"Visiting allows you to not only walk the halls, but to meet the faculty and - most importantly - the students."
You can read all you want from a school's website, but if you want to fully understand the spirit of a school (and gain a better understanding of whether or not your student would be a good fit), you need to visit campus. Visiting allows you to not only walk the halls, but to meet the faculty and - most importantly - the students. As a former admissions director who has helped thousands of families through this process, I have some inside tips to make the most out of your visit. You can always ask us further questions via our Ask an Expert Tool or by emailing me directly.
Since you are reading this article, I will skip the "Google the School's Name" step.
1 - Involve Your Student
This may be the hardest step for some, but it is an essential step for finding the right fit and getting off to a good start. You are the parents, and it's your responsibility to prepare for your child's future. However, your student is the one who has to do the work to get there. Blindsiding them or failing to involve them does not bring success. Military school may sound scary (it certainly did for me - read my personal story here) and most teenagers are resistant to change. Going away to boarding school and making new friends is a massive change. Therefore, you want to have clear multi-directional communication amongst all parties involved.
You want your student to visit with an open mind and explore the school, just like you are doing. I recommend visiting together for the first visit so you can go through the experience together as a family.
2 - Plan Ahead
Call and speak with the school's Admissions Department. You can tell them what your student is looking for and they can tell you all about their school and what they offer. This will give you an idea of how the school will fit with your family. There is no perfect school, but there are a lot of wrong schools. Ask about the students and what they do after graduation. Ask why most families choose their school. The admissions counselor can send you more information, as well as references from some of their current families.
Most schools will gladly show you around if you just pop in, but you will have a much more personalized visit if they know more about your family. The admissions counselor can tell you good times to visit and when they are holding events. There is more on choosing when to visit below.
3 - Reach Out
Social media is a great way to speak to parents and alumni of a school. Many schools have parents and alumni Facebook groups along with their official school pages. You can post on the school's Facebook wall or find people to talk to directly by contacting those who are commenting/liking/sharing posts.
"Don't be worried about bothering anyone; most people will be happy to share their experiences with you."
Most schools operate Instagram and Twitter accounts, but Facebook is by far the best way to communicate with people who are not employees of the school. Don't be worried about bothering anyone; most people will be happy to share their experiences with you.
If you send a Facebook message to someone who is not your friend, it goes into their "Other Messages Folder", which most people never check. For best results add them as a friend first.
4 - When To Visit
To Open House or not to Open House? Personally, I dislike Open Houses as they are always so busy and don't always offer enough personal time to ask all your questions (there is no shame in bringing a list!). Open Houses are great for meeting the school officials, getting an overview of the school, and meeting other parents going through the same decision process.
My favorite option is the weekday personal tour of campus. This allows you to have one-on-one time with your admissions counselor and see the school in operation. Weekend visits do not allow you to visit active classrooms or observe daily campus life. Weekends are usually so busy you don't see vey much of the students.
During your visit, don't be afraid to ask to see something, don't just look at the one dorm room they show you. Go walk the playing fields, check out the bathrooms and really take it all in (wear comfortable shoes!).
Many schools also offer an opportunity to shadow a cadet and you should definitely take advantage of this. Your student gets to spend a day, and sometimes a night, following a cadet around to their classes and throughout the daily routine. This gives a great perspective on what life is like and how different living on campus is.
5 - Who To Talk With
With good planning, your admissions counselor can match you up with a student to show you around campus and you can meet with the coaches and teachers who your student will be involved with. Most military schools require their cadets to be involved in sports. For many students this is a first, and a great time to try something new. Please read our article about the importance of athletics.
Teachers at boarding schools are much more involved in the lives of their students than even the best day schools can offer. They hold study sessions in the mornings, teach their small classes, coach or sponsor a sport in the afternoon, lead a mentor group, oversee study hours at night, chaperone weekend activities and community service, and many live on campus. Take special care to visit with any teacher who instructs an area your student is passionate about or may need extra help in.
An important group that is often overlooked on campus visits is the Building Officer (sometimes called TAC or RFO). This is the adult who oversees the dorm (barracks) and is the family's primary contact at the school.
Most importantly, talk with the students; their perspective is invaluable. The cadet who showed me around campus many years ago made quite an impression on me. I remember thinking how in charge he was how cool it was that he knew everybody and spoke this different language of military school.
See the Questions for Students section below for example questions you should ask the cadets.
6 - Campus Amenities
Most moms are shocked by the dorm (barracks). It isn't that they rooms are bad, but that they're very spartan. This is by design as it is much easier to develop organizational skills when everything has a place. Additionally, the schools don't really want the cadets spending too much time in their rooms. Cadets need to get out and do things. Going running with your friends or playing tennis on a Saturday afternoon is so much better than vegging out and playing video games.
You want to make sure there are places for the cadets to unwind and relax, grab essentials like deodorant and pencils, get a snack, and explore.
Old schools often have old classrooms or classrooms tucked into seemingly random places. Be more concerned about the content of the class. I have taught many awesome computer science classes over old creaky hardwood floors.
7 - Tuition
This is a big one: before you change your mind over sticker shock, remember that your student is being fed, clothed, housed, entertained, and educated in a 24/7 environment. Without donations, most schools could not operate since tuition doesn't cover the full cost of attendance.
"Most schools will work with your family using scholarships, financial aid plans, and tuition discounts."
Most schools will work with your family using scholarships, financial aid plans, and tuition discounts. Talk with your admissions counselor and they will do all they can for a student who is a great fit for their school.
Remember that there are incidental costs like additional uniform items, athletics, allowance, snack bars, field trips, school supplies, and travel.
8 - Relationships
Earlier I mentioned how involved the faculty is in the life of a cadet. A great way to see this connection is at lunch. Watch how the faculty interacts with the cadets in the dining hall. My family and I used to sit near the drink dispensers at lunch and we always had a constant stream of students stopping by to talk, often while trying to balance their tray full of food. When students have a relationship where they actually stop and talk to their teachers outside of class, you know that the teacher cares about their students and the students know it.
Admissions counselors tell the story of the school via stories of the cadets. You can see how in touch they are with the student body (Corps of Cadets) if the anecdotes are recent or if they have been recycled for years. Ask what special things they have done recently with students.
9 - Safety
Not only is this the number one concern for parents, it is the number one concern for the schools. Cadets do get sick sometimes, they also sometimes get hurt by being young and active. Make sure you visit the infirmary and speak with the nurse. Ask where they go to the doctor and where the nearest hospital is. As a coach, I have taken my share of students to the doctor after taking them to the infirmary. I have also visited my share of sick cadets just to check on them and see if they needed anything (they all needed their cell phone chargers).
10 - Questions for Current Students
Cadets are a great source of information about a school. During your visit make sure to talk with them and give your student some "away from mom and dad" time to talk with the cadets. Most will have great things to say and they will all tell the truth.
- How long have you attended this fine school? After a while you will be able to judge this one without asking, by noticing how the cadet carried themselves and by their confidence.
- What is your favorite thing to do here? This shows engagement.
- What was the hardest part of adjusting to life on campus? Usually adjustment is much harder on the parents than the cadets.
- What are your goals after graduation and what are you doing to prepare?
- Who is your favorite teacher and why? For most this is a hard question as there are so many. Perhaps it could be better rephrased as "who do you talk to first when you have a problem?".
- Why did you choose this school?
It is definitely the people who make a school, not the fancy buildings or even the lack of. Make sure you talk with the cadets and allow your student to be a part of the decision. Boarding school is a big decision. Your student's buy-in is very important to their success. After visiting and discovering that military school is not like the movies, most students are ready for this new adventure.