The past few years with my kids have been filled with memories: dipping our toes in the Mississippi River at the St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, celebrating my aunt’s 100th birthday, and spontaneously treating my son to his first Broadway show, all while college shopping.
These are journeys that many families embark on, often starting with spring break of a student’s junior or even sophomore year and often with a little mystery and trepidation. After all, this is a critical part of planning key years in your child’s life, and these days there is a lot of money on the line.
It can be scary, but searching for a school can be a big adventure where parents and children forge some lasting memories before the paths of their lives diverge. We’re coming to the end of our second and final college hunt, and with Fayette County (and other school systems) spring break just a week away, here are thoughts about what made these experiences great and some lessons learned for one family.
A lot of how you plan depends on the student’s level of wanderlust (and the parents’ ability and inclination to accommodate that wanderlust). We are blessed to be in a region with a lot of fine colleges and universities within a day’s drive, and if you are inclined to stick closer to home, it can make the search easier, plotting out short excursions as opposed to multi-stop trips. One note, particularly if you live in Lexington: It may feel like you know the University of Kentucky or Transylvania University well by living here. It is still well worth it to book a tour; you will likely find out a lot you did not know.
If you are heading off on a multi-city college-shopping trip, start planning at least a month or so ahead of it. This will let you be more strategic in plotting your trip and less susceptible to tours or even hotels filling up. On the latter, we had a few surprising experiences, including an Indianapolis visit last summer that fell — unbeknownst to us — at the same time as the Indiana State Fair, some big-time Little League baseball tournament and another thing or two that caused available rooms in Indy to go for Manhattan prices, which is why we stayed about 20 miles out of town on that visit.
We had a similar experience in Winston-Salem, N.C., when we rolled in the same weekend as some big furniture convention and a few football games. Suffice to say, check the local happenings as you plan.
You also want to make sure you can get on the college tours you want. It can be surprising how far ahead they fill up. If you have a good idea what you want to study, tours or information sessions for specific departments and colleges are often offered, so if you’re looking for a particular program, you might want to find out when those programs are offered and plan accordingly.
If you’re going to visit more than, say, half a dozen schools, you will want to get off the information session-and-tour train eventually — at least the info session.
Each tour can be different and potentially enlightening, depending on how much access it gives you to things like classrooms and dorms. But info sessions really start to sound the same after a while — even the same jokes.
For instance, we thought it was hilarious when a University of Chicago info session speaker, cautioning students against copy-pasting essays, said we’d be surprised how many prospective students spelled the school’s name “Y-a-l-e.” But it became a groaner about the fourth time we heard a variation on it at another school. Info sessions often relay information that can be found just as easily through thorough reading of websites and brochures.
Make the most of being there
Before or after the official activities, take time to just walk around campus, talk to people and visit the departments and places that interest you. Some of our most valuable experiences on both our children’s searches came when we just dropped in on a department to get some information. That can give you a sense of the school and the department’s character, how open and comfortable it is, and what the environment will be like.
At this point, it might sound weird to say this, but don’t overplan. On our last road trip, I daisy-chained together at least a university a day, with a few hours’ drive from city to city. We saw a bunch of schools, but we didn’t leave time for much else. Yes, I could rationalize that we weren’t there to be tourists. But getting a sense of the towns we were looking at was important, too. My ideal would be our spring break trip last year to Indianapolis and Chicago, where we had time to hang out in Indy’s Broad Ripple neighborhood and walk through Chicago’s Millennium Park, while getting good, substantive tours of the schools we were looking at.
That trip reminds me of another point: budget. On that swing, we chose to economize on lodgings in Indy because we knew staying in Chicago would be more expensive. After all, you don’t want your checkbook decimated before the first tuition payments. When booking multiple nights, Hotels.com and other websites can offer perks, including free nights, that can help ease expenses.
Also, let your kids drive for good stretches of the journey, if you are driving. It will help give them a good idea if they want to make these drives a part of their lives for four years. Part of the reason for these trips is the student deciding what he or she does and doesn’t want to live with, which means that even if you visit somewhere and say no, it wasn’t a waste of time.
There were cities where our kids decided to pass on the schools we visited, but we had memorable times visiting the intersection of Pittsburgh’s three rivers and walking over the bridges, and dining on seafood over the water in Baltimore. While we were college hunting, I discovered what a museum-crawler my musician son is. On a trip with my daughter, I discovered that a vegan can happily eat at Five Guys.
Keep it fun and interesting
We started keeping tabs on all sorts of constants of the college search, including ranking tour guides. Yes, being able to talk loudly while walking backward is an essential skill. But we came to value how entertaining and knowledgeable they were, and how personable — would they chat with you while walking between stops? At Chicago, we were enchanted by a tour guide named Eloise, a theater major with a fun twist on everything, from student research to athletics, and at Morehead, we had a blast with a guy named Tyler Perry, who was nothing like the Tyler Perry but had fun with the coincidence.
Washington University in St. Louis won the dorm award in our search, and Columbia University had the most interesting info session, particularly the explanation of why students must pass a mandatory swim test to graduate, and why engineering majors are exempt from it. We never came up with which school seemed the most like Hogwarts, but almost every school seems to try to work that idea just a little bit, from showing you “the most Hogwarts-like building on campus” to pointing out that there is a campus Quidditch team. It wasn’t until one of the final moments on the last stop of our last road trip that my son and I saw a Quidditch team practicing.
These trips do end up paying off as the acceptances and financial packages come in, and you have first-hand knowledge to base your decisions on. But early in our first round of college hunting, I realized that this is about the journey as much as the destination.