Context and Exposure: College Visits are Different for First Generation College Bound Students

By Robert W. Andrews

“Is Stanford a good school?”a scholar inquired during my first year as a college counselor for the Schuler Scholar Program. Without letting my bewilderment show, I nodded and assured her that it was indeed an excellent university and that she should consider it for college. Her lack of exposure to “name-brand” schools made me realize that the frenzy surrounding college admissions may look different in communities where many students are wondering about their ability to finish high school, let alone apply to college.

I had recently come from working at an independent school in the Boston area where parents often asked why Wesleyan University and other similar tier schools were not viewed as safety schools. I realized that by coming to Schuler, I had landed on a gold mine: students whose academic statistics rival those of any student applying to a top tier school, but without any preconceived notions of the college landscape.

It was refreshing to be part of a community of students that were untouched by any of the media hype that exists surrounding the college process. One parent from Eastern Europe beautifully illustrated this point by continuously asking me if “Browns” University that his son kept talking about was a good school. I knew college admissions representatives were going to enjoy meeting our students and parents because they were not equating “fit” with “prestige.”

This context lends to a new approach at tackling the college visit.  In the landscape of higher education, we need to expose these students and families to the variety of options, while making sure that high achievers are applying to schools that match their academic abilities.

Traditionally, the campus visit is one of the most important aspects of the college admissions process.  Viewing books, websites, and speaking with admissions representatives are good ways to initially learn about the school, but actually stepping foot onto a specific campus is the only way to truly understand the atmosphere, spirit and culture of an institution. For a first-generation college bound student, a college visit is critical. Our scholars simply do not rely on the “name” in order to apply. They must have an experience on campus that demonstrates to them that they belong.

A secondary purpose for a college visit, outside of understanding the particular campus, is called “demonstrated interest.”  For many colleges, gauging an applicant’s interest in attending becomes a part of the discussion for admissions committees. Admissions representatives at highly selective colleges will tell you that because there are so few high achieving first generation, low-income students in the entire applicant pool, yield is always a question. First generation students don’t always understand the concept of “demonstrated interest”, so they don’t always reach out in traditional ways; making it more difficult for admissions representatives to gauge a student’s interest level. When our students understand how to express appropriate interest, colleges seem to be more willing to take a chance because they know the application is genuine. One of the best ways to let a school know you want to attend is to show up, take the tour and listen to the informational session. It is important to sign in at all schools because some colleges keep track of all of your points of contact.

The Schuler Scholar Program takes students on a number of visits during high school. During the fall semester, most juniors will visit a college out of state. Juniors are divided into small groups across partner high schools to visit one college. We try to expose students to a type of college that is the opposite of where they recently spent their summer college program in the hopes of getting them to think about their college search more broadly.  Senior scholars also accompany juniors on these trips to provide mentorship throughout the college process. Older peers who have already visited multiple campuses have become pros at attending informational sessions and going on campus tours. They lead by example, asking thoughtful questions and showing their peers how to conduct themselves on a college campus.

During spring break, all our scholars are required to go on a week-long trip to see a variety of colleges. Scholars will all visit small liberal arts colleges, small research universities, urban schools, rural schools, women’s colleges and test-optional schools. The goal of each spring break trip is to expose students to as many types of colleges and universities as possible; each one will have a distinct “vibe” or “feel”.

Our spring break program has proven instrumental in making our mission become a reality for our scholars. Visiting so many colleges and hearing similar messages from each one, allows students to realize they are capable of attending a top tier college. More importantly, they realize that they belong at a “selective” college. The repetition of visiting college after college each day proves to them that they have numerous options. Prior to this trip, most colleges are unknown to scholars and their families. Post trip, scholars see the benefits we have been talking about first-hand.

The summer after junior year, the Schuler Scholar Program plans a number of other trips similar to spring break. This time, scholars will be able to visit colleges in a variety of regions of the country. Our hope is that by senior year, they have visited most of the colleges to which they will apply. This trip gives scholars confidence in their college choices.

Still, change takes place slowly. It takes a lot of strength for our scholars to go against the norm. One of my scholars who attends Williams College continues to lament that people back home keep thinking he attends a community college because no one has ever heard of Williams. The more exposure students and families have to what lies outside of their own backyard, the more they will take advantage of it and spread the word so others will have access to these opportunities that so many take for granted.

Tips for Students:

It is important to keep an open mind on any campus tour. The tour-guide is just one student of many attending that institution.  If you are interested in classics and your tour guide is a physics major and doesn’t know much about the classics department don’t get to discouraged – continue to just get a sense of the school as you walk around – not just the personality of one guide.

During your visit take time to do the official visit activities, but also plan to spend additional time on each campus.  Most campus visits involve a campus tour and informational session. On some visits you will have time to stop at the school store, sit in on classes, listen to a panel of students, play Frisbee on the quad, eat in the dining hall or talk with current Schuler Scholars attending. Take advantage of this time.

Each visitor should keep a journal. After each visit, write down your impressions of the campus community BEFORE talking with anyone else about their perspective. There are many times (consciously or not) that a student will decide he/she doesn’t like a particular school only because of others opinions. By having time to reflect on your own, you are able to really articulate why you enjoyed or disliked the visit. Some people have difficulty with free writing, so come up with a list of questions or prompts before your visit.

Finally, have fun!  This is a great opportunity to see different parts of the country and spend time with your friends before leaving for four years of college.

A note about attire on campus visits:

You will not only be representing yourself on this trip, but your community. Please dress professionally, yet comfortable with appropriate walking shoes for campus tours. Look nice, while staying true to you.


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