Prev Next
College Planning: Real Questions For College Tours

College Planning: Real Questions For College Tours

By Mir Kamin

‘Tis the season—my personal Facebook feed is filling up with pictures of fellow parents cramming in as many college tours as possible with their rising seniors before the school year starts. While there’s a strong argument to be made for touring schools during regular session, summer is when most of us have the time, and you can always make a return trip in the fall once you’ve whittled down your list a bit.

My daughter mapped out the schools she wanted to see, arranged for all the tours, put together a schedule and maps, and only needed my help when it came to hotel reservations. This makes sense, of course—it’s her education/plans, not mine—but it was a pretty symbolic first step towards independence, here. If you are tempted to be your teen’s cruise director when it comes to college visits, try to pull back. Let them work it out. It will make it a better trip for both of you, I promise. [Side note: On one of our tours, we met a young lady who claimed to have visited 30 colleges the previous summer, and was now on a 10-campus tour. She was only a rising junior, too. I have never met anyone else on a college tour who appeared to be so completely over the entire experience. It was kind of sad.]

There’s no shortage of resources for “Questions You Must Ask On A College Visit Or Regret Not Knowing For The Rest Of Your Miserable Life” types of things. And don’t get me wrong, they definitely have their place. (File under “oldie but goodie” if you must, but this 2010 list from U.S. News & World Report is a decent starting point.) Our experiences tromping around a variety of campuses brought up some additional questions I hadn’t seen elsewhere, though, so I share because I care. Here you go….

Financial Aid

They say you should ask: What’s the average financial aid package?
I suggest you also ask: What percentage of students receive assistance directly from the college? (There’s federal money and independent scholarships, but knowing the size of the institution’s endowment and how much of that filters down to students in the form of tuition assistance is a good indicator of how they value their undergraduates.) What resources are offered to prospective students in terms of making the finances work? (All schools have a Financial Aid office; you’re trying to determine if someone is going to encourage your child to take out loans or if they’ll help them find grant money and scholarships.) How does work-study operate here? (Do you have to “qualify” based on need, how many on-campus jobs are there? are most students able to get a work-study job if they want one or is it a limited resource?) What percentage of students work off-campus?

Admissions

They say you should ask: What are the average test scores/GPA of incoming freshmen? What percentage of applicants are accepted (aka, acceptance rate)?
I suggest you also ask: What percentage of accepted applicants opt to attend? Are certain “numbers” (test scores, GPA) required or merely typical? What tests are required for admission? (I was surprised to hear on several campuses that they’ve gone “test optional.”) What’s the process for applying and being accepted to an honors program or honors college, if offered? Do they offer Early Decision and/or Early Action? What are the dates on those? When do you have to accept admission and what sort of deposit is required?

Students/Campus Life

They say you should ask: What does the student body look like in terms of diversity?
I suggest you also ask: What does the student body look like in terms of diversity in any given program? (The reality is that many majors tend to skew either male or female, and diversity on paper may look a lot like segregation in reality if only certain programs tend to attract a variety of students.) What percentage of students are from out-of-state? What supportive services are available to students? What clubs and organizations are offered on campus? What’s the process for starting a new organization? Is there Greek Life? If so, what percentage of students take part in that? If you want to see your tour guide think fast on her feet, ask her to describe a “typical student” on the campus. Also—particularly if you’re visiting over the summer—ask if they have a program where your kid could come back for an overnight while classes are in session.

Classes and Majors

They say you should ask: What’s the student/teacher ratio? What’s the typical class size? How often will you be taught by a grad student rather than a professor?
I suggest you also ask: What is the typical class size for a freshman? (Bear in mind that those “typical class sizes” folds giant freshman seminar classes into the equation along with tiny upper-level classes, and an “average class size of 30” may mean your freshman doesn’t see a room with fewer than 100 students in it.) How does class selection work, and how likely are you to get the classes you want? What percentage of students enter with an undeclared major? For any given major of interest, when do students typically start the major? (At my husband’s university, he teaches in a college students cannot even apply to enter until they’re rising juniors. My daughter’s intended major, however, is an intensive program that begins with specialized classes as a freshman; if a student were to decide to enter the program later, there would be no practical way to catch up without simply adding more time to achieve the degree.) What special requirements are there to enter a given major (audition, special exams, interview, etc.)? What percentage of students do study abroad and/or internships? What percentage of students continue on to a graduate program?

Transportation

They say you should ask: How do students get around? Are freshmen allowed to have a car on campus?
I suggest you also ask: No, really, how easy is it to get where you need to go? (Most campuses have a dedicated bus system; ask how long you’ll typically wait for a bus if you need one. A lot of campuses also have a golf cart late-night service for if you need a ride back to your dorm after the buses stop running.) How close are you to “town” if you need it (this question will vary depending on the campus setting, obviously)? If freshmen are allowed to have cars, what percentage of them do? How much does a parking permit cost?

Dorms

They say you should ask: What are the dorm choices? Are freshmen required to live on campus? What percentage of upperclassmen live on campus?
I suggest you also ask: Is housing guaranteed beyond freshman year, or scarce and determined by lottery? How are roommates matched? (Back in the Stone Age when I went to college, it was completely random. Nowadays we’ve seen everything from compatibility assessments to schools which offer something akin to a “roommate dating service” in allowing you to pick your roommate.) How much variability is there in the dorms? How does laundry work here? (We saw everything from in-suite machines to basement laundry rooms, and dorms where laundry was free and others where you could only use coins and others where you could only use your cash card. And at one school the laundry machines are on the wifi—you can check machine availability from your room and receive an automatic text when your clothes are done!) What sorts of rules do the dorms have about “quiet hours” and bringing in non-residents? What safety measures are in place? If there’s an honors college, do they have their own dorm? Do the dorms close over holidays?

Food

They say you should ask: How’s the food? Can my dietary restrictions/preferences be accommodated? What sort of meal plan are freshmen required to have?
I suggest you also ask: How many dining halls/other eateries are part of the meal plan? What are their hours? Can you use your meal plan allotment elsewhere? (Every school we went to had the requirement or option of “extra money” loaded on your card that could be used in various snack-type locations, but we saw a couple of schools where you could actually use your meal money at those spots—not a bad perk if, say, your kid is only going to want to grab coffee and a muffin for breakfast most of the time.) What percentage of upperclassmen carry meal plans? Do the professors eat in the dining hall(s)? Is there a way to check card activity/add money online?

Two Final Thoughts

First: To me, there was no better question to ask anywhere we went than, “Why did you decide to come to school here?” Ask it of as many students as you can. Ask staff why they like working there, too. This is your information-gathering time, and you’re the consumer—don’t be afraid to challenge the school to sell itself to you. You may be surprised (and delighted) at some of the answers you receive, too.
Second: As a parent, you’re going to have a lot of questions, but this is a great time to restrain yourself and let your kid take the lead. Don’t be front and center with your hand waving in the air unless you’re hoping your darling offspring will stab you in your sleep that night at the hotel. Bear in mind that this is not your adventure. If you do this right, you will learn as much about your nearly-adult child as the schools, on these tours. Enjoy it.

Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

icon icon
chat bubble icon

Comments

  • Pingback: Lessons learned (veggie/college edition) | Woulda Coulda Shoulda()

  • Megan

    Nice stuff!

    I would suggest that students also at least look at international schools. Depending on country and discipline there are funding options out there that work, and there are some phenomenal programs available. 

    Having said that, keep in mind that international programs are often very different than the ‘liberal arts’ format of most schools in the US, but the trade off is often a quite focused experience for students who would thrive under those conditions

    • Excellent points, Megan. Thank you!!

  • Alicia

    I work in university housing at a public institution in the Southeast, and some other things to ask when you visit:

    Are halls co-ed or separate by gender? (my institution offers both options)

    Do the halls offer any academic support? (some offer in hall tutors, study lounges, groups, etc)

    Which halls do most freshmen typically live in? (I’ve noticed that a lot of Universities tend to show off their fanciest and newest facilities, yet, most freshmen end up assigned to an older facility).

    Also, side note – Dorm is a dirty word in Residence Life. We don’t use it at all any more. Students live in our Residence Halls. We’ve found that dorm has a very negative connotation associated with it, and the term residence halls is much more friendly. 😉 Not fussing you out, but can’t read the word “Dorm” without cringing in my field of work! 😛

  • If you’re asking about who is going to teach most first-year classes, it’s important to know the choices aren’t limited to professors and grad students.  Chances are a lot of those classes will be taught by adjuncts or part-time faculty, usually with Phds, but with no job security and who are paid little better than grad students. If more parents and students knew about this, it could help pressure schools to do right by all their faculty.
    (Disclosure: I was an adjunct for several years at two different universities.) 

    • Jabberwocky

      Yes, I would ask what percentage of the classes are taught by adjuncts. In some universities now, it is up to 60% or more.

  • Becky

    I’d also recommend asking about the availability of health services. My college’s health center actually switched to closing on weeknights and weekends, but we were located less than a mile from a hospital. Students weren’t entirely thrilled, but it was a very short trip if an emergency came up.

    Campus security might also be something to consider finding out too. I…think my college actually offered a shuttle that could take students around campus if anyone was uncomfortable walking around at night.

  • Sometimes, it is a lot simpler to be sort of broke.  Our main question is “How much does it cost?” and “How much will you give me, not including loans?”  No averages (that means nothing), no maybes – SHOW ME THE MONEY.  Because, OMG, college is flippin’ expensive.

  • Becky

    I think these are all great questions, but I also think you should be cognizant of how important and/or relevant each of these is to you and your student. 

    For example, I went through a degree program/school where almost none of the faculty were tenured professionals (journalism) but they all were highly experienced in their fields. In fact, that was a major drawing point is the fact that they had recently worked in the field. Likewise, I tolerated a lot of huge lecture classes during my freshman year, but after that, it dropped down to a 15-person class size. 

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a small college if that’s where you/your child thrives best. But I’ve also seen where people chose a small college due to the perceived advantages, but as soon as the student changed majors, they had to change colleges as well. 

    A good start is to sit down and list out what you’re looking to gain out of the college experience and what is most important to you – and make your list of questions accordingly. And as suburbancorrespondent mentioned, your preference list means nothing if you can’t actually afford it – so that should figure in as well.

    • Yep, all good points—I guess I was thinking in terms of having figured a lot of that out before choosing your visit list. Though in our case, we actually had to talk my daughter into visiting “too expensive” campuses (by reminding her that we had no idea what sort of aid might come through; don’t get your heart set on a place, but don’t rule it out, either).

  • meri

    Re: meal plans, I would also ask if they’re required and if not, how many opt out. I started cooking on my own sophomore year and never looked back.

    My major was one that required 2-3 classes per semester, but I loved it even though I decided not to go into that field. Transferable skills are good. If you’re going into engineering or other hard sciences, take technical writing and other writing classes. They prefer people who can communicate well, too.

  • Jenny

    I’d ask about career services and job placement statistics as well.

    I’d also ask about recommendations for the major that my kid was looking at.  For example, I went to a large state school that discouraged (and is looking at not allowing) people to major in management only (if you want a management major, you need another major) because a management degree alone isn’t something that will likely get you a good job. I thought this was pretty smart and very practical.

    Also people that were majoring in music needed to meet certain criteria by their 2nd year.

  • The funny thing is that I didn’t do the college tour with my boys last year and we didn’t step foot on campus until the required Freshman visits. My daughter, however, graduates in 2017 and she started planning her tours last year.

    It is not a question to ask but you should also factor in transportation costs in college planning. My boys came home for extended stays (Winter and Summer) and all the stuff they collected came with them. They came home with way more than they left with….

  • Ann

    If at all possible, ask to sit in on a class in a field your child is interested in. How is the class taught? How do students interact with each other, both as they come into the class and during class? Does the professor take interest in your child and their interest? THAT. Is what you are going to college for, THAT is what you should be checking out. (Disclaimer: I am a college professor, and students regularly sit in on my classes. If a school wont let you do it, that should be a major red flag.)

    • GREAT suggestion! We did summer tours but were encouraged to come back during the fall semester to do just that. Thank you for the reminder!