College visits can make finding a higher-ed match easier

Wellesley College, Admissions Building in Wellesley, Mass. Courtesy Sydney Pope

‘‘It made it feel more real,” said Santa Fe High School junior Sophia Mullholland after visiting different college campuses a few weeks ago.

Because it is that time of year again, when high-schoolers nationwide explore options for their future education. Mullholland visited New York University, Northeastern University, Brown University, Columbia University and Boston University. Although many colleges and universities offer campus visits year-round, spring break is notorious as a popular time when prospective students travel near and far in hopes of stumbling upon the college of their dreams — or simply learn what characteristics would make a school a good fit.

Mullholland was one of those students. “I went during spring break just because it was easier to travel rather than be stressed during the summer doing it,” she said. “I thought the tours really helped me figure out where I wanted to go and what campuses I liked and didn’t like.”

“Every university has attractive brochures and pictures — but walking across a campus and talking with students is a much more complete experience and provides a better understanding of the institution,” said Matthew Hulett, the director of admissions and recruitment at The University of New Mexico.

Danielle Staley, an assistant director in the Undergraduate Admissions Department at New Mexico State University, agrees, “Campus visits are extremely important in the college selection process,” Staley said. “Students get a sense of what the campus is like, they can interact with faculty and staff on campus, they see where students spend their time, they can picture themselves taking classes in the classrooms or studying in the student union.

Both UNM and NMSU offer frequent tours for prospective students. Staley said NMSU offers campus visits twice a day — 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. According to Hulett, “UNM offers a minimum of six tours per week attended by thousands of prospective students and families.” And both universities offer information sessions (covering admissions, financial aid, etc.) and student-led tours of campus, as well as other opportunities unique to each institution.

Both Staley and Hulett want students to get a taste of what that university has to offer in terms of their future educational career. “Our goal is for visitors to understand the top-notch opportunities, campus community and support for students the university provides. We want our tour experience to be informative and interactive, and our student guides do a great job of conveying the authentic student experience,” Hulett said.

And both believe students should know the logistics of what it would be like to attend the institution. “Prospective students should look for a sense of belonging when visiting a college campus,” Staley said. “They should feel like they know what it would be like to attend that school. Therefore, they should ask questions to seek the information that is important to them — financial aid, scholarships, housing, academic programs, campus life, etc.”

So how do prospective students find out about these opportunities? Colleges often reach out to high school students by mail, phone, email, text or social media using contact information they receive from the College Board or standardized tests. In addition, schools such as UNM and NMSU send representatives to visit high schools, community colleges and college fairs to increase student interest and knowledge about what the schools have to offer.

High schools also offer helpful services and programs that help students in the college application and selection process. Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) is a college readiness program that seeks to prepare students, especially those traditionally underrepresented in higher education, for success throughout their educational career. Loretta Trujillo, the AVID Site Coordinator at Santa Fe High School, said the program works with students to explore and learn about different colleges as early as their freshman or sophomore years in high school. Over the past few years, upperclassmen in the program have gone on trips to visit out-of-state colleges. “I think what drove the teachers of AVID at Santa Fe High to arrange the [first] tour was a sense that students were not extending their application process out of state,” Trujillo said.

It takes a lot of work to afford trips like these because they are not funded by the district. “Fundraising has been one of the main obstacles,” Trujillo said. “When we recruit students, we tell them that we want them to have an opportunity to visit colleges, but what that also means is that we have to really emphasize the need to fundraise.” This year, in addition to raising money by selling raffle tickets, seasonal candy grams and the like, Trujillo also reached out to Dion Silva, vice president of commercial loans at Los Alamos National Bank, to gain community support. “I expected that he would just guide me in reaching out to other banks and other businesses, but … he said he would arrange a meeting with the CEO of LANB and other executives to talk to our students about their college experience,” she said.

The AVID students produced a proposal, presentation and video that was shown to members of the bank in mid-December. In January, Los Alamos National Bank agreed to give the students money to visit four colleges in Texas over spring break.

Trujillo believes these college visits can be extremely beneficial in helping students decide what they want in a school. “I think that it just gives them a language and that it gives them a really clear sense of what they want,” she said.

As helpful as college visits are, the college selection process is still extremely difficult. Hulett’s advice is to take tours if you get the chance. “I don’t believe in the notion that a student needs to find a perfect fit in a college,” he said, “but every student should be able to find a few colleges that are a good fit.”

Trujillo says students should follow their gut feelings when it comes to their college choice.

“What I’ve learned from some students that I’ve seen go off to out-of-state colleges is that you have to be honest with yourself, that sometimes the prestige or the reputation of a certain institution is one thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that those kinds of spaces are right for you as an individual,” she said. “If you have a checklist of things that you’re looking for, just be honest about the kind of person that you are [and] the kinds of needs you have.”

Wyatte Grantham-Philips is a junior at Santa Fe High School. You can contact her at wyatte.granthamphilips@gmail.com.

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