We have just emerged, bloodied but not beaten, from our daughter’s junior year of high school. In addition to a plethora of challenging classes, there were state standardized tests (appropriately referred to as the SOLs [Standards of Learning exams]) to be passed for verified credits. There were Advanced Placement tests to survive. There were ACTs and SATs (old and new versions for the latter, plus subject exams). And there was the realization that our 17-year-old kid, who is often unable to decide whether to wear the purple shirt or the blue one, needs to whittle down a list of universities for possible application.
Her initial criteria:
• There must be Thai and Indian food nearby;
•There should be a beach within easy driving distance; and
•It should be warm enough that you don’t have to wear pants. (She lives in shorts.)
We’ve discussed and improved on that list.
Our school district in Virginia offers Naviance, a sort of obsessive database that helps you match your interests and test scores to colleges and universities all over America. It spits out lists based on the size of the school, the majors, whether the school is more liberal or conservative, and then some. I realized that this kid had no earthly idea what she wanted because — news flash! — she’d never set foot on any college campus beyond that of my alma mater. She is an experiential learner; for her, travel solidifies her academic understanding of the world.
That settled it. Our family travel destinations this year? Towns or cities with colleges, selected in part by Naviance and in part from college guides borrowed from the library. Sometimes high schools sponsor trips for students to visit colleges. Some parents bond with other families interested in the same travel plans and make it into a group college travel adventure. Due to scheduling challenges, though, our family has been flying solo. We have learned quite a bit along the way.
Tip No. 1: It’s best to go when school is in session. We’d already decided to visit the North Carolina shore last summer, so we tacked on a detour of four or so hours. Nearly side by side are fierce collegiate rivals the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with undergraduate numbers running above 18,000 students, and Duke University, a smaller place boasting under 7,000 undergrads. We went on excellent tours staffed by peppy students, but we realized this out of the gate: There’s something intangible, a vibe, that you miss when the kids are not in attendance. Still, the girl visited two beautiful campuses and figured out her comfort zone in terms of school size.
Tip No. 2: You can now schedule campus tours with the click of a mouse. A lot of schools encourage this, offering this service on their websites. Some even provide helpful information regarding where to park (which, in a lot of cases, I have learned, is valuable knowledge) and where to stay. Even if you opt to just wander around campus without help — which is not a bad idea, either — you ought to stop by the Admissions Office. (On a crazy-hot, 100-degree day, we walked into one office where bottled water was offered to hapless parents and their sweaty kids. Bless you, Admissions Office.) Introduce yourself. Sign in. (Admissions folks have told me that visiting their campus constitutes showing interest in the school, so signing in creates a record of that interest. That’s a positive in their book.) Ask questions. If nothing else, the folks in the office can give you a handy campus map. (You will eventually need to find a bathroom.) Eat in a dining hall if you can. And for Pete’s sake, take notes, or at least jot trip info soon after your visit. After a while, you’ll find that the tour spiels run together.
Tip No. 3: If there are other family members who are shlepped along, make sure you plan at least one outing that appeals to those folks or face certain, eventual mutiny. When visiting Atlanta in late summer to check out Emory University, we made certain to catch a Braves game (for the husband), the home of Martin Luther King Jr. (for me), and World of Coca-Cola (for the prospective college student’s little brother, who is clearly not enjoying any of this college stuff, especially after being shut out of visiting the Lemur Center at Duke.) We accomplished this all in one weekend. This sort of activity also helps you get better acquainted with the sort of neighborhood the school is in — urban, suburban, cow pasture, and so on — which is also something for the prospective collegian to note. In that vein, if your selected school is in a small town with few things to do, this may make the trip boring for the family — but potentially telling if the student herself finds herself uninspired by said locale. Academia is a place for learning, it’s true. But no college is an island.
Tip No. 4: Some schools offer overnight visits for prospective students, who obtain first-hand knowledge of the campus by attending classes, eating in dining halls and experiencing the ambiance of the place. We haven’t availed ourselves of any of these thus far — we are still narrowing things down. Instead, after much biting of nails, we let our daughter hop on Amtrak solo and visit a friend who attends the College of William and Mary. Do I know this friend? No. Was I certain my kid would have someone meeting her at the train once she arrived in Williamsburg, Va.? Not entirely. Was I certain someone would help her get to the train station on time to catch the train home? Negative. I do know my daughter, though. She has learned how to travel on Amtrak and Metro by herself over the years. More to the point, she has turned into an incredibly responsible person and an excellent judge of character. Maybe these qualities won’t jump off her college application, but they buoy my heart.
My daughter survived her independent trek. She adored her time at William and Mary, free of parents and little brother. She had no problems negotiating her own travel. Now, she wants to stay with a friend at Tufts University. In Massachusetts. She wants to visit a friend at Tulane University. In New Orleans. Et cetera, et cetera. Which brings me to my last tip, No. 5: Your years of planning travel with your prospective student are waning. By this time, you’ve hopefully given her a lot of important navigational tools already. She’s growing up and starting her adult life.
I guess I’d better start getting used to this.
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