As the mom of a college freshman and a high school student who is just beginning the college search process, I can’t say enough about personally visiting schools your student is seriously considering.
Though college websites can give you a lot of facts beforehand, it is nearly impossible for them to convey the mood, impressions, or information that you get from exploring a campus in person.
Here’s an example. Last month my son and I attended an Open House where the formal tours and admissions meetings were very helpful and informative. But, it was the questions that we got to ask “real” students afterwards that told my son whether this college would be his number one choice or be placed further down the list.
One of the things he’s always been fascinated by is experimentation and he’s spent the majority of his relatively short life coming up with all sorts of unusual explorations and inquiries to test out. When he was little these tended to involve all sorts of strange potions and as he got older they focused more on things that he could build and take apart like trebuchets, forts, or engines. Though we never knew what he’d come up with next, the process he followed was pretty much the same each time. He’d think of an idea, make a drawing or some notes, find the materials that he needed (or convince us to buy them!), and then physically create whatever he had visualized in his mind. No matter what the project was, it was always completely his from start to finish.
At the school one of their selling points was that there were lots of research opportunities. However, when we dug a little deeper, asking enrolled students what types of research they were involved in, it turned out that the school’s process was very different than that of some of the other universities we’d looked at. What seemed to happen at this school was that professors would have a hypothesis or idea and enlist a graduate student or two to assist them. In turn, the grad students would find some undergraduates to work for them. The outcome of this was increased “drudge work” and extremely limited opportunities for discovery for the person at the bottom of the pyramid.
It was clear to both of us that this type of system would be incongruent with my teen's personal style as well as completely the opposite of what he was looking for. Instead of thriving in this type of environment, he would quickly become frustrated at all of the restrictions.
The visit also revealed to my son and me that having a self-initiating research environment is something that's really important to him when choosing where he wants to spend his next four years. This is a much better thing to discover as a high school student than as a college freshman or sophomore!