College Visits are Worth the Trip
After my last student went out to his car and was out of earshot, his concerned mother agonized, “He doesn’t seem interested in college at all! When we ask him where he wants to go, he shrugs. When we ask him: "Big?" "Small?" "Private?" "Close to home?"; we get no response! I don’t know if he is just lazy, or if he doesn’t really want to go. It’s as if he wants us to do all the work!”
“Where have you taken him so far?” I asked. “Nowhere, he hasn’t told us where he wants to look! I think he actually expects us to just start driving him around to colleges.” “Yes” I replied. “That's exactly what he wants you to do.”
Her son is not lazy, nor apathetic. How can he possibly know what he wants, or how to come up with a response to their questions, when he doesn’t, as far as colleges go, know what is Big, Small, Private, or Close? As the oldest child, the only thing he knows about college is that he is going and which has the best football team. He doesn’t know what he wants because he has no idea what is out there. College search books and web sites provide facts and numbers to compare, but they are no substitute for experience.
My oldest daughter’s college search started officially with an open house, hosted about an hour’s drive from home. We toured the campus with a guide, checked out the bookstore and art building, gathered brochures, and then headed home. I thought the college was appropriate for my daughter: educationally challenging; clean, secure, friendly campus; close enough to home. So, as we headed out of the main gate, we asked Sara how she liked it.
Her response: “I don’t like red brick buildings.”
So, we could have saved ourselves three hours on a beautiful Sunday by asking her impression before we started the tour. Or, saved ourselves a trip completely by studying the brochures more closely at home. But we learned something important: Aesthetics are important to Sara’s overall college experience. Looking to narrow our search further I asked, “What look do you like?”
Her reply: “I was thinking something that looks more like Hogwarts.”
Like most girls her age, familiar with the teen magazines and clothing catalogs advertising “collegiate style outfits” photographed on beautiful college campuses with fall leaves falling around them, Sara had a “college image” in her mind. What I needed to do was help her to see the bigger picture: the major she wants; affordability; value; accessibility; and yes, aesthetics, because looks and atmosphere are important to her.
So I took my own advice. We just started “driving around”.
Sara and I went online and downloaded maps to 10 colleges along a 600 mile route. Then, we headed out. What was our criteria for a visit? It was on our route. We just wanted to see. And, we saw it all: big, small, private, public, and religiously affiliated campuses, completely enclosed campuses, campuses spread throughout the community, rural campuses, and city campuses. We took no tours and visited only one admissions office and did not feel compelled to stick to a schedule. Instead, we went from college to college at our own pace, with no appointments to keep. We spoke to students, saw dorm rooms (check at the front desk, first), checked out the academic buildings, and got a feel of every town and campus. We had fun.
My favorite campus we saw only at night - I saw an involved, active student body, I felt safe walking after dark on the well lit paths, the buildings were open, students had access to the facilities and did not have to look beyond the campus for a “night out”. This is the type of community I want for Sara, and that she wants for herself. The buildings were red brick, but she didn’t even notice!
Another campus we saw at night was not accessible; the buildings were locked, I didn’t see students out, the library was closed. I would not have seen this on the admissions sponsored tour.
We didn’t make it to all ten colleges on our list, but we did see seven. Many of the colleges we visited were not potential fits. But, from each, we learned more of what does “fit” for Sara. We even stopped at one college that was not on our list, but whose name was on a highway sign (she liked it!)
When we returned home, Sara got all the particulars of each college she liked from their web sites. Now that we know what she likes, we are planning a follow up trip. We are also investigating a few more colleges that fit her criteria. As with all major decisions, it pays to shop around; show your child what is out there. There is so much more than is evident from televised sports, glamorized clothing ads, and popular novels. But, those choices are okay too, if that is what is right for your student. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but nothing can take the place of being there.