For those of you in high school, the next phase of your life likely means more than just a little concern; imminent major life-change – going to college – causes stress in even the best of students. For your parents, helping you confront this stress – this transition from high-school student into a college freshman – likely means urging you to the essential rite of passage: the college visit. If the mere idea of spending time with your parents — particularly when “time” means a car, where nothing but your trusty iPod earbuds separate you — pushes your stress-level into the red, then you are an ordinary teenager. With nearly toxic hormone levels, you have a biological imperative to disobey your parents. Regarding college-visits, however, your parents are only trying to give you a glimpse of utopia…and the longer you wait to go, the less likely you are to find that campus, the one that is perfect for you.
In fact, the biggest mistake that most teens make is waiting until the Summer to make these vital college visits. Student life is the single most important characteristic of any campus. Though your parents may still marvel at the architecture, the curriculum, and the student-to-faculty ratio (and you may be nothing but bored at these features of a school), you as a prospective student owe yourself the marvel at real college students in their natural habitat. Simply put, college is more than school. It will be your home; suburban or urban, small or large, college-based or university-based, it will become your community. And, as the traits and nuances of any community cannot be found on a bland website or in empty buildings, community must be experienced.
So, when you visit a school, don’t take just the standard campus tour. Observe how the students there behave in class, act around campus, and – especially – commune in the dining hall (the belly of every community). Take time to linger in each new environment and imagine yourself among its vibrant crowd. Ideally a collegiate reverie will titillate your teenage soul, inspired into an urgent sense of optimism about making this daydream a reality; ideally you’ll know that that school – that that community – is meant for you. Alternatively, if you find yourself not daydreaming but dreading a certain undergraduate experience instead, then you will still have done yourself a favor; as you begin to plot your future, you’ll have the knowledge that that experience, or at least that that community, doesn’t ring true for you. You’ll even have plenty of time to prepare for a gap year . . . but that’s a matter for another article.
In the meantime, don’t hesitate to hit the college circuit and figure out the nuanced differences between the communities of Wellesley and Wesleyan, Williams and William and Mary, for yourself.