Sunday, December 1, 2019

Families of gifted teens: Avoid these "worst" college visitation tips

The internet is filled with advice about college visitation. Conventional wisdom  holds that college visits must include a quick information session and tour, with families as passive recipients of whatever the school structures for that day. Some guidelines and advice about visitation may be misguided or not particularly relevant to your child's unique needs. And some are particularly counterproductive for families of gifted teens - who are often already overwhelmed with the college planning process.

The following are some of the "worst" college visitation tips:

Bad tip #1: Skip the information session

Some online advice suggests skipping the information sessions in favor of the tour if you are short on time. Although info sessions can seem redundant when they cover facts already listed on the college website, they still provide a window into the school’s values, priorities, and admission criteria - especially if you listen carefully and read between the lines. Pay attention to the message conveyed by the speaker and to the college as a whole. Is the speaker informed? Is the info session easy to access in terms of parking, registration and seating, or does it require heroic efforts just to find it? Are the staff welcoming, or do they seem annoyed with questions? Do they provide specific GPA and SAT admission criteria? Is the information clear and relevant, or more like a pep rally full of stats about sports teams and famous alumni? How does their honors program address the needs of students who qualify for it? While some information may be vague and filled with fluff, you also may pick up useful gems that may play a critical role in the decision-making process.

Bad tip #2: Listen to your tour guide

Too many families overvalue the advice from tour guides during college visits. They rave about their ability to walk backwards, pepper them with “trick” questions about what really occurs at campus parties, and expect truthful answers about problems at the school. Some even eliminate a college from their list because of a disappointing tour. Keep in mind that most tour guides are 20-year-old students in work study jobs. You might obtain a glimmer of inside information, but it is colored by their perspective, and censored because of their job status. Rather than expecting so much from these students, use the tour to notice the surroundings, buildings, current students, and those visiting on the tour along with you - who may end up becoming your child’s classmates.

Bad tip #3: Pay attention to the dorm visit

Most families look forward to visiting a dorm room during their campus tour. While this can be informative, keep in mind that what you observe is only one of the many dorms on campus, and may not be representative of where your child will reside. Do the research and take an online campus tour to view the available dorms. Similarly, although eating in the dining hall may provide some perspective about the food, one meal does not adequately reflect the quality of the dining services. What may be more beneficial, though, is information you gain from observing interactions among students, how easily students can navigate the dining hall to access a meal, and availability of any necessary dietary accommodations.

Bad tip #4: Stick to the tour

Tours are designed to impress and to present highlights that most families presumably find appealing. They typically cover college landmarks - beautiful buildings, the library, a new gymnasium - but may not provide the information you and your gifted child need. After the official tour ends, go on a tour of your own. Visit buildings you and your teen would like to see. If your child knows her potential major, visit the building where it is housed. This is especially important with hands-on majors, such as art, music, engineering, and the sciences. Go to an extracurricular activity she plans to join. If she is an athlete, a performer, or a musician, for example, encourage her to visit the venues where she will be spending her time. 

Bad tip #5: Sitting in on a class is a waste of time

Some people advise against sitting in on classes, since your teen might encounter a professor on a bad day, or one sporting a less than engaging teaching style. Nevertheless, your child can learn a lot through class attendance. He can witness the pace and complexity of instruction, picture himself in the room, and determine whether the class is much too easy, just about right, or way too complex. He can see how professors interact with students, whether they encourage class participation, or merely lecture to them. He can view how engaged students are, whether they offer ideas, or remain disinterested and glued to their phones. If the college does not provide a list of classes that your child can visit, suggest that he contact the school for more information about how to sit in on a class of interest. Observing several different classes is ideal.

Bad tip #6: A student overnight in the dorms is essential

Some claim that prospective students should spend an overnight at a college to get a feel for the social climate, and colleges often pair admitted students with current student volunteers during visitation weekends. While some high school seniors may enjoy the trip away from home, the visit may paint a limited picture of life at a particular college. Much depends on how well your child connects with her host, if she enjoys the activities available, and how much the events accurately reflect college life. Evaluating the college under these circumstances can offer an unrealistically positive or negative view. As mentioned in #4 and #5, sitting in on classes and observing extra-curricular activities can provide a more accurate view of what lies ahead.

Bad tip #7: Your child should decide where you visit

Your child certainly needs to make the final decision when choosing where to attend college. But sometimes, teens can discount visiting certain colleges based on faulty impressions and biases - and end up eliminating viable options. Parents need to formulate a plan ahead of time, gently encourage visits to additional colleges (not on their child's lists) and challenge any initial misconceptions about these schools. Some high achieving gifted students may set their sights on highly competitive "reach" schools, and refuse to consider other choices. It is essential to include both academic and financial safety schools, and to have at least several realistic choices, since admission to your child’s dream school may not materialize. If college visits are not possible due to financial constraints, check out online tours available on many college websites. These can provide a wealth of information and help to clarify preferences and priorities.

Bottom line: Get informed, learn as much as you can about colleges, know what your child needs, and use caution when following advice (even this article’s advice) that you read online. Recognize that most overworked guidance counselors may not have enough information to guide your gifted child, and responsibility for the college search will fall on you. Be clear about costs, and let your child know if some schools are not affordable. Recognize your own personal needs, wishes and fears, and try to separate these from what you consider the best course of action for your child. Remain available to offer suggestions, answer questions, and calm your child’s nerves - but try to refrain from expressing too much of what you think. Let your child share whatever thoughts, impressions, and excitement arise. And enjoy this wonderful opportunity to share a unique experience with your child!

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education Page Blog Hop on Adult Transitions to and through Adulthood. More blogs can be found here.

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  1. There was only one college I ever wanted to go to and I went to it. University of Michigan. I probably couldn't get in today (I had a 3.1 in HS - now you need a 3.4). But in 1961, they grabbed me (maybe I wrote a good essay? who knows). Got my MS there, too.

    1. Yes, visitation was different in the past than it is now! Thanks for sharing this.