What To Look For in a College Tour

In the cycle of each academic year, two events come together on college campuses to demonstrate the continuity of tradition, business, and the calendar.

The first is “move in” day. It’s one of my favorite moments, exceeded only by Commencement and perhaps the emotion that comes during an unexpected win in an NCAA March Madness game or, in a very different way, a 9/11 commemoration ceremony.

“Move in” day is a kind of family initiation in which parents separate from their children who begin their lives officially as young adults. Neither may be ready. Indeed, the ritual is often more painful for the parents than it is for the new college student.

Campus Tour is Part of Family’s College Selection Ritual

Concurrent with “move in” day, however, are college tour visits. Colleges and universities vary in their opinion and openness to college tours. For example, many do not offer tours on Sundays, an especially convenient day for parents who work within driving distance.

A number of institutions also discourage interviews, citing various reasons including the sheer volume of applicants. But the college tour is an inescapable part of a family’s selection ritual.

A college tour is often a tense moment for families. Many chalk up almost impossible numbers of campus visits in an effort to reach the best decision possible.

Parents Behaving Badly on College Tour

Some parents behave badly during these tours, auditioning for their future role as “helicopter parents” buzzing in to solve problems that beset their offspring throughout their college careers. Others are in awe of the facilities, programs, and people that they encounter. And a few burst with pride at the opportunities they help to make available to their children, opportunities that were often not available to them.

College Tour Tips for Parents and Prospective Students

There is a practical side to these tours. Here are some points parents should consider while embarking on college tours:

  • The result of the campus visits may surprise you, but you’re not the one going to college. Where you think your child should go may not be where your child wishes to go. It’s not a parent’s decision.
  • Don’t limit the imagination or range of opportunity for your child until you have to do so. Anything is possible until the applicant receives the acceptance letter and financial aid package. The sticker price these days is not what almost any family will pay.
  • There are many colleges and universities at which your child may have a rich and fulfilling experience. Surprisingly, many of the prospective applicants “know it when they feel it.”
  • Plan your college tour strategically. Work hard to determine the differentiation that exists among college campuses and encourage your child not to apply to those colleges where the memories are not sharp and distinct.
  • Treat a college tour as something akin to a half-day bus or trolley tour in a city that you have never visited. Take the tour but return to those sites that your student found most intriguing as you passed by.
  • Locate the campus anchors — libraries, academic facilities, and residential and recreational complexes. Is the library of good quality, well-staffed, and a suitable learning commons? Are there excellent athletic facilities or simply excessive jock-plexes built off tuition and debt? Are the dorms clean and spacious, with progressive, varied housing options, capable of handling technology but well short of a Taj Mahal?
  • Talk to students and faculty. One of my sons visited the campus of a very respectable Northeast university. He ran into a history professor and noted that he’d like to consider the institution and major in history. The faculty member openly discouraged him from doing so and suggested other highly selective institutions of similar quality. The lesson was invaluable.
  • Do your research to know what questions to ask. How do faculty relate to students? What research, externships, internships, and study abroad options exist?
  • There are a thousand teachable moments outside the classroom, all of which will factor heavily into how quickly your child adapts to the new campus environment. If your child plays a trumpet, is there a jazz band, pep band, or university symphony to meet others who share similar interests.
  • Does the school respect your child’s prospective major? Should you major in music at an engineering school if the institution does not adequately fund the people, programs, and facilities for the major? Sometimes it’s the wrong kind of prestige that attracts a student to a college. Getting in does not mean happiness.
  • As a family, are you willing to sacrifice to pay for the family’s financial share of the price of admission? If you haven’t saved, are you willing to sacrifice or is your child’s college education a transaction negotiated as though it were a used car sale? The mindset and resources of a parent will heavily influence the outcome.

A college tour can be a very special moment for a nervous child and anxious parents if approached as an adventure.

Ultimately, the best advice to most parents is to stand back and watch with some pride the first steps that your child is taking to make their own way in the world. It’s what you’d always hoped would happen and what they need to do.
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