College Tours: A Primer

So, you’re thinking about taking your teenager on a series of college tours? Here are some tips from a recent experience I had with my teenagers on our trip to visit 5 colleges in 5 days


Try to plan, but don’t be a slave to the agenda.  Let the kids drive some (if not all) of the schedule, otherwise, it’s not going to be fun for anyone (this is from a former Naval officer who thinks “on time” means 15 minutes early). Nearly every college has a published set of times for their information briefings, and many of them require that you sign up in advance. In trying to plan a full week of driving, visiting colleges, and visiting with some friends, it made sense to pick a few “anchor points” for where we needed to be and when.

Beyond that, we tried to leave enough time in between events to enjoy the time together and keep it relatively low-stress. With some colleges, we were able to just show up and get into the tour/briefing times, but some were a little less accommodating. That said, the key here is to give yourself enough time to get to the places you want to be, and leave some room to have flexibility. I really recommend that one campus per day is probably enough for most people, but that really depends on how much time you have available and how ambitious you want to be.

Walk college campuses on your own

The tours are fine, but if you want to just wander around for a bit before or after the official admissions tour guide walks you around (walking backwards and talking is a skill that I just never mastered), that will give you a sense for the vibe on campus in a way that is less packaged and maybe a little more authentic.

What are the students talking about? What sorts of tables are set up in the common areas for signups and causes? Do the students look happy? Stressed? Maybe it depends on the time of year, but our recent visits to schools in the Mid-Atlantic left us all with the impression that those students were in great spirits and all seemed happy with where they were.

Walking the campus without a set agenda also allowed my kids the opportunity to visualize what it might feel like to be on campus as a student — there are plenty of stats and numbers to size up a school, but in the end, if a kid can’t picture themselves at a school, in a location, it might be harder for them to get excited about applying.

Be prepared with questions

Help your kids think about what they want to learn about a college. My daughter, a junior, was prepared with questions about international studies and language major options, but my son needed some help thinking about what he wanted to ask. Since he’s a freshman, and still has time to really consider his options, it was a good opportunity to ask him some questions that might help him in a few years when it’s his turn to really assess the options and decide where he wants to apply.

Daily roundup

After the tour, bookstore visit (for logo gear), information session, and walking the campus, I tried to ask each of the kids what they thought of the school, and ask them to tell me what they liked most and least about what they saw or heard. Generally, my kids seemed to like what they saw, and as typical teenagers, didn’t have much to say, so it might take some patience and a bit of persistence to draw them out. It was worth the effort, though, because hearing their opinions (and having two kids with different perspectives) really helped us all develop our own rankings of the places we saw each day. I also suggested that the kids take some notes or jot down what they liked in an email to themselves, but I don’t think either of them did.

I know that there are some families that will take a much more methodical approach to this whole college application process, and there are certainly some advantages to doing so. We wanted a priority to be having some time on each of the campuses, to allow the kids to get a sense for what it might feel like to be in and among the students there. Of course, there is no end to the numbers you can gather on all of the schools, and there is no end to finding information online about all the colleges, and their websites are all more and more marketing engines. In the end, there is probably no single “perfect” choice for anyone, and really no substitute for an in-person visit that can help your kids decide if a place speaks to them as a person and as a prospective student.

Good luck!


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