Know Your Onions: Be Prepared for College Visits

The beloved protagonist of Shrek once said that “ogres are like onions”. Why, you might ask? “Onions have layers. Ogres have layers,” is the explanation that Shrek gives us. While we’re formulating our list of things that are like onions, why not add colleges? Colleges, like ogres and like onions, are complex and require more than a first glance to understand what’s inside. That is where college visits come in.

Making intentional choices about which schools to visit, whether grouped by type of school, programs, or region of the country, will help focus the time on campuses and minimize the cost of separate visits. College visits can have a lasting impact on students and families as they begin to explore colleges, so developing explicit criteria for why to visit a school is an essential step in the college search.

Tips and questions for maximizing your college visits:

For every school you put on a list that you have heard of, try including one or two schools that you haven’t heard of before. By doing that, you increase the list of schools to explore beyond name recognition. Planning a trip to the midwest area? Consider visiting Lake Forest College, Loyola University, DePaul University, Wheaton College, Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Illinois Chicago, and School of the Art Institute of Chicago in addition to Northwestern University and The University of Chicago. Want to check out other Midwest schools? The Liberal Arts Colleges comparison tool can help you sort through the differences between schools like Kenyon College and College of Wooster, both located in Ohio and only one hour apart.

Plan to see a range of schools. If you are unsure of what type of school you want to attend or if you already know the kind of program or school you are looking for, seeing a variety of colleges will allow you to compare schools apples to apples. A range of schools can encompass private, public, urban, rural, small, and large universities. It’s one thing to know the enrollment size at a campus, but another to experience it first hand. Keep in mind that if you are visiting during the summer, you are most likely not seeing full-time students and the campus in full swing.

Answering these questions before you visit will help you begin to identify which schools make sense for you:

1. How does a liberal arts college differ from a research university?What is a liberal arts college? The terms college and university are often thought of as offering the same type of educational opportunities, but actually can be entirely different.Try to identify which schools are liberal arts colleges or Colleges That Change Lives. Incorporating one or two to visit will add dimension to your college visits and possibly your college list.

2. Which campuses offer both research and liberal arts? Identify colleges and or universities that offer both before you plan your visit. Tufts, University of Michigan and Emory University are just a few examples of colleges that provide this type of educational environment.

3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of attending curriculum-focused schools like Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, Cal Poly or an art school like California Institute of the Arts and Rhode Island School of Design? You'll want to find out if there is flexibility for changing major or focus.

4. What are some of the differences between private and public universities? Is it just size? One common mistake is to automatically assume public universities are less expensive to attend. Before you go, check out what kind of financial aid is offered – merit- and need-based. While a public university may be larger, does it have a large enough endowment in addition to state and federal funding to offer the kind of aid you need to attend?

5. What kind of specialized programs and opportunities are offered? While some schools may have a national reputation or are known for something in particular, you won’t want to miss the chance to hear firsthand what a school values or to explore some of the other programs that aren’t as apparent.

6. Are there internships and research opportunities for undergraduates? The University of Chicago is happy to let you know that they have more research internships available then they have students. Do you consider travel an essential part of your college experience? Find out if the study abroad program has an additional cost. Wellesley College offers an excellent example of how the cost of study abroad may be structured. With some schools, your tuition includes your semester abroad. Of course, make sure to read the fine print for any add-ons.

7. What kinds of academic curriculums are offered?Core, Block, or Individualized major? Can you double major or add a minor? Try to find out if doubling up on majors is the norm. For some students that option will be the perfect solution to combining their interests, but not every student wants that type of rigor, so it’s good to know what the academic culture and expectations are.

Every student is unique -- tailoring college visits to align with specific needs and goals will put you on the path to a meaningful college experience.​

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