Virtually every student I talk to views touring colleges and universities the same way: as the point when going to college stops feeling like something that will happen...but way off in the future.
This time of year, with its holiday weekends and somewhat-less-crammed schedules, is as good a time as any to put together some day trips or multi-campus visits. These trips needn’t be on a Grand-Tour-of-Europe scale, but some advance planning will serve to make them not just worth the trouble but also potentially life changing for your student.
Why do it? Why not wait until applications are in and acceptance letters delivered? Let me count the ways that getting out in front with some in-person, pre-application research makes good sense:
• Doing so forces the “distance” decision. How long is the radius of schools you and/or your student are willing to look at? Will they be comfortable with a college outside that five-hour-drive (or no-fly or easy-bus-trip) radius from home? Will you?
• What environs are appealing? City? Country? Doesn’t matter? It might matter once your student arrives on a suburban campus and it feels a lot like— maybe too much like—home.
• For students considering northern New England schools—or anywhere temps can drop to single digits (or lower) and snow can fall from October to May (think Maine, Minnesota)—it’s important to get a realistic sense of winter. By the same token, if your student is thinking southern or California schools, will they miss the seasons?
• Seeing the town that serves a college, particularly a small college, will inform a student’s thinking about matriculating there. Is the town connected to campus or do you have to take a shuttle? Larger colleges and universities tend to be cities unto themselves, especially in rural areas, but will that be enough?
• Colleges notice when a student has made time to visit, especially when the school is within driving distance. They call it “demonstrated interest.”
• If your student is considering putting in an Early Decision application, which is binding, seeing the school beforehand is a must.
Montclair-based independent college consultant Robin Abramowitz says the most important reason for a student to visit a school is so that “he or she can get a ’vibe’ about the place. Can the student see himself there?”
“I always tell my students to visit the dining hall,” Abramowitz said, adding, “Look around. Are the students happy and engaged with each other?”
The official tour is great, but talking to students randomly is even better, Abramowitz told me. Signing up for a campus tour and/or presentation is straightforward. Just visit the admissions section of a college’s website and fill out a form.
Janice Caine so loved visiting colleges with her daughter and son, she built a business around it. The founder of Custom College Visits (customcollegevisits.com) took note when her older child returned from a multi-campus tour offered by her high school.
“Despite the trip’s high price tag, my daughter returned home with a better understanding of the culture of the schools she saw,” Caine said, adding, ”I started planning additional campus visits for her, and it became evident that the more in-depth we could make each one, the more meaningful and enjoyable the visits.”
Her company and others like it offer a range of services that include itinerary planning (multi-day, multi-campus trips lasting from a few days to as long as three weeks), on-campus arrangements (including meetings with faculty members, athletic coaches, and current students, as well as class visits), travel and lodging, and even creating a college list. Not surprisingly, the services come at a price (Caine doesn’t publicize her fees), but for folks unfamiliar with the campuses they want to visit and who are willing to pay for the services, the costs could be well worth it.
Whether you hire a service or go the DIY route, Caine said, wear comfortable shoes. She also advises families to set specific goals ahead of time: What do you want to be sure to see while visiting a campus?
“If time permits,” Caine told me, “I suggest visiting one college per day so that you have enough time on campus to see and schedule what’s important without having to rush.”
I have a confession. With two of my three children, I missed out on most of the college touring, leaving the planning and travel to my husband and friends. Somehow, though, I cleared my schedule for Alex, my middle daughter. Seven years ago, in the winter of Alex’s junior year, she and I and a friend journeyed north to visit Boston University, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and the University of Vermont in Burlington. Later we visited Colby and Bates colleges, both in Maine. The visits were as informative as we’d hoped and gave Alex much to consider. They also made for great memories, including one of Alex and me walking arm in arm down Burlington’s charming Church Street as snow fell in large clumps. Another vivid recollection, my favorite, is of Alex speechless but soaking in everything in the lunchroom of her dream college, a small Maine school where she could take a deep dive into environmental policy.
Opportunities to explore with our kids come along less and less often as they grow up. That may be the best reason of all to start planning those tours.
A version of this post appeared in my "College Bound” column in Montclair Local.