Earlier this summer, I shared a bit of the emotional journey that has accompanied our family's "Summer of the College Tour." Yesterday, following a do-it-yourself trip to a local campus, I found myself reflecting on how much I've learned in the past year, and thinking about the practical discoveries I've made. For those who haven't yet begun this adventure, here's our family's Spark Notes version.
- At the beginning, you don't know what you don't know. Every once in a while, there's that rare parenting moment where you do something right. In this case, it was aligning our first formal visit with a trip to my alma mater. In my comfort zone, not only could I focus on figuring out what questions to ask, but I also got a baseline for what a campus visit was like. For better or for worse, everything that followed was measured against that visit. Had our first trip been to unfamiliar territory, I might not have fared as well.
- Not all tour guides are created equal. As much as I hate to say this (not really), in our experience, the girls have done a better job. At the bottom of our list is the highly selective school where the (male) tour guide literally didn't have enough sense to come in out of the rain. At the top? Enthusiastic tour guides who are personable, well-informed and offer an e-mail address at the end of the tour. One young lady even sent a hand-written thank you note. Well done.
- Sometimes you get the real tour, sometimes you get the promo. The best tours make sure there are enough tour guides on hand to keep the groups small. That way, nervous, self-conscious teenagers might actually ask questions -- and worry less about the embarrassing questions their parents will ask. Real tours show dorms (or explain why the dorms are unavailable) and eating areas, not just the prettiest or most noteworthy places on campus. They talk about life outside the classroom (oh, and they let us see a classroom or two, too). In short, they think about what a prospective student wants to see, share the information the parents want to hear, and save the impressive architecture for the trustee tours.
- It pays not to travel incognito. This is a tough sell to the visiting teen sometimes, but there are benefits to registering ahead of time, ranging from small tour group sizes to waivers of application fees and early application opportunities. The full experience is still free, and it provides so much more than the do-it-yourself version.
- The admissions office doesn't tell the whole story, but first impressions linger. I must admit
Photo: Pippalou via Morguefile
- Internet aside, you don't know until you get there. Online tours and the like are a great resource, giving you practically all the information you need in the comfort of your own home. Early in July, I even set a no-more-tours-until-you've-checked-it-out-online rule after we made a trip where the deal-breaker was something my daughter would have known before we even got in the car, if she'd checked. While a poor online presence can rule a school out before you can even plug the address into the GPS, even the most beautiful online presence can't give you a feel for the campus. If it makes the online cut, make the trip, but be prepared to make a quick getaway if your teen balks.
- BE QUIET. Yes, I realize I shouted that. But the cardinal rules of parenting a teen not only apply, they're magnified. Don't embarrass them, and if you like the school, for heaven's sake, play it cool or they'll reject it in a heartbeat.
- They want what they want. My colleagues were shocked that my daughter didn't love the classic, stately campus where she spent some time as part of a camp this summer, and chalked it up to her being too young to appreciate all it had to offer. Perhaps. But my daughter's more a clean lines and contemporary spaces kind of girl. Sure, the campus was beautiful (and she did appreciate that). It just wasn't what she was looking for.
- The school is only the beginning. If I've learned anything this summer, it's that it doesn't matter where she goes. If she's happy with the school, and it offers the opportunities she's seeking, that's a great start, but it's just the first part of her journey, one where she'll chart her own course.
- Have fun. This experience can be fraught with stress and anxiety, or it can be a chance to visit some new places and acquire the tee shirts. A vacation attitude is the best approach. After all, the process is stressful enough.