By Lynn Jacobson • The Seattle Times • November 27, 2010
Recently, my 16-year-old son and I logged 400 miles on jam-packed Southern California freeways to visit four universities in four days. We took two student-led tours and two self-guided tours, ate a lot of fast food and spent more money than I care to relate.
Campus visits can instantly clarify a host of issues that college-bound high-schoolers will face in the coming months. Big city or small town? In state or out? Traditional campus or urban setting?
More importantly, they can jolt a student into thinking about realities that would take months of parental nagging to convey.
“UCLA accepts one in four applicants,” a student tour guide there told us. She went on: Sophomore and junior grades matter. Your extracurriculars will be scrutinized. SAT scores count. Private schools and out-of-state schools are expensive and scholarships go to the students who track them down and earn them.
Teenagers much prefer being schooled in these matters by student guides than by pamphlets or, worse, parents.
Looking back on our trip, my son said it really opened his eyes to the variety of schools he had to consider. Before, “college” had been one undifferentiated concept.
His advice: “Try to visit a few different types. If you can’t go out of state, visit … some other fairly close colleges if you can. Even if you’re not going to go to one of them, you’ll be able to tell what kind of campus and what kind of school you’re looking for.”
Planning a college tour can be as difficult as prepping for an exam: You have to chart an itinerary, book lodgings, reserve spots on campus tours.
If you’re heading to unfamiliar terrain, you also have to figure out in advance how much ground you can cover; you don’t want to have to move so fast that there’s no time to absorb or reflect (or eat, for that matter — a critical point when it comes to traveling with teenagers).
Finally, you want to build in time to have fun with your high schooler. Remember, this is the kid who’s going to leave home this year or next. You only have so many more days left before he or she becomes a visitor in your family.
Here are some tips for planning your own college tour, informed by Tory Brundage, a senior admissions counselor at the University of Washington.
When to go: The sooner the better. A visit as early as 10th grade can give a student “a sense of how fun and cool it is to be a college student,” Brundage says. “It gets people really excited.” Plan a few more trips (or virtual tours — see sidebar) once a student has narrowed down his or her search, to rule out the obvious “no’s.” Then you might schedule final visits when a student is making a choice between two or three universities.
How long to stay: Brundage suggests that a good visit will take three to four hours. A student-led tour typically lasts about 90 minutes, then you may want to stay for an info session with an admissions counselor. Start or finish with lunch on campus to soak up the atmosphere.
What type of tour: If you’re visiting several campuses in a few days, it may not be practical to take a guided tour at each. Self-guided walk-arounds are also an option, and admissions offices will often provide maps and guidebooks. But be aware that the depth of information you get on a student-led tour far surpasses what you’ll get from a quick drop-in; reserve a spot on a tour for your child’s top picks and save the drive-throughs for the “maybes.”
My son advises, “The students really give you the feeling of what campus life is like.”
What to look for: “Look and feel” is very important, Brundage stresses. Do you like the culture on campus and in surrounding areas? “Most people who do their undergraduate years somewhere will often stay living there at least for some time,” he says. You have to be able to picture yourself living on or around the campus.
The right stuff: Perhaps the most important advice Brundage offers is that students should look for “a good match.”
“Ask yourself: Is this the right fit for you — academically, socially, financially?” Students need to consider all three before finding a campus they can call home.