Touring colleges with your kids this summer? Here’s what to keep in mind

Plus, what is ‘demonstrated interest,’ and why is it so important for college admissions?

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Finding the right college or university is overwhelming.

Taking multiple tours to see dorms, pass through dining halls and listen to lists of offered programs can have everyone seeing double, including you as the parent.

But new tactics have influenced college tours in a variety of ways, with some allowing students to get a 3D feel for the campus, simply by searching the web.

But what if schools are looking more deeply into who’s actually getting on campus? Could that be a determining factor on whether or not a student is accepted?

Catherine Ganley, owner and senior college consultant of Forword Consulting, and Colleen Ganjian, owner of DC College Counseling, say yes. They have helped hundreds of students in the DMV with the college transition and gave us the scoop on how students should go about touring schools they’re interested in, and being aware of the importance it may (or may not) have on their admissions. Highlights from our conversation are below.

How do you suggest students choose what schools to tour when they’re just getting started?

Ganley: I usually tell students that when they’re starting to tour different places to stop at as many universities as they can, just to get a sense of what they like. But I also find that touring is something we put a lot of pressure on for students, which makes them think it’s what they need to do. But I often tell students that I don’t care if they’ve toured the school before they apply, unless it’s a demonstrated interest school (where a college looks for prior engagement of the student in terms of enthusiasm and interaction with the school prior to applying). Rather than worry about where you’re going to tour, it’s more about what you want and where you can see yourself, and then really getting the feel of a place once you’re accepted, then you can decide.

Ganjian: I suggest taking a few Saturdays and checking out some of the colleges in our local area to get an initial sense of what their preferences might be, even if the student has no interest in those specific schools. We’re really lucky in Northern Virginia that we have so many different types of schools within a short drive! After seeing a handful in various settings, a student generally has a pretty good idea of the type of setting that might be more or less appealing to them and this can save a ton of time and hassle. I also suggest that students prioritize visiting colleges that consider demonstrated interest, as well as those that may be contenders for early decision options. If a school does not consider demonstrated interest and it’s not necessary to visit, it might be wise to wait until the student is admitted to see if the school is a final contender.

Speaking of demonstrated interest, what is it and why is it important to be aware of?

Ganley: Demonstrated interest is like dating; there’s certain people that want to feel the love before you go on the first date. They don’t just want you to show up as a blind date. So, when you’re applying to demonstrated interest schools, they want to see how much “love” you’re giving them, even before you apply. Students need to be interacting with the emails they send (for example, clicking through links and engaging in the content), reaching out to the school about interest and definitely touring, if possible.

Ganjian: It’s really important to understand the concept as it’s a key factor in today’s college admission process. A generation ago, families approached the college visit from the perspective of the consumer; the primary purpose of the tour was to determine whether the institution was a good fit for the student. Things have changed a lot in recent years and the tables have turned. While it’s unfortunate that it’s reached this point (where students must change their behavior as a result of demonstrated interest policies), students need to show a lot of enthusiasm to ensure that they aren’t being cast aside for a lower-achieving peer that demonstrated more enthusiasm.

Since touring these schools is an important factor, what time of year should students be touring colleges?

Ganley: Get on campus when there are students, so not in the summer. If you go in early August, you’re not going to get the same feeling as when the students are moving throughout campus.

Ganjian: Definitely try to visit when students are on campus. If you can’t visit all of the schools while students are on campus, consider visiting none of the schools while students are on campus so that you can, at least, make an apples-to-apples comparison later on. There’s no way that a school you visit in the summer will be as appealing as a school you visit on a gorgeous spring day when everyone is hanging outside in the sunshine!

And in order to make the most of it, how should readers go about navigating the tour itself?

Ganley: I always start by encouraging students to wear some of their hometown or their high school T-shirts because it’s an easy way to get people to chat with you. And then we move on to what the student does and does not like initially. Sure, I want to know what the student likes, but I really want to know what they don’t like. What about this environment is not right for you? When you know why you don’t like the school, it helps to narrow down your thoughts and priorities. I also encourage parents to remind themselves that what they like as parents might not be what their 18-year-old cares about. Also, don’t judge a school by the tour guide. You might have the captain of the football team as your tour guide, and you could be more of a Dungeons and Dragons fan. The tour guide’s perspective is only one version that’s on campus, so there can still be a place for you there.

Ganjian: Most schools run multiple tours at once and ask the larger group to separate into a few different smaller groups with one tour guide assigned to each. In addition to trying to pick a tour guide that seems like they might have some similarities with the student, I highly recommend that students and parents split up for these tours and choose separate groups. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s actually a brilliant idea. They get two completely different perspectives and can compare, maximizing their time spent on campus. Better yet, they can both ask the questions they want to ask without embarrassing one another!

Any last tips that you have for students starting to tour and apply in upcoming years?
Remember, not every school is going to have everything you want. I don’t usually push the mentality that there is one “right fit,” or a “dream school,” for a student, because that implies the wedding dress mentality: If you don’t pick the perfect one or wait to feel that “feeling,” you’ll regret the choice. This is four years of your life, and you do have the option to change it and transfer, too. Also, make sure to pay attention to the adjectives that a school uses to describe their ideal students. You may want to consider using those words back at them to let the university know that you’re a great candidate for what they’re looking for.

Ganjian: My best tip is to spread out the various tasks involved in the application process as much as possible—from the first visit to the last essay. Most of the work can take place during a 12-month period beginning at the start of a student’s junior year of high school. By knocking out tasks ahead of schedule, students will be able to take their time, produce their best work, and submit all of their applications in a stress-free manner before senior year. Additionally, I would encourage students and their families to dig a little deeper into the use of data analytics in tracking demonstrated interest. Most of my clients are completely shocked when they begin to understand the reality of this situation, but it’s much better to use that information to their advantage now than to be caught off guard later.

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