This past summer my daughter, a rising high school senior, and I embarked on a college tour. I was looking forward to a road trip with my youngest child, not only to collect information about different schools, but also to spend time with this emerging adult whom I know and don’t know. I did some research to find out if things had changed in the few years since I had done this with my older sons. I read articles from the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, the College Board, Fastweb, Better Homes and Gardens, and Psychology Today, to name a few, about the “college tour,” how to plan for it, and how important it may or may not be.

Most of the information was the same: letting your child decide which colleges she would like to visit; grouping your tours geographically; making tour reservations and lodging arrangements ahead of time; and, trying to visit the campuses without friends or younger siblings tagging along. Combining some college visits with family vacations can work, but it takes planning and an amiable family dynamic. Many articles advised that high school seniors spend their time on campus talking to students and professors, attending classes, and even staying the night if possible. If the opportunities and funds are available and the child is interested, this kind of full immersion on campus probably would not hurt the process, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. Also, it might backfire and then you’re left with a permanent resident in your basement classified as “failure to launch.”

In a nutshell, you and your child need to approach finding a college in the same way you would any other large purchase, like a new car. Does it meet your needs; do you like the looks of it; do you like the feel of it; does it make you happy when you use it; and are there other models that are just as functional that are less expensive that you can enjoy? There isn’t one perfect car or one perfect college. The important thing to remember is that doing your research beforehand about the college, the location, and your child’s interests and learning style will go a long way to making the college tour a meaningful and productive experience.

Playing the “college fit” game

However much I hate to kowtow to higher education marketing schemes (yes, the college tour is one), the idea of the “college fit” is more than just another fad. There are so many choices out there that you and your child should decide which schools would be a good fit for her before wasting your time on places she won’t like, you can’t afford, or are not right academically. I found one article in particular that provided some very insightful advice for choosing colleges.  Eric Furda, Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania suggested that students concentrate on the “Four I’s:”

“The first I is Intellect. How do you think? What courses do you take and what are you like as a learner? The second is Ideas. What are you thinking? What subjects best attract your attention? The third I is Interests. How do you spend your time? How will your interests shape what you do and where you put your effort? Finally, the last I is Inspiration. What motivates you? How far have you pushed your interests into the realm of inspiration?”

I suggest letting your child use the Four I’s to guide her as she does her Internet searches. When my daughter had a good list of places she wanted to consider, we sat down together, checked out the web sites, and added and subtracted from the list for logistical, financial, and selfish reasons. I wanted her to visit my alma mater, but she really wasn’t interested. She wanted to see a school a bit beyond our reach financially. We compromised and visited both, which turned out to be a lot of fun.

The college tour

Let’s be honest, most college tours are the same. At the information session, one of the admissions staff will dazzle the group with

college tour

statistics in a PowerPoint presentation about academics, graduation rates, job rates, and professorial accolades. They may throw in a little history of the college or university, insights into where the future will bring the institution, and how they stand globally and environmentally. The marketing is apparent, but this is one place you can get a feel for the attitudes of the administration.

For example, my daughter felt one of the presentations we attended made the college seem stuffy and pretentious because the age, history, and distinction of the college were emphasized, which bored her completely. I, of course, was fascinated. On the other hand, another presentation was so intense it felt as if the university was saying slackers and under-achievers need not apply because we only take students who will be doing two or three internships, studying abroad, and volunteering at the local shelter all in the first year. On this both my daughter and I agreed – it was too much pressure to achieve greatness. Consequently, these two colleges were dropped from the field of possibilities. The presentation that appealed to my daughter the most was one that provided statistics about the size of the school, the graduation rates, the internship opportunities in her area of study, and the job placement rates for graduating seniors. She wanted to know what the school could do for her in terms of a career. Good thing somebody was thinking about her future.

The actual physical college tour of the campus is important, but again, many campuses are similar. You’ll see the library, the recreation areas, some lecture spaces, the science and technology facilities, the performance areas, and usually the best of the dormitories. You might be surprised to learn that a bad tour guide can really influence how your child reacts to the visit. I had a friend whose daughter toured our alma mater and was totally turned off; my friend arranged for another tour with a different guide and her daughter had such a positive experience that she is now a student there.

For the places we visited, we checked the virtual college tour online before and after just to make a comparison. As it turns out, both were equally informative; the virtual college tour is a great tool to gather more information. The advantage of visiting the physical campus is that you see the buildings from a different perspective and within the city or town setting. Virtual tours can manipulate the viewer into believing the spaces are larger and more inviting than they actually are, but virtual tours can cover more facilities, particularly on large campuses. On one campus visit, on a Saturday in the summer, there were no official tours scheduled, so we decided to take matters into our own hands. With some online help from our phones, we took a self-guided tour of a mid-sized university, stopping in at the library and peeking into other buildings that were clearly marked as to their functions. That was one of the best tours we had, hands down. We later looked online to further investigate areas that my daughter wanted to see such as the dorms and dance spaces.

The final application list

Another really good piece of advice I came across was not to think of the choice of colleges in terms of rank. When your child starts to think about colleges in terms of first, second, third, etc., she may be in for a lot of disappointment. Even if you think she will surely get into her third choice or her “safety school” at least, you just never know. She may get into all; she may get into none. If she chooses schools that she could see herself attending with confidence, she can think of them all as possibilities and not stress when the letters come in. Finally, when those letters do come in and she finds herself trying to choose between two schools, offer to let her take herself back to those campuses for a tour, because you’ve already been there and done that.

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About The Author

Colleen Walacavage

Colleen Walacavage is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington, D. C. Her company, CW Editing Service, specializes in all degrees of editing. She recently moved to Northern Virginia from Colorado with her husband and three children. As a woman in her prime, Colleen is interested in expanding and sharing her knowledge and interests in a wide range of areas including literature, travel, and epicurean delights.