Why Taking a College Tour in the Summer May be a Bad Idea

When our eldest daughter was in tenth grade, she asked: “Dad, can we visit some colleges this summer?”

Ever the dutiful father, I said “Sure, honey, let’s plan a road trip!” We lived near Boston at the time, and plotted a week-long drive to hit colleges in the New England/New York area.

Oh boy. What a bust!

Colleges, of course, are happy to have you visit in the summer. The admissions folks are ready with polished PowerPoint presentations. They have student guides on hand to give the college tour. Plus, campuses are beautiful, green, and flowering.

Just one little problem: no students, no classes, no teachers, no action. In short, it’s like visiting a ghost town.

As my daughter said after our second college visit, “It’s a pretty place. But I have no idea what it’s really like here.”

A college without students is like a zoo without animals. OK, questionable analogy. But you get the picture.

Five Tips for Your College Tour

From then on we took our kids on college tours “in season.” I recommend you do the same.

Here are some tips:

1. Visiting with school in session, our girls (and your kids, too) will pick up on a ton of vibes. They’ll get a sense of the nature of the students, whether it’s a happy or stressed-out place, and if the campus lacks diversity or is over-run by one type of student at the expense of others, such as Type A personalities, frat-enthusiasts, etc.

2. Most schools will give you a voucher for a campus meal. Take advantage of it. But not just to get a free meal. Do what you can to connect with students. The conversations can be insightful and revealing, since these kids aren’t paid by the school to give tours. But be aware you’re not doing a scientific survey: one malcontent shouldn’t ruin other positive impressions.

3. Ask tough questions. An admissions rep will give the usual rah-rah talk. Don’t be too shy to ask a few challenging questions. For example, I began to ask things like, “what percentage of your freshmen graduate in four years?” Here’s a great list of questions to choose from.

4. Some colleges will allow high school kids to stay overnight with a host student and shadow them in classes for a day, while mom or dad go somewhere else. It’s a fantastic option, and gives your teen the most “data” to go on.

5. Of course, it’s best to prepare in advance in terms of where to visit. We particularly liked the Fiske Guide To Colleges, which doesn’t cover every school, but has insightful write-ups on hundreds of them. But undoubtedly the best book about understanding what’s important in one’s college choice is Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives. Kids and parents alike need to read this book before starting the college search.

Have any other tips? Use the comments box below to share your insights with the Learning Liftoff community.

Image – John Loo / CC by 2.0


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