Students walk through the snow on the campus of Swarthmore College (Laurence Kesterson / staff photographer)

Now is the Winter of our Content(ment)

Greetings, fair juniors of the land. It’s January…maybe it is snowing where you live, or maybe it is sunny (perhaps it is even summer in your neck of the woods? Hello, Down Under!). In any event, now is the time that many students in their penultimate (SAT word, I know) year of high school begin to contemplate the college admissions process.  As a high school junior, what can you do now to prepare for this process?

We’ll break down some of the things that you can begin thinking about now as you slowly begin the college search and application process. Note: I said slowly. There is no rush! It’s like yoga. Or a marathon. Or even a potato sack race. Find your own groove. Go at your own pace. Get there when/if/as you are able.

First up: visiting institutions. Also known as “I spent my spring break visiting colleges and all I have to show for it is this t-shirt.”

Maybe you’ve already been dragged along in your mom’s van to more colleges than you can count (if so, you can skip this section). But for many, the spring and summer of junior year are a time when students and families visit schools that may end up on the application list. Spring break is especially popular, and judging by the phone calls we’ve been getting in the admissions office, students and families are making their plans for spring break. We’ll see a lot of groups like this roaming around campus. 

A tour for prospective students on the campus of Swarthmore College (Laurence Kesterson / staff photographer)

Things to consider about college visits:

  • Check the websites for the schools that interest you to make sure they’ll be open (and have programming!) when you can visit. Most schools allow you to reserve your spot in advance using an online registration system. Here’s where you can schedule your  visit to Swarthmore. We offer info sessions and campus tours most weekdays and on several Saturdays in the spring.
  • Give yourself some breathing room. Just because you could theoretically cram three or four (or however many) school visits into one day doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Visiting a school can take a lot of mental (and physical) energy. You’re trying to take it all in. Have a heart-to-heart with your visit companions (your family? A friend?) and be sure to consider what’s realistic for your group. Also, don’t forget to have fun. Find something you enjoy to add onto your trip. Maybe it’s a museum, or a stop at a really good cheesesteak shop, or a sports game.
  • Pretend you’re going camping and bring a jacket, an umbrella, and snacks for the drive (or flight). No, seriously (I recommend Goldfish crackers and Reese’s peanut butter cups). There is nothing worse than visiting a college when you’re hangry, or it’s raining, or it’s suddenly-a-bit-chilly-and-you’re-freezing. Plus, you don’t want these things to influence your perception of a school. Might want to remember your water bottle, too.
  • Take pictures and notes. Not because you need to remember precisely where Beardsley Hall is located, or that the dining hall is named Sharples, but because after a while, the colleges will begin to blur together in a swirl of grassy lawns and column-lined architecture (see below for a stunning example). Snap a photo or two at each institution to help you keep them apart. Your notes can be simple. Just write down what really sticks out in your mind. For some places, that might be nothing at all.

Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College

  • Are there special programs for juniors – and should you attend one? Many colleges offer workshops or open houses designed particularly for high school juniors, and sometimes these days include special sessions about the school or the admissions process. At Swarthmore, we host such a program in May each year – we (in our special Swattie, creative, innovative way) call this program Junior Visit Day. More information about this year’s program is coming soon.

Not able to visit a school? No problem! Many colleges offer online or virtual tours (for example, Swarthmore’s online campus tour is located here), or have videos on the web that can give you an idea of the campus feel.

Another idea: is there a college or university near where you live? It doesn’t matter if you’re interested in that specific institution, but perhaps you can use that school as an example of kinds of schools. What are you thinking might be the best fit school for you? An urban institution, located in a bustling city? Something suburban, with the amenities of the city but a more quiet locale? Something rural, where you can really get “away from it all?”  You can use local institutions to consider other institutional characteristics, such as student body size.

[Insider tip: I didn’t do a single college visit my junior year of high school….and now I work in college admissions…so truly, NBD if you can’t visit schools.]

Coming in the next post: Okay, you’ve made your plans to visit a school. What should you be wondering while you’re actually there?  We present: 20 questions for your college visit.

Emily Almas works in the admissions office at Swarthmore College. For the record, she is terrible at yoga (though she does enjoy it) and she has never run a marathon. She does love a good Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup however.

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