One of my favorite quotes about visiting colleges is something along the lines of “Never has a 19-year-old walking backward had so much power over your life.” It’s funny because it’s true.
We have started looking at colleges with our teen daughter and the process has changed quite a bit from when I was a teen. Here are a few things I’ve learned and some tips to help you make the most of your visits.
You can’t start too early
When you are traveling as a family, consider the idea of checking out colleges along the way or near your destination, even when your kids are younger. I’m not saying preschoolers will get a lot out of the experience, but once your kiddo is a tween, consider stopping by a university if you’re “in the neighborhood” or happening to be near cities that have a lot of schools, such as Boston or New York, over summer vacation. While the conventional wisdom is that it’s best to visit schools while class is in session, that doesn’t mean that a summer visit isn’t worth it. This can also save on travel costs.
With younger kids, you’re not looking to find the perfect fit. You’re just getting them (and you) familiar with the idea of college and the possibilities available. It’s free to look around, there’s often green space where you can relax or kids can run around, and there are typically decent, economical food options in the student union or surrounding neighborhoods.
Register in advance
Once your teen hits high school, you’ll want to get a little more serious. The days of just looking up the time of the tour and popping in are gone. Tours fill up, and quickly, so you need to make sure you have reserved the spaces you need.
Be sure to register online before your visit. Each school has a slightly different procedure. It’s usually a pretty straightforward form, and one that your kid is capable of doing on his/her own. Also, make note that certain times of year are particularly busy and there are only so many tours available. Think spring break or around holidays when high schools are likely to be out. Registering early can help avoid a headache.
Schools also rack “demonstrated interest” by applicants and visiting campus is one way to show that, but for them to track it, you need to register online.
Pro tip: double check the date. I confess that when checking our plans the night before we headed out on a college visitation road trip, we realized we had registered for the wrong date at one of the schools. Should that happen to you, don’t panic. You can typically cancel online and may even able to reschedule for the day you need.
Wear comfortable shoes, and break them in ahead of time
Tours involve a lot of walking. An average tour lasts around 90 minutes and typically covers a couple miles. If you do two in a day, you’ll get your steps in. On one of our recent tours, a teen wore shoes that didn’t fit. Her heels were bleeding and she was having a tough time keeping up with the tour. Sneakers that you’ve broken in are your friends. Really.
Don’t worry too much about what to wear
You’ll see kids wearing pretty much everything on college tours, but I did ask my daughter to remember that she was making a first impression and that she wanted it to be a good one. Have your kid wear something they are comfortable in and see if that fits in with the vibe of the campus.
As for you, follow the same advice and wear what’s comfortable. Jeans are the norm, khakis are also fine, and you may see a few sundresses, too.
Most tours start with an info session and those are often in air conditioned auditoriums which can be chilly even on the hottest of days, so consider bringing a sweater if you get cold easily. Also, many tours happen rain or shine so bring umbrellas, just in case.
Schedule a face-to-face conversation with an admissions counselor
On the topic of making a first impression, chances are that the college has an admissions counselor responsible for your area of the country or high school. Encourage your teen reach out to the admissions office ahead of your visit and see if that individual is available to meet with him/her. It can be a good way to make a personal connection and ask any specific questions they may have.
Have some fun!
For fun on campus, see if there’s a performance or sporting event taking place while you’re there.
As for off campus fun, whether that’s trying out a different burger joint at each stop, hitting a random roadside attraction along the way or staying at a fun hotel, build in some time to relax and enjoy each other. As an added bonus, kids may be more likely to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about a school when you’re not sitting down for a serious conversation with more eye contact than they can handle. And knowing that you won’t always have that time together will make it all the more meaningful.
Hangry teens find it hard to focus on the next four years of their lives. Pack some simple snacks that won’t melt, like nuts or energy bars, to have on hand. A few hours of walking can make you tired. Some schools encouraged bringing a reusable water bottle that you can fill at stations around campus, which is particularly wise if you’re touring on a warm day.
If someone in your group is wearing down, there’s no harm in hitting the Starbucks in the student union for a drink and a rest. The opportunity to observe students can be helpful and give you a chance to re-energize at the same time.
Do your research
College websites are pretty fantastic. While they’re certainly marketing tools, they also contain a wide variety of helpful information. Have your kids spend some time familiarizing themselves with the school and they’ll be better prepared for your visit. They’ll also probably come up with much better questions to ask.
Keep an open mind
It’s possible that, on paper, a college doesn’t seem like the best fit, but your student could still find a lot to love on the tour. Go into each tour with an open mind and see what the school has to offer your child and family. You may be pleasantly surprised. Or you may leave knowing that it just isn’t the right fit. Either way, you’ve gained valuable information and are a step closer toward helping your child make a great choice for their future.
And remember …
If the idea of your baby heading off to college results in a lump in your throat, you’re not alone. And if your kiddo suddenly gets a little weird about looking at schools, that’s completely normal, too. Heading off to college big deal, and there are a lot of emotions wrapped up in this process that can be a bit overwhelming.