Shake off the disbelief. Put away the baby photos you’ve been poring (tearing up?) over. It’s really happening. Your baby is heading to college! And you’re about to be swept up in a tornado of activity, online research, financial discussions, philosophical debates, and general maelstrom leading up to that final goodbye in front of the freshman dorm.
Planning college visits is a big part of this storm but with a little preparation, they can be fun, memorable, and help guide your teen in making the all-important decision of where to spend her next four years.
Here are some tips to help as you get started planning your teen’s college visits.
1. Start local.
Even if your teen isn’t particularly interested in the local college/university, it’s a good idea to make this your first pit stop. It won’t involve much time or money but will give you an idea of what to expect in a college tour. It might also give you insight into what your teen is looking for in a college (i.e., size) without having to travel far.
2. Schedule a tour.
It’s tempting to just do your own thing when you’re visiting a college, especially if you are generally an independent-minded traveler. Resist the urge. An official tour will let you get the big picture of a school and, since they are student-led, they will give your teen the opportunity to get information and answers from a peer rather than an admissions officer or a website.
3. Go in session.
Ideally, you’ll visit a school while it’s in session so you can get a good feel for the general vibe of the student body and maybe even sit in on a class. Typically, college spring breaks are different from those of high schools so that might be a good option. If you have to schedule a visit during the summer, try to do it in late August, since most college students return to campus before high school starting times.
4. Reach out to your network.
Do you have a colleague whose son goes to a school you’re visiting? A neighbor? A college friend? This is a good time to tap into those networks to see if your teen could grab a cup of coffee with them to get an insider’s view of the school. And if they end up going there, they’ll already know someone.
5. Have a bite.
Obviously, you are not going to judge a college by its food alone. But your child might. And three meals a day for four years is going to leave a mark. So have a bite at the cafeteria and see if 1) it’s palatable and 2) it meets your child’s dietary standards and possible restrictions. You’ll also get a glimpse of a buzzing part of a campus during prime time.
6. Map it out.
If you’re traveling far to visit a school, make sure you visit more than one, even if your child has no stated interest in other area schools. Time and time again, you hear parents and kids talk about a school that surprised them—one that they had not expected to like but ended up a top choice. So do your research and schedule as many as you can while you’re there. You never know.
7. Leave extra time.
Even the smallest college campuses seem to have their own mapping and directional systems that defy logic. Visitor parking is often tucked away from the heart of the campus and far from the admissions office. So plan on arriving well before your scheduled tour and try to avoid planning two tours in one day unless the schools are very close to each other.
8. Dress comfortably and hydrate.
Contrary to what your teen might think, you are not there to make a fashion statement. What you will do is walk and walk a lot. You may be walking for several miles, through buildings, between buildings, and across campus. Tours are held in any kind of weather. So wear comfortable shoes, bundle up (or down), and bring plenty of water.
9. Sleep (very) local.
If you find a hotel within walking distance to campus, try to book a room there. You’ll get a vibe for the town and won’t have to deal with the annoying parking issues (see above). Also try to go to the local coffee shop, the drugstore, and cheap eats where students undoubtedly spend a lot of their time.
When you make your reservation, make sure you mention that you are there on a college visit. Some hotels/inns have special rates for students and their families so you may get a discount.
10. Take notes.
Wait, which school had the new science labs again? And which one had the study-abroad program in Costa Rica? After a while, details will start to blur. I recommend buying your teen a dedicated college tour journal to jot down any impressions while it’s still fresh in her mind.
And most importantly, expect to be surprised. You may think you have found the perfect school for your teen and it just leaves him cold. Your urban kid might fall in love with a green, sprawling campus and switch gears completely. It’s an evolving process. This is why campus visits are so very important. And the fact that they allow you to have quality time with your son or daughter in such an exciting time in their lives is a gift. Enjoy the journey!