There’s a wistful idea about college visits that the moment you and your kid step onto the perfect campus, you’ll just know: This is home. In reality, it’s not like that. After a few tours, schools end up feeling more similar than different, and you may be more confused than when you first began.
You need a plan.
Whether you’re a parent of a high school senior who must make a big decision this month or a student who isn’t quite there yet, here’s what to know before you go:
Don’t Feel Pressured to Visit
First of all, visiting colleges can be a huge expense and time commitment, especially if you’re looking at schools out of state (or country!). Know that the pressure to take your kid on these tours is more of recent phenomenon. It’s pretty annoying, actually. Institutions that give those who visit a positive mark on their applications are putting an unfair burden on families that cannot afford to do so, and there are even some experts who believe the trips don’t actually help kids make better decisions. In the New York Times, clinical psychologist Erica Reischer writes that college tours “may hinder students’ ability to pick a college that will further their interests and goals,” basically because as humans, we kind of suck at making decisions in the present for our future selves. Many adults, like myself, never visited a college until orientation day. And most grew to love the place they ended up.
Of course, if you have the time and funds, there can be benefits to checking out some schools. If you do decide to make the trip …
Know When to Go
There’s some disagreement over whether it’s better to visit a college before or after a student is accepted. Many do a combination, which seems to be a wise choice. For students who just starting their high school careers, or even those in middle school, stepping foot on a university campus can be exhilarating, and can give them some kick-in-the-pants motivation. Work hard, kid, and you can end up here.
A couple other reasons you might consider visiting colleges before your kid even applies: you don’t carry the pressure of having to make a decision by a certain deadline, and you can get a general feel for the type of setting your student prefers (i.e. urban vs. rural, a massive research university vs. an intimate liberal arts college), which can really help narrow their choices. Also, if you are applying for early decision, you’ll want to visit a campus early because some universities make you decide whether you will attend shortly after you are accepted.
Obviously, make sure you visit when students are in residence (rather than when they’re on spring or summer break). You want to see students—lots of students, not just the chipper ones leading the tours, but those in the dining halls, coffee shops, gyms and hanging out in the quads.
Make a Few Specific Connections Before You Visit
Sure, have your teen go on the official campus tour and pick some students at random to chat with. But if your kid has specific areas of interest, it’s a good idea for them to have some points of contact before your big trip. (Note: If they no idea what they want their educational future to look like, you might consider holding off on sending them to an expensive four-year university.) For instance, if your student is interested in joining the robotics club, suggest that they reach out to a student officer and see if they can sit in on a meeting. Some professors will be more than happy to let you sit in on a class, even a smaller one, as long as they’re expecting you. You can find email addresses online pretty easily—just do some googling. Universities can be huge, so it’s best to narrow in on where your kid will likely be spending most of his time.
Find Out What Students Are Complaining About
Pick up a copy of the student newspaper and read the opinion section. What are the major gripes? Is there grumbling about a constant rise in fees? Maybe a university has been less than prompt in investigating allegations of sexual misconduct. Or perhaps there’s been disappointment in a way a school handles disability. You might see complaints about how the dorm food has been terrible lately. If you find an issue that you care deeply about, you’ll definitely want to take a closer look at the discussions that are happening around it.
Karin Beckin-Greene argues on the blog Grown and Flown that parents should diligently consider not going on college tours with their kids. The reason: “You’re different people, in different positions, looking at different things,” she writes. “They need to see what they need to see without your input and commentary. You can tell them ahead of time what things to look for. You can talk after the tour about what they liked and disliked but let them have their own first reactions to this place that might be their home for the next few years.”
I’m not so sure I could completely sit back on something like this, especially if I’m the one shelling out my savings for it, but I do understand the reasoning. I know I wouldn’t have loved it if my parents had bombarded me with their commentary during a campus visit (“Oh my gosh, this place is amazing! Don’t you just love it here? You must love it here!” or “Oh dear, why does everyone have so many piercings?”) If you’ll be spending a whole day on a campus, consider parting ways with your kid for at least some of that time so they can get a feel for the student lifestyle on their own. And when you do meet up, try to bite your tongue as much as you can. Be there to support your kid, not make the decision for them. Remind them that there’s no one perfect college for anyone—it’s really what you make of the school once you’re there.
See It as a Bonding Opportunity
If the sole purpose of your college visits is to mark off a checklist of questions and prerequisites, it’ll probably be a pretty stressful experience for both you and your kid. You can get the information you need, and turn it into a meaningful, memorable trip. The truth is, as a parent, this time in your life can be a bittersweet one. Your kid is not going to be a kid for much longer, and it can be a challenge to snag a few days, let alone a few hours, with them. College tours can serve that purpose. Use Daytripper University to find places to stay, local eats and nearby attractions. And take the time to pause and watch the wide-eyed teen you’ve have raised. Holy crap, they’re going to college!