Q: I want to take my son to visit some colleges this summer, but he says it's pointless to go since there are no classes and he won't be able to judge what the school is really like. But I have more time off in the summer than in the fall when he wants to go – and anyway, won't that be too late? He will be a senior this fall. What do you suggest?
A: Both you and your son have valid points. There is more time to see several colleges now, although it is true that you won't see them under typical conditions. But at least you could get an idea of where they are, what the surrounding neighborhood or town is like, and the conditions of the campus facilities. Colleges know that for many families, summer is the only time they can travel to distant places. Most admissions offices are open all summer, and they are prepared for visitors with tours and information sessions. Depending upon the size of the campus, libraries will be open, summer classes will be in session, and the neighborhood will be as busy as it is during the rest of the year. But other schools will be nearly deserted. The most lively locations be will be schools that are in, or near, urban centers. Ask before you go.
Visiting colleges can be expensive, so you want to plan carefully. I would suggest that if there are some schools far away that your son feels he absolutely has to see, go in the summer. See what other attractions are in the area, so you can make this a vacation as well. Ask your son to contact the colleges to make sure there will be campus tours and that you will be able to speak with an admissions officer. Remember that in terms of "demonstrated interest" colleges that are far from your home do not expect him to make the trip, so applying without having been to the campus will not hurt his chances of admission.
For schools that are closer to NYC, your son is correct -- wait until fall. You and he can see some of them during the last week of August, when most colleges are busy. Many schools will have open house events on the weekends. And your son's high school ought to have a policy that allows seniors to miss a day of classes in order to make campus visits. You will have all of September and October to do this. By that time, your son will be very experienced at seeing colleges.
My next column will discuss exactly what to look for during a campus visit – beyond the official tour!