I have reduced column production temporarily because of a project. I thought this piece by freelance writer and parent Cynthia Cross would be interesting to fans of my occasional Admissions 101 blog posts.
My daughter’s return to college this week happened to coincide with my son’s receipt of that initial influx of e mails from colleges looking to be noticed by prospective students. “We invite you,” one typical message says, “to continue your commitment to learning by exploring our rich academic community.”
In other words, they’re saying, consider scheduling a campus tour. Appreciating that we will soon embark on our second journey of college touring, I couldn’t help but reflect on the experience we had on our first — on the mistakes I made and what I learned from them, on what we did right and wrong, and on how we’ll do things differently with my son than we did for my daughter. For those of you taking tours with your child for the first time, a few pointers:
Let your child own it. For the many of us who haven’t thought about college admissions since we ourselves were the applicants (and who gave it far, far less thought than our kids are typically forced to now), tours can be fascinating things, offering all kinds of information on how the college experience has changed and the world our child will be entering in a year or two. The temptation to see the tour as a means to answer our questions, to satiate our curiosity, is almost irresistible. I for one succumbed to the temptation on early tours with my daughter and I came to regret it, because as I later learned in somewhat painful but ultimately invaluable conversations with my daughter, I had unwittingly made the tours about my experience, when they should have been about hers.
There is no question that we as parents have legitimate and perhaps pressing questions to ask of these colleges, especially since most of us will be paying the bill. But you’ll have lots of time to get those questions answered if your child is interested in a particular school and the tour is your child’s first introduction to a place where they may spend four formative years; they will get most out of the experience if they own it.
As unnatural as it may feel at first, let your child take the initiative on what they want to learn from the tour. Let them ask the questions and consider the answers. Give them time to react to what they see and hear, without prompting or offering your unsolicited thoughts. Let the impressions that accompany you back home be theirs, not yours. You’ll be surprised how much they’ve absorbed, regardless of whether they seemed engaged while you were there. It may take a while for their observations to surface, but trust that they’ve noticed details that will help them later.
Write down the highlights. If your child is excited about something they learn during the tour, encourage them to write it down somewhere as soon as they get the chance. Colleges want to know that your child is applying because they have a genuine interest in their school and its particular attributes, something beyond the school’s mere reputation or facts that anyone can read on its Web site. Visiting and taking the tour is in itself a key step in that process, but if something sparks your child’s interest on tour, whether it’s a unique major offered or the eagerness of students to stop and offer directions, that spark is worth remembering.
My daughter was impressed with a just-completed genetics building on the campus of one Midwestern school, and she ended up mentioning it in the essay she submitted with that school’s application. Nothing better demonstrates sincere interest in a school than something your child observes firsthand right there on campus.
Encourage your child to talk to students. Tour guides are often great, but sometimes the best sources of information are students whom you pass while meandering; suggest to your child that they stop one randomly and ask if they have a moment to talk — about a class or professor they love or their favorite (or least favorite) part of life on campus. If your child happens to know what he or she might want to study, take the time before or after the tour to visit the building where those classes are offered.
If you don’t have the time or aren’t permitted to attend a class, your child can still stop a student in the hallway, ask his or her major and see what they think of it, or whether there is a particular professor your child should look up. They may end up cultivating a relationship with a professor or adviser who could put in a good word with admissions and, not incidentally, your child could mention in the application the contact they’ve made — another way to demonstrate that they’ve invested time and energy in selecting this school. I know it sounds farfetched and I would have thought it implausible if it hadn’t happened with my daughter, who is now taking a chemistry course with the professor whom a friendly and helpful senior happened to recommend she look up when she was touring her school’s chemistry building after a tour. That professor is now a trusted adviser.
Know that tours aren’t always happy, lighthearted affairs. The information sessions you’ll attend as part of your campus visit are brimming with PowerPoint statistics about criteria for admission, acceptances and rejections, deferrals, wait lists and deadlines. Those can be nerve-racking and demoralizing to your high school student, who is likely already feeling pressure about his or her college choices and options. And there will be bubble-busting tours, ones where your child realizes that a school that looked so good on paper isn’t at all what they envisioned. A lackluster tour guide, a rainy day or a boring admissions forum can so quickly disenchant. You may have some quiet rides home, and that’s okay. You’ll be more helpful than you know just by being there, ready to listen if they want to talk.
Remember, too, that your child may leave a campus visit confused. The process of finding a school that fits can be overwhelming and your child may not react the way you’d expect him or her to, or at least not right away. Know that whatever impression your child leaves a tour with is likely to be useful in some way at some point. You may just not know how yet. So do your best to be patient and supportive, as hard as that may be at the time.
I so wanted my daughter to share my excitement over a couple of schools that impressed me, but often she was noticing entirely different things and our impressions didn’t jibe. I was a much bigger help to her once I learned not to openly react myself, but rather to give her the freedom to react the way she genuinely felt, not the way I expected her to or hoped she would. And the more tuned-in I became to her opinions about what she had seen and picked up on while on campus, the more forthcoming and talkative she became and the more advice she sought from me.
Savor the time together. Finally, with less than a week past my daughter’s return to school and still missing her company, my advice is to cherish the time that college tours give you to spend with your child while they still live at home. Tours, built as they are into the angst-causing college admissions process, can be stressful and frustrating, but they offer in abundance something that you will soon see diminishes all too quickly: time alone with your child, who despite all appearances at the time, really does need you by his or her side.