If you're a parent of a homeschooled teenager, you've probably been thinking about college for a while now! As you and your student prepare for that not-so-far-away event, now is the time to start visiting colleges that interest you. Visit colleges in the spring of your student's junior year or earlier. Colleges can look very similar on paper, with brochures full of sunny days and beautiful fall leaves. Even when pictures and statistics look the same, you really don't know what a college is like until you visit.

Let them know you're coming

Whether you visit a campus on a special-preview day or regular school day, or for an overnight visit, you should sign up with the admissions department and let its staff know you're coming. It's very easy. Most college websites will have a place to register for a visit. Don't miss this opportunity to let colleges know you're interested in them! Some colleges keep records of how often prospective students come to visit. If you decide a particular college may be "the one," and you've visited it four times, the admissions staff will look at this very favorably and value the prospective student more because of it.

Meet the admission representative

When visiting a prospective college, your student should dress neatly and be clean, pleasant, and charming. The school staff will likely be watching you just as closely as you are watching them. Students should make a point to talk to the college admission staff. It's easy for parents to take control and run the show, but this is actually a mistake. This time, your student should do most of the interacting. On the other hand, it's important for parents to find out the college's policy for homeschooled applicants and to determine what sort of records it needs from your homeschool. There are many colleges that treat homeschoolers the same as all other applicants. However, other colleges will have certain hoops that homeschoolers have to jump through—perhaps additional testing or something unique to that college. It's important to know this information up front, so make sure to ask about it during your visit.

Take a class, take a tour, and take notes

Prospective students are usually asked if they want to visit a classroom and take a campus tour. These are great opportunities—don't miss them! Choose a class that interests your student, or attend a general freshman-level class to see what the first year of college will be like. As you tour the campus, remember that the tour guide will usually show you only the places that make the school look good. Throughout all these activities, you and your student should be taking notes. Write down the details (names, classes visited, impressions, strengths, and concerns). This information will help you remember each college you visit and will provide your student with great content as they prepare their application essays.

Use your five senses

While you're visiting, use all your senses as you walk around: look, listen, feel, taste, and touch. Does this college seem like a positive environment? Can you picture your child living here for four years? Do the students appear happy and respectful? Is it a pleasant atmosphere? How does it make you feel about safety and security? Is the food healthy and appealing? Your answers might help you choose between colleges that seem to be equal on paper.

Say thank you

After each campus visit, make sure your student writes a thank-you note to the admissions staff and professors. This simple act will show the staff that the student is interested in the school. You may even help develop relationships with individuals who may become long-term mentors for your child. Both e-mailed and handwritten notes are helpful. If your child doesn't intend to go to the school, then e-mailing a thank-you note is fine. But if he or she does want to apply to the school, then a mailed thank-you note is best. Some colleges keep a record of how many contacts a prospective student makes with them, so it can actually help to write a letter by hand.

Buyer beware

Visiting a college is a critical step in finding a college for your children. Assess each college carefully. You want to know their views. You need to know whether a college with "Christian" in its name will match your family values. You can tell very little by the name of a college; you can tell only a little more from its marketing materials. You don't really know the personality of the college until you encounter it in person—during a college visit. There is no perfect college, just like there are no perfect people. But a purposeful visit can help you find the college that's best for your child.

Lee Binz is the The HomeScholar, and her mission is to help parents homeschool high school. Lee homeschooled her two sons through high school, and both earned four-year, full-tuition scholarships.

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