This is Kafka’s best advice for anyone who will some day have to plan and then take college trips. She has contributed articles to washingtonpost.com, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Museum News Magazine, and America Online: Digital City Destinations. Before her tenure as a Montgomery County teacher, she worked as a photo editor for Agence France-Presse and a columnist for Twins magazine.
To prepare for sending her twins off to college in California and Vermont, she just launched an Empty-Nest Movie Club.
By Lauren Kafka
The only thing our boy/girl high school twins knew for sure was that they wouldn’t go to the same university. They’ve never been very close, and they saw college as a great opportunity to get as far away from each other as possible.
They were about halfway through eleventh grade when we had some high-energy friends over for dinner. You know that dinner-party moment – when in a fraction of a second a friend inadvertently makes you feel like a totally delinquent parent: “You haven’t even started scheduling college visits?” our guest asked.
“No,” I said sheepishly, relieved that my compulsive, super-organized daughter was out with friends and didn’t overhear this conversation. “I figure we have spring break and the summer. Won’t that be enough time? How complicated is it?”
She said she worked on the project for months and created elaborate spreadsheets with details about each college, information-session and tour times, financial-aid deadlines, etc. “A lot of the tours fill up quickly, so if I were you, I’d get started as soon as possible.”
Up until that time, it seemed like most of the so-called experts who offered advice about the college-planning process had one major theme: Encourage your children to start taking responsibility for their own lives. They should be the ones to communicate with the admissions office, sign up for tours, figure out what type of transportation they’re going to use to get to the schools, and fill out their own financial-aid forms.
A high school guidance counselor who spoke to parents at our kids’ school told us that college admissions staff keep close track of whether students contact them directly or whether parents are the ones filling out the online tour reservations and calling their office with questions.
“Some admissions staff members care more about whether your kid does his own laundry than how many AP classes he takes,” the counselor advised us. “It’s all about how independent and self-sufficient they are.” I tried to imagine my teenage twins working together to plan a college trip involving airfare, hotels, multiple tours, and a rental car. They rarely agree on which one gets to use the bathroom first before school. The logistics were daunting.
Like most over-scheduled, college-bound students, our kids were totally stressed out by the myriad anxieties of junior year. My son was taking five AP classes, playing on the tennis team, participating in drum line, and working as the assistant lighting director for the school’s drama department. My daughter was in three AP classes, six dance classes, and two a cappella groups. She was also director and choreographer of a one-act play, and she was trying to do a few part-time jobs in her spare time. They frequently didn’t start their homework until after 10:30 p.m.
I knew I was going to have to coordinate the travel arrangements, so I started checking web sites and trying to find inexpensive airfares and motels within walking distance to campuses they wanted to visit. Overall, my family was pretty happy with our cheap-but-clean lodging–except for a shabby motel near the University of Southern California. The stale, tobacco-infused odor, saggy mattresses, and carpet stains were depressing enough, but then someone flushed the toilet, which sounded like a feral cat with gastro-intestinal problems. Fortunately, we were there for only one night.
To help all of us get a break from the monotony of the tours and the pressures of the decision-making process, I tried to turn each college-visit trip into a mini-vacation by scheduling some entertainment as well as downtime with friends and relatives. We toured eight schools in 10 days in southern California over spring break while visiting my brother and his wife. Then we did a Virginia/North Carolina sweep in June followed by a spectacular Dixie Chicks concert. We managed to do some house-sitting for my brother-in-law during a whirlwind tour of New England schools in July. My children agreed, for economic reasons, to travel together to each other’s favorite schools even if they had no interest in them. From there, their approaches diverged dramatically–as they have ever since they left my womb.
Adrienne started working on her college essays in July, which he thought was ridiculous. Julian began some of his essays only days before they were due. She sought the advice of a professional college counselor. He didn’t really see the point in that. She applied early decision to her dream school, Claremont McKenna, in sunny southern California, got accepted in December, and had the chance to relax for most of her senior year. He chose not to apply early anywhere, routinely hit the send button between 11:52 p.m. and 11:57 p.m. before midnight application deadlines, and had some last-minute crisis situations when his computer crashed, or we lost our Wi-Fi connection. You can probably guess who was teasing whom in January.
Although my husband and I, both professional journalists, agreed to help by editing essays, we sometimes got fed up with his down-to-the-wire submissions, so we occasionally tiptoed out to movies on deadline nights. We remember some frantic texts when he was having trouble sending a percussion video to one school’s music department, but ultimately, he successfully applied to 13 schools.
True to form, he waited until April 29th to choose – and, no surprise, he decided to go to the opposite corner of the continental United States from his sister. He earned a sizable scholarship to attend the Honors College at the University of Vermont in the charming town of Burlington between the Adirondack and Green Mountains. On his picturesque campus overlooking stunning Lake Champlain, his season ski pass will cost $300, and a shuttle will pick him up at his dorm and deliver him to the slope of his choice.
I don’t consider myself an expert on the college-search process, but I have learned a lot since we began this complicated and intense adventure 17 months ago. I’m also extremely proud of the thoughtful research my kids did as well as their organizational efforts and stamina while writing essays, gathering recommendations, and completing applications. I’m ecstatic and relieved that things all worked out so well for them, and I’m confident that someday–possibly after they recover from this past year or maybe after they graduate–they’ll fully realize what a tremendous privilege and opportunity attending college is.
Here’s my top-10 list of suggestions to help you prepare for this journey – or all 23 of them:
*We started 529 college-savings accounts for our twins when they were less than one year old. By the time they were 18, these funds almost covered one year of their college education. We’ll be liquidating quite a bit of our retirement savings to pay for college, praying for help from generous grandparents, and possibly taking out some loans. I recommend finding a savvy investment advisor early on and putting away as much money as you possibly can as soon as you can.
*The FAFSA is the federal financial-aid application, and the College Scholarship Service profile is required by families who apply for financial aid from private schools. If you plan to fill out financial-aid forms, I suggest doing so with the help of a financial advisor. This project took our advisor and me about five hours to complete. Make sure you type in social security numbers and other key info correctly because one wrong digit can cost dozens of extra hours of headaches. I suggest doing these in early October of your child’s senior year just in case he or she decides to apply early decision, or you have any snags in the application process.
*Although you don’t need to create spreadsheets, you probably do want to plan a few months ahead for college visits, especially in areas of the country where you plan to be for a limited amount of time. Spring break is the most popular time to visit schools when college classes are in session, and some tours fill up quickly. Insist on some substantial research before you start booking flights and hotel reservations. If your child wants to visit only colleges that are a huge stretch, encourage him or her to add more realistic schools to the list.
*If you’re on a tight budget, you might insist that your child visit only the schools he or she is admitted to. If this is your plan, keep in mind that admitted-students’ visiting days usually require a lot more time than regular college visits. We spent seven hours at the University of Vermont, for example, after my son was admitted. You’ll also have a much shorter window for travel because most college decisions go out in late March and early April, and the deadline for students to commit to most schools is May 1st.
*Parking at some schools is tricky. There are special lots designated for visitors, and they often require permits that you pick up after you arrive at the school, so be sure to factor in this time. If there’s any way to find lodging close enough to the schools so that you can walk or take a shuttle to the starting point for the tour, this might be less time-consuming, and you’ll get a better sense of what it’s like to stroll around the campus.
*Try not to pack more than two schools into one day. Especially if you want to sit in on some classes, eat a meal in the dining room, visit an academic department, or do anything else on campus, leave yourself a little extra time before you have to rush off to the next school. If your student wants to schedule interviews at schools that offer them, plan on being there a bit longer, and remind him or her to pack interview clothing.
*Although you’ll get quite sick of them by the end, and you might feel qualified to start walking backwards, like the student guides, and giving tours yourself, I do recommend participating in both the information sessions and the campus tours. This makes timing a bit of a Rubik’s cube if you’re visiting multiple schools because you really need to plan to be on each campus for about three hours. Most tours are led by students. The information sessions are led by admissions office staff. Wherever your child goes, unless he or she gets a full scholarship, you’ll be making a substantial financial investment. Try to get as much information as you can while you’re there, but realize that most questions you ask during the tours and information sessions will probably embarrass your kid. Grab business cards when they are offered; you can email your questions later, and your child will never know what you asked.
*If you know someone at the school you’re visiting, contact the person ahead of time. Try to set up a quick meeting for coffee or lunch. The tour guides and admissions staff members are trying to sell the school. The students, faculty, coaches, and support staff who are not on the PR team might give you more honest answers about a school’s drawbacks.
*If you have time, try to sit in on some lectures, see a theater or dance production, attend an athletic event, listen to a concert or a cappella performance, or observe some other extra-curricular event related to your kid’s interests. Check out some gyms and art studios. Save time to see the town or city. Try the sushi or pizza in a local restaurant. Sample the bubble tea or latte in a campus café. Go for a walk or a bike ride on or near the campus. Get the vibe of the place.
*You’ll hear this advice a dozen or more times, but I can’t emphasize how essential it is. There is no perfect college or university for your child. Some students love the student-teacher ratio at small liberal-arts colleges, and they want to be taught by professors rather than graduate students. Others prefer the anonymity of large lecture halls, and they want all the benefits and resources a large university offers. Some kids care about school spirit; others want plenty of vegetarian and vegan options in the dining room. What is absolutely crucial to you might be completely unnecessary for your child. While it’s exciting to fall in love with a campus or a school, it’s always best to have multiple options and safety schools.
Remember that if you have more than one child, they will probably approach the college-search process in different ways. Try to embrace the chaos and cope with the pushes and pulls during a year when your child may desperately want to be independent but might not feel 100 percent confident about leaving the security and comfort of the nest. Be there to support them, help them stay calm, urge friends and relatives not to nudge them about decisions prematurely, and bite your tongue when you feel your own biases might be getting in the way. Remember that the decision really is theirs–even if you’re the one writing the jaw-dropping checks.
A few weeks ago, the same friend who prepped us on how to get organized and schedule college visits invited us to dinner. We were delighted to share with her the fabulous news that the college search for our twins was over, and both kids were thrilled with their choices.
“Have you reserved rooms yet for graduation weekend?” she asked during hors d’oeuvres. “I suggest you do that now because hotels fill up really early.”
(Correction: Acceptance to Claremont McKenna was in December, not October)