How To Plan a College Tour Vacation
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)
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.)
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)
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 walk to class at UCLA in California.)
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.
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)
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)
(Photo: New Orleans is home to 15 major universities and colleges, including Tulane University and Loyola University of New Orleans)