The annual online availability of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) starting in October means that many rising high school juniors and seniors have to rethink their college and financial aid application timeframes. While these steps might previously have been completed at a more leisurely pace, there is now a lot more pressure to be ready to apply by October. This means you need to finalize your college list earlier than ever and you should make plans to visit the campuses of your top choices during the summer.
Reasons to Schedule Campus Visits
Beyond looking at financial considerations, one way to narrow down the choice of colleges is to schedule some campus visits. An in-person review will give you a really good idea of whether or not a particular school will be a good fit for you.
It is best to visit your college possibilities with your parents, but you can also go with the families of other classmates who are interested in the same colleges as you are. Many campuses offer special weekends or guided tours to help you feel more welcome.
Try to visit the campus of at least the top three schools on your list so you can get an in-person feel for them. Websites and online videos can take only you so far.
Plan Your Campus Visits
There are certain things to put on your list of activities when scheduling your on-campus summer visits. Put together an agenda that includes scheduling a campus tour led by someone from the school, if they're available during the summer months.
If you have no option but to do a self-led campus tour, include the following tasks on your list:
- Survey classrooms in the buildings for your degree program.
- Visit the main school library and any libraries that are specific to your degree program.
- View the dorm buildings and see if you can have a look inside one of the rooms, the bathroom area and the common areas.
- Check out any nearby school-owned apartments, and fraternity and sorority houses if that is your interest.
- Test out the dining hall by having a meal there.
- Check out the athletic and gym facilities.
- Locate and visit the on-campus medical facilities.
- Visit the bookstore.
- Stop by the school's administration building.
Try to imagine all of the places you'd need to go if you were living on campus and visit them to anticipate how you'd feel about spending the next four years of your life there.
Calculate Your Travel Costs
If you're thinking about a school that is not in your hometown, your travel costs could be a big portion of your annual school budget. Keep track of how much money you spend on gas, tolls, hotels, food and other travel expenses.
Think about how many times you will be making that trip each year — for freshman orientation, in the fall, at Thanksgiving, for the December holidays, spring break, and back home again after the school year ends. Those expenses can really add up over four years.
Visit the Financial Aid Office
Prepare a list of questions that you want to ask the financial aid office at each college you visit. This is a great time to start getting a handle on exactly how much it is going to cost to attend this specific school.
Ask the following questions:
- What are the total costs to attend this school, including tuition, living expenses, room and board, books and fees?
- What is the amount of money the average student receives in financial aid and is it the same every year?
- What percentage of students graduate in four years?
- What is the average student loan balance at graduation?
- What is the percentage of graduates who find jobs in their field of study?
- What is the average beginning salary for those students?
It's the financial aid office's job to have answers for these and other, related questions, so don't be afraid to ask them.
Look Around the Town
One important aspect most students don’t think about is off-campus life, but you might end up spending a lot of time around town. Try to determine the number of local part-time jobs that will be available if you need more money and also look at how much money you might be spending on eating out or entertainment opportunities. You will want to have some fun with your friends, so this information will also become part of your budgeting process.
Make sure you talk to other people, too. It’s summer, so there might not be as many students on campus, but do talk to those you meet. Ask about the dorms, food, and on-campus and off-campus activities.
Try to meet some students in your major and ask about classes. Introduce yourself to a few professors and ask about scholarship opportunities. This is a great fact-finding opportunity and you want to gather information from as many sources as possible. When it comes time to make a final college choice, you’ll have solid details on which to base your decision.