I’m an Independent Educational Consultant who loves my work guiding students through the process of sorting out the thousands of choices they have for college. I’m also the mom of two teenagers who have, or are going through, this very same process. The first time I went through college visits with my older son, I thought it would be easy to remember the distinguishing features of each school and sort out those that would be a good fit from those that were not.
After a few stops, these visits really start to blend together and you find yourself trying to remember if it was NYU that was located in that lovely, small New England town (it’s not).
Most schools have some common features (blue light system, anyone?), but they each have their own unique “vibe” and distinguishing characteristics that factor into the decision-making process. So how do you sort through it all and determine which colleges are a good fit for your teen?
After a few visits with each of my sons, I started to see a pattern emerge of things they really loved about each of the schools on their list, and things that they didn’t want in a college environment. After each visit, we’d talk about the pros and cons as they gained enough clarity to articulate their thoughts. We created a grid of sorts, with their criteria listed vertically and the colleges listed across the top. We then scored each school after our visit on those criteria, using a 1-3 scale.
Study abroad programs for engineers? The college that had a structured semester in Ireland for their engineering majors received a 1. The college that said engineering majors could look for opportunities in the study abroad office received a 2. The college that said that study abroad for engineers was a “no go” received a 3. We included everything in this grid that had an impact on them during our visits, good or bad. Educational opportunities, access to professors, housing, dining, Quidditch teams...you name it. This grid system helped my kids sort out their reactions and remember the details. It also reminded them of what to evaluate on their next campus visit.
Your family doesn’t have to use a grid. The point is to come up with a system for noting and comparing the various features of a college environment. Trust me, you will not remember which college has "Dining Hall Lobster Night" after visit #4.
Here are some tips before you head out on the road:
Give your teen time to let it sink in.
What I want to say when I walk out of a visit: “Oh my gosh, that was great! Did you see how you could dual major in nuclear physics and computational biology? And that internship opportunity with Nobel Prize winners! Amazing!”
What I actually say: “So, um, you hungry? There’s a place over there that looks good for lunch.”
Teens are not exactly known for their overly communicative ways. Give them some time. They are looking at leaving the only home they’ve ever known and selecting a new place to live, on their own, for the next few years. This is all very overwhelming for them. Give them some time to process all that they’ve seen, and don’t pressure them into an immediate reaction. They will share...eventually.
Don’t discount the trivial.
One of my kids is, shall we say, a Starbucks addict. The highlight of his spring is when the coconut milk mocha macchiato comes back out. He was terribly dismayed when ABC University only had a no-name coffee shop on its campus instead of the real Seattle deal. He wanted it on our list of criteria to evaluate a school. Fine. It won’t be the deciding factor, but he’s the one that has to live there for four years so...fine.
Timing is everything (sort of).
Don’t visit too early. Don’t visit too late. Don’t schedule too many visits in one short period of time. Sound like a lot rules? You bet it is, but campus visits require you and your teen to do some advance planning. Sprinkle them throughout junior year and first semester of senior year. Sophomore year can be great for getting the initial feel of a school, but plan to re-visit once your teen has a better idea about what they are looking for.
Bad visits are good.
You don’t have to wait until the college list is final to schedule a visit. If your teen thinks they might be interested in a school, take a chance and go! Some of the most productive visits my family has had are at schools that my kids absolutely did not like. Each boy had one campus visit where after 15 minutes, they turned to me and said, “we can go now” (we didn’t). Strong negative reactions usually produce very clear ideas of what they don’t want. Take this feedback and use it to refine the college list. Schools that look good on paper don’t always turn out to be a good fit for your teen. Visits help you sort this out.
Above all else, campus visits should be a great way to spend time with your teen. Make it fun! Find a local attraction (even an ice cream shop!) to tie in to the visit, and approach this time with a relaxed attitude. If you are stressed or anxious, your teen will be as well. There is precious little time before you drop them off with all their dorm gear, so enjoy this time together.