Q: I want to know, how many schools should I visit over winter or spring break?
It is that time of year when families are planning trips with their juniors to see colleges. While I think there is great value in touring schools, especially when they are in session, I often shudder when families describe their plans for the week. I often get the feeling that families approach these visits as a marathon, with the end goal of being able to check off having seen 13 schools in six days. It reminds me of the days when I hopped by night train throughout Europe with few memories, but a lot of stamps on my passport.
Parents will tell me that they have coordinated their visits so that they can visit multiple schools each day, enabling them to go from Maine to Virginia in a week’s time. Having recently returned from touring colleges in Maine and Vermont, I was surprised how long it took to drive from one small liberal arts college to the next. Naively, they looked so close on a map, but I was not factoring in small country roads and having to stop just one more time to sample maple syrup. Frankly, after being in the car for hours on end, I was not as enthusiastic as I might have been if I had chosen to target only certain schools on my list.
Similarly, I cannot tell you how many times I hear from parents that their student refused to see the school once they had arrived because they are so burnt out. My own daughter at one point was so fried from college visits that she refused to leave the car because she had decided she did not like the college based on the cars in the admissions parking lot. Another family described how they had driven through a blizzard to see Dartmouth, only to have their daughter request to leave in 30 minutes because she did not like the tour guide.
I suggest that you try to visit only one college per day so that you have time to spend hours on the campus and in the town itself. Students often need time to digest what they have just seen and heard away from the campus for an hour or so. Sometimes they return after lunch, better rested and fed, to see the school in a new light. It is often not realistic to see every school on your list, especially if they are not on the West Coast. It is not unusual for me to hear about families who are touring the Northeast, visiting one Ivy League school after the next, because those are the schools they have heard of. I suggest that families highlight schools where their son or daughter stands a reasonably good chance of being admitted. Many students are undecided as to the size and the type of environment of the school they are looking for. In that case, it makes sense to see a wide variety of schools from large public universities to small liberal arts colleges in both cities and rural areas.
Before you visit, do call the admission office and check to see that they are offering informational sessions and tours on the day you will arrive. If necessary, register for these in advance and inquire as to whether they grant interviews. If you find yourself not having time to do an official tour, at least try to sign in at the admissions office and take a campus map so you can take an unofficial tour of the campus. In order to see more than just buildings, which you can often do online, I suggest that you eat at least one meal in the cafeteria, where you can usually find students all too happy to share their campus experience. While you are there, make sure to pick up a campus newspaper, browse the student union to see what campus events are being sponsored, visit the library and try to befriend an undergrad to see if he or she would be willing to show you a dorm room. If nothing else, consider this as a golden opportunity to spend some quality time with your high-schooler, who for once has your undivided attention.
Joan Franklin is the owner of MI College Support, an independent college counseling practice (www.micollegesupport.org). She can be reached at (206) 232-5626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.