Eleventh grade is really the start of the college process, which culminates in senior year, and junior year is an excellent time for students to begin making college visits.

Done wrong, college visits can be boring, expensive, and a significant source of tension between parents and students. But done right, college visits can be exciting, affordable, motivational, and a real opportunity for parents and students to bond with one another.

Read on to learn how to make college visits a successful venture for the whole family.

The College Visit Overview

There are essentially two types of college visits we encourage families to make in junior year, structural visits and specific visits.

Structural visits are typically taken earlier in the year (they may even be taken earlier, in 9th or 10th grade), and their purpose is to look at various types of colleges, so students can start thinking about what they want from their future school.

Specific visits focus on individual schools a student is interested in attending, and will be more helpful once a student has created their college list.

We explore specific visits in other blog posts (such as here, here, and here!); in this post, we’re going to take a deeper dive into how to effectively plan structural visits for your student.

Structural Visits: Broad Strokes

Structural visits are taken to nearby (think driving distance) colleges to get a feel for the type of environment that each school represents. For example, if you live in Boston, you might visit Northeastern as an example of a large, private, urban school. You might go to Tufts to get a feel for the suburban liberal arts school. And finally, you might drive out to Wheaton College to experience a smaller liberal arts school.

When considering these visits, think of them as a picture painted in broad strokes. Your student does not need to be especially interested in a particular school in order to gain value from a structural visit to its campus. However, if your student has identified a particular interest they might pursue in college, try to plan at least some of your visits around that interest. For example, if you have a kid who loves math and science, be sure to include a technical school in your structural visits.

Structural visits can be done on weekends, but they can also easily be added to your schedule when traveling, such as on vacation or during visits to family. This is a great way to check out a different environment or part of the country than what’s in your immediate local area. But remember that these visits should be exploratory and fun, so keep things casual.

The Post-Visit Reflection

During or after each structural visit, students should reflect and take notes on the following questions. (For a more comprehensive list of questions, check out our College Visit Worksheet here.)

1. How do I feel about the…

    • campus size?
    • school location (urban, rural, etc.)?
    • types of people I met?
    • weather and climate?
    • distance from home?
    • dormitories and campus food?

2. Do I resonate with the values the college seems to espouse? (Explicitly through tour guide presentations, or implicitly from what you see on campus)

3. Could I imagine myself here? Do I feel like I fit in on this campus?

4. Are the students people I could see becoming friends with?

5. If I could change one thing to make this school a better fit, what would it be?

By answering these questions, your student will start to clarify and define what key qualities a college needs to have to be the best fit.

Remember that structural visits are a way to get the college process started. You aren’t yet evaluating the schools themselves; rather, your student is starting to identify the qualities that resonate with them, which will help them prepare their college list down the road. Try to keep these visits as low-pressure as possible: the college application process is a marathon that will last until spring of senior year, and adding extra stress and anxiety will make it much more difficult for your entire family.

However, even though structural visits are casual, they don’t have to be cursory. We’ve provided questions for you to get started, but ideally these college visits will spark robust discussions with your student about what they do and don’t want from their college experience. If a student approaches these visits with a sense of exploration and curiosity, the whole process (believe it or not) can actually be fun!

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