed to helping students on a personal level and be willing to share career advice and employment tips and help with interviews.
Attend an Off-campus Information Session
Sometimes it isn’t physically possible to visit every college your teen is interested in. Many schools host regular information sessions around the country (usually at a hotel or conference center) where students and families can connect with school representatives to get a more personal feel for the college, and to ask any questions they might have.
Participate in “Admitted Students” Functions
Once the choice has narrowed down to two or three schools encourage your teen to attend these prospective student events. How they are run may become a deciding factor. My middle son attended two and they were very different. One school’s event didn’t offer any new information and everything he did or learned was basically a recap of what he already knew about the school. Though it was obvious that the second university’s activities were totally orchestrated to woo us, it worked! After driving across three states we wanted to be wined and dined and the Student Carnival and Parent Reception made us feel special and appreciated. The fact that they were coupled with financial aid seminars and the opportunity to take classes in the student’s area of interest didn’t hurt either. Both of us came away with a balanced view of the university and the confidence that it was the best possible choice for him.
When the moment came to push the accept button and submit the $500 deposit we were both excited and not the least bit apprehensive. So, don’t just do your homework; go for the extra credit too. It will be well worth it!
Sue Henninger is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. Her oldest son is a junior in college, her middle son is a college freshman, and her youngest son is in the midst of his college search process. Contact her at www.fingerlakeswriter.com