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Planning a college road trip MrTinDC/Flickr

The Ultimate Family Road Trip: Visiting Colleges

Helping your kids find the right college will put some mileage on your car...and some wrinkles on your forehead. Here are some tips on how to make seeing colleges—and the road trips that can involve–a successful activity.
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's what I've gleaned, so far, about the complex factors that should shape the planning of a college road trip.

Far and Wide
Shockingly, 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 even less. Even factoring the cost of airfare to and from several times a year, these schools remain a good value.

Of course, we weren’t planning to jet over any oceans for spring break (though our daughter will likely be applying to some of these schools, based on on-line research). But we did decide to use the time the vacation afforded us to see colleges that were nowhere near our New York City apartment. Why was that important? Because 80% of teens go to college within 200 miles of their home, so applying farther afield could help her get into a better school, one where she’d add diversity. So instead of heading just to neighboring states, we built an itinerary around schools in the Midwest and South, along with the more far-flung New England schools. We’re hoping our daughter will be able to do weekend visits to the schools we won’t be getting to on this trip.

Mutual appreciation
Applying to college is a courtship. 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 their all-important ratings factor in not just how many students apply, but how many accept the offer of admission. And the chances of a kid attending a school go up exponentially if she visits, according to studies.

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.)

A Plan of Attack
The raison d’etre of a college tour is so that your child can figure out where she wants to go to college. That’s why seeing no more than two colleges in one day is key: it’s important that the would-be scholar gets a chance to take in the vibe of the school, as its social life will be a large part of the experience. In addition, scheduling over night visits with current students and attending classes can greatly help a kid decide whether or not they’ve found the place for them. Liz Marx, a counselor with Collegewise, 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.”

Marx also recommends that students take detailed notes about each university so that she can refer back to them and give specific answers on the application questions that ask why a student would want to attend. “If you don’t take notes, all the schools start to blur together after a while,” she says.

Don’t push, parents!
This final bit of advice came from other parents who’d been through the process. “Remember that it will take your kid some time to process what they’ve seen and form an opinion,” she said. “So don’t insist that she comes up with instant snap judgments on a school….even if you already have!”