Surviving the College Tour: A Six-Day, Seven-Campus Sojourn

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Back in the Paleolithic era, I set off for my freshman year of college with two new Samsonite suitcases, a jumbo jar of Noxzema, and only the flimsiest idea of what the campus would even look like (I’d merely seen photos).

Contrast that to today, when high school kids routinely pay personal visits to a dozen or more colleges before deciding where to apply. And while academic issues still play a role in students’ decisions, so do lifestyle factors like weather, the local cuisine, and access to the scions of name-brand families.

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about trotting kids around the country to pass judgment on colleges they might not actually get into or be able to afford. But my own blind-date approach to college, though not unusual at the time, didn’t result in a great match. While the university was academically renowned, I found the casual California vibe of the campus a turn-off. In the long run, my inability to embrace the gestalt of the place affected my ability to engage and learn.

And so this month my 17-year-old son (a high-school junior) and I joined the throngs of anxious middle-aged parents and teens clamoring for a first-hand glimpse of far-flung colleges. Like (and seemingly with) dozens of my son’s public school classmates, we crossed the continent on a six-day, seven-school journey that involved planes, trains, taxis, subways, and several acres of shoe leather, or whatever shoes are made out of these days.

Long story short, this complicated and exhausting sojourn proved invaluable. Not only did my son confirm his suspicion that he’d prefer to attend college on the East Coast, but in-person visits helped him realize that he simply couldn’t see himself at any of the three schools—all small, esoteric, insular–that he’d initially placed at the top of his list. Equally important, he was able to identify the template for schools that did appeal to him–large and urban, but with a contained campus and a classic look. Now we know what to look for. Besides a pot of gold, I mean.

A few pointers for any parent who foresees a college tour in the near future:

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Book in advance.

Everything–I mean everything–is cheaper when you book in advance. Well, duh. Yet, cowed by the complicated logistics, I put off planning our itinerary until two weeks before departure. Next time, I’ll shoot for two months. Still, we were able to get a “local college tour” discount at some hotels (check the “Visiting” section of college websites for deals of this sort). Plus, I finally gave in and joined the AARP to take advantage of reduced travel rates. Child brides, this won’t work for you.

Be on time.

Official college visits take place in two parts: an hour-long information session, usually presented by an admissions official, and a campus tour conducted by impossibly perky youngsters who have mastered the skill of walking backwards. For various reasons—among them the time and money you’ve invested just to show up—you don’t want to be late for either one. What you may not realize is that the address you’ve been told to report to is likely just a check-in site; once you arrive, you’ll be directed somewhere else. There’s nothing like arriving five minutes late, thinking you can just sneak into the back of the room, and finding that your tour group has apparently vanished into a black hole.

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Sit up and pay attention.

The info session involves the rare opportunity to sit. Don’t miss snagging the seat of your choice, or more likely, your child’s choice. Although I kept suggesting to my son that we park ourselves in the front row to reap the benefits of eye contact with the speaker, apparently he would rather have hiked barefoot across the Rockies than make such a spectacle of himself. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

I also urged my son to take notes, with the unsurprising outcome that he didn’t and I did. BTW, taking notes is not only useful for future reference—what, exactly, did Ms. Admissions Maven reveal as the secret to making your application stand out?–but also a great way to stay awake if you find yourself drifting during blow-by-blow descriptions of financial aid forms and the new library renovation.

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Choose the right tour guide.

After the information session, you’ll usually be introduced to several students who will trot you around the campus and answer lifestyle questions. If you get to choose your guide, opt for an extrovert, or one whose academic interests are similar to yours. If you don’t get to choose your guide, choose anyway—rest assured, it won’t blow your chances of admission if you attach yourself to Ms. Pre-Med’s party instead of Mr. Art History’s.

That said, do your best to discount your feelings about the tour guide when forming an opinion of the school. Chances are, you’ll never see him or her again. (Also, try to be super-human. Who knows, maybe you can fly if you try really hard.)

Read between the lines.

Did you know we are living in the great age of a cappella? I certainly didn’t, but everywhere we went, yet another guide was rhapsodizing about the school’s stupendous a cappella singers. Translation: students at these schools were (or wanted to be thought of as) well balanced; they did not spend their entire lives analyzing the influence of Socrates on Nietzsche or deconstructing the post-modernist implications of astrophysics. (Of course, it’s also possible that a cappella is code for something like, I don’t know, “no-clothing classrooms” or “free opium in the dining hall.”)

One morning, our 9:00 a.m. info session was largely conducted by a pony-tailed sophomore who claimed she was majoring in literary arts and pre-med, performed as an aerialist (!), and did religious studies research in her spare time. That afternoon, our guide at another school—an athletic young woman with a pleasantly bossy, big-sisterish manner–was majoring in architecture and minoring in political science. Also, she interned at NASA as well as Cessna (which was sponsoring her pursuit of a pilot’s license), headed the college rock climbing team, and taught salsa and merengue classes on the side. Translation: these two schools fostered sleep-optional behavior, exalting frenetic levels of activity and making the merely studious feel inferior.

Then there was the college where I found myself scrutinizing the admissions officer’s intensely patterned knit pants, wondering if she’d actually looked in the mirror before leaving the house. This being an edgy art and design institution, however, the defiantly unattractive message her trousers conveyed was surely no accident. Translation: staff at this school walked the walk.

Huddle with the home team.

We encountered my son’s classmates everywhere–in a Boston taqueria, a Providence bookstore, the Newark airport, and on most of the tours we took. Twice, we even wound up having dinner with family friends from home, which gave the kids a chance to touch base and let their hair down. For the adults, there was also comfort in familiar faces–along, perhaps, with the dawning realization that our respective sons might soon be competing for the same limited slots. To avoid stumbling into dangerous conversational ground, I sometimes found myself talking about the weather. These days, they have it everywhere, you know.

 Keep track of your stuff.

Suffering from mild jet lag and “if it’s Tuesday, this must be NYU” syndrome, I left garments in hotel rooms and misplaced my credit card on a daily basis. Worst of all, despite repeated admonitions from flight personnel, I neglected to check the seatback pocket for personal items before deplaning and so lost track of the tiny college-ruled notebook in which I had recorded the wisdom of the ages—well, of seven college admissions officers in 2014, anyway. A more relaxed pace and earlier bedtimes would have made these small mishaps less likely.

But at least my son has seen what he wants. Now all (i.e., “all”) he has to do is go and get it.

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