The time-honored tradition of parents and students traveling to campuses to screen prospective colleges or universities is giving way to a more modern alternative. While by no means a substitute for campus visitation, the Internet has quickly become an important supplement.
Hundreds of colleges and universities have established Web sites that provide pertinent details about the school, admissions information and downloadable application materials. Many of these sites include very impressive, state-of-the-art, interactive, virtual campus tours, as well as e-mail links to schedule admission interviews. One independent Web site, campustours.com, has highly searchable links to more than 800 institutions. It's the brainchild of a local cyber-entrepreneur, Chris Carson, who first conceived of the idea while finishing his master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh. Carson realized that while colleges were creating Web sites, there was no central, online source. Friday will mark the site's second anniversary. In that time, Carson has steadily expanded both the number of institutions represented (participation is free for both the institutions and prospective students) and the helpful services that site visitors can access. In addition to information about the schools, campustours.com also offers a host of other useful sections, including resources for financial aid, SAT preparation, and tips on interviews and visiting. A site maintained by U.S. World and News, www.usnews.com/ usnews.edu, has a nifty, check-list search function with 20 criteria that helps visitors zero in on schools that suit their specifications. A company called Collegiate Choice Walking Tours (www. collegiatechoice.com or 201-871-0098) has a series of walk-through videos on more than 300 colleges and universities. Other online resources include www.allaboutcollege.com and www.petersons.com. Another resource is www.affordablecollegesonline.org/online-colleges/
Advance research can help narrow the choices to a manageable few, but the final decision should always include an actual visit to the school. There's no other way to get an accurate sense of the place. Your student's junior year is probably the best time to plan visits, but any time up to actual matriculation can be informative. While it's tempting to try and schedule visits during summer vacations, it will be more instructive to see a school when classes are in session. Architecture and facilities are important, but there's no substitute for seeing actual students at work and play. Don't try to cram too many visits into a short trip, or risk information overload. A thorough visit takes time. In addition to setting up meetings with admissions people, try to sit in on a class or lecture, talk to professors, shadow a student through a day's schedule, eat in the dining hall, even spend a night in a dorm. Individual institutions have very different personalities. Intuition is always a key factor in making a selection, but it's most accurate when grounded on actual experience. It's also wise for students to prepare a checklist of things to see and do on campuses and questions to ask folks there. They should keep notes. In addition to providing a way to keep track of information and make comparisons between different schools, that organization will help students think about what things are important to them. In most cases, campus visits start at the admissions office. Tours vary from set itineraries conducted by student guides to the "here's a map, have a good time" approach. Once home, compare notes and let impressions percolate. If questions come up, students shouldn't hesitate to write, call or e-mail the admissions office for answers. It's also wise to send thank-you notes. While they won't necessarily get a student admitted, they will get a student noticed. The number of schools a student visits is a matter of time, money and parental dedication, but this much is sure: The more first-hand knowledge you have, the better a fit the eventual choice is likely to be.