The grand Angell Hall at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan Photo Stream

How To Plan a College Tour Vacation

Is having your kid leave for college more painful than childbirth? I’ll let you know when I’m there.

Right now, I’m at the start of the process: looking for an institution to dump her in. An institution of higher education, of course. And finding the right place has proved to be an education in and of itself. Here are some tips from a Mom who now has learned, through many mistakes, how to craft an informative and yes, fun college-visiting road trip.

(Pictured above: Angell Hall at the University of Michigan)
Students on the lawn of Swarthmore University in Pennsylvania
Step One: Create a spreadsheet
Hopefully your child has some idea of what colleges he or she would like to see. If not, I highly recommend your family picks up the Fiske Guide to Colleges. It not only does a bang-up job describing each institution, but it has helpful, and quickly scanned, boxes of what subjects the school specializes in; and what other colleges could be considered its peer.

After scanning the guide, create a spreadsheet of the colleges you've picked to visit. You'll want to include in the spreadsheet the dates for when the school is in session and when it offers tours. Unfortunately, to do so, you'll need to visit the websites of the individual schools. There are websites that purport to list the spring break times (and other breaks) of every college and university in the United States, but I learned the hard way that these websites are often wrong.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to try and visit the school while it's in session. Your child will get a much clearer picture of what student life is like if they can see actual students, rather than just empty buildings.

You'll want to organize the spreadsheet geographically, so that you can make the most of your time by visiting several colleges in one area.

(Pictured: A spring day at Swarthmore University in Pennsylvania.)
A lilac tree flowers at the University of Sydney in Australia.
Jason James/Flickr
Step 2: Consider broadening your geographic range
It's counterintuitive but true: getting educated near to home may not always be the most cost-effective option. Yes, there are good state schools that offer significant discounts for residents. But if you look at college costs in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, among other countries, the tuition can be equivalent to state schools….or less. Even factoring the cost of airfare, foreign universities can offer an excellent value.

Of course,  college road trips don't involve flying over oceans. You'll likely simply research the foreign universities over the internet. But if you have a longer time to spend college hopping (say a week to 10-days, as opposed to just a weekend) use the time to see schools nowhere near your hometown. Some 80% of teens go to college within 200 miles of their home, so applying farther afield could help your child get into a better school, because she'd add geographic diversity to the mix of that institution.

(Pictured: The University of Sydney, in Australia)
A tour guide leads a tour of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Pauline Frommer
Step 3: Talk with your school's college counselor
The college admissions process is very much like doing the tango— both the student and the college are dancing. It’s not only important that the student makes herself appealing to her preferred university, the schools have to get a sense that the applicant likes them back. That’s because the entities that create the all-important college ratings factor in not just how many students apply to a particular school, but how many accept the offer of admission. 

This factors into the college visit because these institutions have found that the the chances of a kid attending a school go up exponentially if she visits. Knowing this, we sat down with our daughter’s college counselor to discuss which schools would take notice if we visited, and which ones get so many applicants that they don’t factor in whether a student has visited, when making their decisions. With this bit of intel in hand, we planned less formal visits to some the “overloved” schools, and set up info sessions, tours and (when possible) interviews at the schools that appreciate it when a kid shows interest. (Most schools will only interview high school seniors, though there are some exceptions.)

(Pictured: A tour guide leads a group of prospective students around Williams College in Massachusetts)
Students in a classroom in Madrid.
Rictor Norton and David Allen/Flircks
Step 4: Cull your list
Over spring break, we visited 19 schools in two weeks. Surprise, surprise: that was a mistake. Sounds obvious in retrospect, but I was so focused on—ok, obsessed with—the goal of giving the kid a broad perspective, that I thought that limiting the trip to two or one colleges per day was "taking it easy". Truth is, our daughter would have gotten more out of the trip if we’d done fewer than one college a day,  with more break days in between, since doing things like hanging out at the student center, sitting in on a class, spending the night in a dorm with a current student or having a chat with a professor, can be much more eye-opening than a tour.

(Students walk to class at UCLA in California.)


A hotel room.
Lindsay Turner/Flickr
Step 5: Book your lodgings
After you've figured out where you're going to be going, it's time to find a bed—or several beds—for the night. In the best of all possible scenarios, your kid will be bunking with a freshman on campus (to better get the full-on experience of the school) but since that's not always possible, you'll want to make sure that you have digs with enough space.

For our college tour, I booked a combination of hotels and rental homes, which worked out quite well. At the hotels we had the convenience of breakfast available on site in the morning and a gym for a quick workout. The houses we stayed in gave us a more homey base, more room to spread out, and (blessedly) a washer and dryer for the laundry we kept accumulating.

Note: You could simply book hotels as you go along, a strategy that might end up being cheaper. But with the stress of navigating unknown towns and campuses, interviews and tour, the extra hassle of having to find lodging each night might not be worth the savings.
Students goofing around at Washburn University in Topeka, KS
Aaron Hall/Flickr
Step 6: Think about what questions you're hoping will be answered by the college visits

As you start going from college to college, you'll notice that most seem more alike than different. So you'll want to come with questions that will help you suss out which one is the right one for you. Some helpful questions to ask:

  • Do most of the students live on campus?
  • How hard is it for students to get a space in the class they're hoping to take?
  • What's the teacher/student ratio? What's the average class size?
  • How much of the instruction is done by actual professors, and how much by teaching assistants?
  • Are there opportunities to do research? To study abroad affordably? To do an internship while in school?

Liz Marx, a counselor with Collegewise, also recommends keeping an eye out for clues to the zeitgeist of the school. "I tell my clients to look at the kiosks up around campus,” says Marx. “If they only have flyers about mime festivals and pie baking competitions, they might not appeal to a teen who’s, say, more into politics or the sciences."

(Pictured: Students at Washburn University in Topeka, KS)

A stack of textbooks
Step 7: Create a worksheet to use for notes on college finances, because you'll learn a lot more on campus than you can in advance
At every official school info session, financial aid is discussed and it will vary greatly by school. But that's not all you'll learn. These sessions are also helpful for teasing out the corollary costs of an education. For example, at one school we visited, we learned that any student receiving financial aid was automatically given free textbooks at the college store. At another school, a loaner textbook programs for all students significantly helped with what can be a hefty expense. One very generous school allows students to apply their work-study money towards unpaid internships with outside organizations (since they felt these programs were so important for the education of the student). All of these items should be jotted down on your worksheet. And look for more potential expenses while you tour—food plans, the cost of items in the school shop, printing expenses at the library (at some schools printing is free, while others charge).

Nassau Hall at Princeton University
James Loesch/Flickr
Step 8: Buy your child a small notebook

On most every college application is the question: "why do you want to go to this school"? So your kid should be thinking about how they'll answer that question as they're touring. And, no surprise, the more specific they can be, the better. My daughter found that writing down answers on the spot helped. She also took notes about the oddities we encountered (like a school that brings in huge blocks of ice so that students can shape them with a torch and pick during a winter festival; or a tour guide who seemed unusually fond of fondue) to help jog her memory of which school was which.

(Pictured: Princeton University in New Jersey)

A street in New Orleans
A balconied building in the French Quarter of New Orleans
Step 9: Schedule in time to tour the area and not just the campus
Inevitably, those schools located near or in a major metropolitan area are blessed with a myriad of cultural and professional opportunities for their students. Schools in more natural settings often have a more tight-knit student community and active "outings clubs" that allow the young folks hike, kayak, ski and get out in nature. Weighing which type of atmosphere is best for your child is key to finding the right school. And you really won’t get a visceral understanding of how a school’s setting impacts student life until you visit. We found it valuable to spend time not just at the school, but in the areas immediately surrounding it.

(Photo: New Orleans is home to 15 major universities and colleges, including Tulane University and Loyola University of New Orleans)
A close-up of students about to graduate from college.
Andrew Schwegler/Flickr
Final thoughts
My secret goal was to have my daughter fall head over heels in love with just one school, as the odds of getting in can double for those who apply early admission. Alas, that didn’t happen on our college roadtrip. But something just as valuable did: we realized that there are extraordinary schools across the U.S. and that she’d likely get a wonderful education no matter where she ends up. I’m hoping that that realization will make the rest of this process a hair less stressful.