You have spent many hours selecting schools online. Some of the schools' web sites were so good that you almost felt as though you had explored every corner of their campuses. You watched videos of classes, sports and extracurricular activities. So, what more could you possibly need to know about the schools? After all you have identified three or four to which you want to apply. That's the next step in the process, right? Not exactly. The next step is for you to visit those three or four schools on your short list. You really have to set foot on each campus. By the way the schools will insist on meeting you and your child in person as well.
Here is an example of what I am talking about. This excellent video presents Shattuck-St. Mary's School
in Faribault, Minnesota and its fine campus and programs in the best light possible. But you still need to visit the school and truly experience all it has to offer.
Visit schools on your short list
Don't skip visiting the schools on your short list. Why? Because you need to inspect the campuses yourself. It's like buying a house or renting an apartment. A web site and a video will not show you what you really need to see. Professionally done photo galleries and videos are no substitute for experiencing the school. All of those videos and photos are produced and positioned to present the school precisely as it wants to be seen. There's nothing wrong with that by itself. It does give you a pretty good idea of whether the schools match your requirements or not. Just never overlook the reality that you have a well-developed sense of what is right for you and your child. That is the reason you must visit the schools on your short list. Experience them. Compare them. Then proceed with the application process confident that you have made good choices.
Plan your visit well in advance
If you are applying for fall of the next academic year, you will 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. The time period from Thanksgiving through New Year's is always a busy time for schools.
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.
Things to look for when you visit
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. Use my checklists to record detailed notes about your visits:
Does the campus look well maintained?
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.
Is the campus self-contained?
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.
Are the dorms located fairly close to each other?
Close proximity creates a feeling of community. It also makes it easier to get around in inclement weather.
Are the dorms well-appointed?
While nobody expects a dorm room to be like one at the Ritz, still you need to look for basics such as adequate wiring and wifi 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."
Are the dorms properly supervised?
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.
Is there security or can anybody gain access to the school grounds?
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."
Is the admissions staff organized and ready for you?
This is rarely an issue, but obviously if the staff is disorganized, make a note of that and ask about it during your interview.
Are you part of a group tour or an Open House?
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 which are given. They will probably be questions which you were going to ask as well.
Is the tour guide a student or staff?
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?
Are the students reasonably well-behaved?
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? A video like this one gives you a good iimpression of a Culver Academy
student. Visiting the Academy will confirm that initial impression, as well as allowing you to experience the facilities and programs this fine boarding school offers.
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 substitute. 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.