If you are applying for fall 2013, you need to schedule your campus visits over the summer and early fall. If you leave it until November and December, you will find it increasingly difficult to make appointments. If you are flying, booking flights in advance will save you some money. It helps too if the schools you have chosen are in the same general area. For example, flying into Boston makes great sense if you are looking at New England schools. There are dozens of schools within an hour or so drive of Logan International Airport. The admissions staff will have a list of hotels and bed and breakfasts in the local area. Be sure to ask.
First impressions are lasting impressions. Does the campus make a good impression on you? Note anything which doesn't make a good impression. Most schools are rather good about putting their best foot forward.
If it is not, find out why. Stinting on maintenance could indicate financial problems. On the other hand, if the school has a plan in place for regular maintenance and upgrades, the buildings and grounds will reflect that care and concern.
Depending on the setting, the campus could be spread out. That's not a major issue, but it makes getting around a bit of a trek.
Close proximity creates a feeling of community. It also makes it easier to get around in inclement weather.
While nobody expects a dorm room to be like the Ritz, still you need to look for basics such as adequate wiring and Internet access. (Children these days come equipped with dozens of rechargeable devices besides their appetites!) This description of a dorm room at Hotchkiss is typical: "Individual dorm rooms are comfortable and well maintained with enough space for the bureau, bed, desk, and two chairs provided by the School, and many have sufficient space for additional furnishings. All rooms are wired on a per-student basis for both telephone and data connections."
Generally an adult member of staff lives in the dorms. The quality of that supervision can vary, however, so be sure to inquire how that works.
Security is a fact of life these days. You need to know that your child is safe. Ask about after hours security too. The following from Phillips Academy shows you the kind of security measures you ought to expect. "Phillips Academy Public Safety (PAPS) officers are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They patrol the campus in cars, by bicycle, and on foot to ensure the safety of Andover students. Every dormitory is locked from the outside and each dorm room has an individual lock. As a result of these precautionary measures, issues of security on the Andover campus are kept to a minimum."
This is rarely an issue, but obviously if the staff is disorganized, make a note of that and ask about it during your interview.
Depending on the number of applicants, the school may organize group tours of the school or hold an Open House. An individual tour is always preferable but depending on the volume of applicants that may not be practical. Listen carefully to the questions other parents ask. and the answers given. They will probably be questions which you were going to ask.
Many schools use senior students to lead the campus tours. Is she friendly, engaged and helpful? If you are shown around by somebody on the admissions staff, is he helpful? Does he answer your questions?
Nobody expects students to be angels, but a modicum of decorum is expected. If the school has a dress code, is it enforced? Do you sense respect among the students for each other and their teachers?
Are the faculty and staff friendly and approachable?
You may have the opportunity to sit in on a class. Observe the interaction between students and teachers. While teaching and learning styles vary from individual to individual, the class and its teacher should interact fearlessly yet respectfully.
Why are all these issues important? Simply because the school will operate in loco parentis or as your subsitute. You are about to entrust your child to this institution for several years. You need to get the 'fit' right. If you don't get the 'fit' right, you will have an unhappy child on your hands.
Robert Knox Kennedy is a consultant who has written extensively about private schools.