Just as the European tour was once the finishing school for young ladies and gentlemen, the multiple college tours are now one of the rites of passage for — primarily affluent — high schoolers. While some of my friends eagerly looked forward to them, seeing them as a fun adventure with their sons or daughters who would (fingers crossed!) soon be safely ensconced in one of those campuses, I did not.
There was the expense, but also my doubts that visiting would provide any truly useful information. I know, I know — I have heard stories of kids who walked onto a university quad and after 10 minutes declared, “this is the place I want to go.” Or, the opposite — immediately eliminated a choice because the students looked too grungy. Or not grungy enough. Because the campus was too hilly. Too small. Too big.
And yes, I know times have changed since I was in college in the era known as pre-Internet. The first time I ever saw the University of California at Berkeley, back in 1977, was a few days before classes started. My parents and I flew up from Los Angeles and took a taxi to the co-op where I was slated to live (cooler and cheaper than a dorm). The lobby reeked of pot, someone was passed out on the couch and the person in the office casually asked me if I would be okay rooming with the girl standing behind me in line.
The closest I got to a college tour was when someone took me, my erstwhile roommate and our parents around the co-op. My father, to this day loves recounting the look on my new roommate’s mother — a petite Orange County matron — when we were shown the coed showers (not obligatory but an option). All she said is, “I’m so glad your father isn’t here.”
Had tours been a thing back then — and had my parents been willing to take me on a few — I probably would have aimed for a small liberal arts college. I was an avid reader, somewhat shy and loved writing, so a massive state university would probably not be on my list.
I loved my four years there.
Still, that was then and this is now. Although my husband and I didn’t go crazy on the tour thing, we did spend some February and April breaks, together and separately, being herded around dorms, libraries and dining halls. And what a weird ritual it has become.
First, after you’ve been on, oh about three, you begin to realize they are all more alike than different, whether at a small southern college or a huge northeast state university.
There’s the information session, where parents and their teens sit in a large classroom or auditorium listening to an admissions officer and maybe a student or two, talk. The session typically starts with the fun stuff — how cool the majors are, the great classroom experiences, and maybe a reference to a famous professor. Sprinkled in are descriptions of study abroad, residential life, sports programs and — a bone to the parents — career counseling.
Then the tone gets a little more subdued, like a news anchor leading into crime story. We’ve all been so cozy up to now, but it’s time to talk about one more thing. How to actually get in. Everyone sits straighter in their seats. Hands shoot up.
After that we are divided into groups and assigned tour guides, who are usually so multitalented and hyper-involved that it makes us grown-ups wonder what we’ve been doing with our lives. One of our tour guides (I’m not making this up), a sophomore, was captain of club hockey, vice president of his fraternity, a trombonist in the jazz band, a researcher for a professor and a hospital volunteer. I assume he also attended classes.
Some things were different the first and second time around. With our older son, I would look at the seemingly confident college students bustling around us and couldn’t imagine him actually being a part of a campus environment. I feared he would never fit in.
Now that he is a senior and had adapted with far greater ease than I could have imagined, I am less nervous for my younger son.
Am I fan of these college tours now? Not really. I think too many institutions use a visit to their campus as a plus on an admissions application, which puts an unfair burden on families who fear not doing so will hurt their child’s chances.
And neither of my sons — one at a large state university in the Northeast, one just starting at a small private college in the South — ever walked away from any of the campus tours saying, “this is it” or “this isn’t it.” I don’t believe there is one or even two perfect fits for any one child.
I think most — not all — students tend to do well and grow to love whatever place they end up at. And I also know those who have carefully weighed and balanced every possible criteria and explored the corners of every campus they applied to and ended up transferring because they weren’t happy.
But I do have to admit that some of the trips were, dare I say, a bonding experience with my sons. And the tours did leave me wistful. More than the buildings or statistics, what sticks with me is how walking around these campuses, time seemed to split as I simultaneously relived my college past and imagined my child’s future.
Alina Tugend is a New York-based writer and author of “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of being Wrong.” She can be reached through her website, www.alinatugend.com and on twitter at @atugend.
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