Planning a trip to look at colleges can be both an exhilarating and stressful time. Finding the balance between guiding your teenager as they try to find their fit, but letting them drive the mission is a delicate one. I’ve now launched three daughters off to college and each one has been a very different experience. While no one plan works for each family (or even each kid in one family), here are a few tips to help you start thinking about how to start the whole college selection process:
PLAN EACH TRIP TO VISIT MULTIPLE SCHOOLS IN A CITY OR REGION
One thing I have done each time I’ve taken one of my daughters on a college tour trip is to look at multiple schools in a region, such as Northern or Southern California, the East Coast, the Midwest, etc. This helps keep your costs down and really lets your student see how different colleges in the same town can be. For example, with my youngest daughter, we visited New York and Washington, DC in one trip, and saw three schools in DC and two in NYC. Even though the three schools in DC were in the same city, they definitely each had their own feel and personality. East coast schools really lend themselves to this type of college tour sweep. There are hundreds of schools within a few hours train or car ride of each other and the only limitations to the number you can see are your imagination and your stamina. Full disclosure: college visits are TIRING, y’all. There is a lot of walking, active listening and paying attention to a million little details. Parenting, in general, is not for the weak. Parenting college-bound teens is next level!
BE REALISTIC ABOUT WHICH SCHOOLS ARE POSSIBILITIES
You should encourage your child to look at websites like College Board, CollegeFactual.com or CollegeData.com to find schools that offer the major they are interested in and find out more about each school. I guarantee you there are a lot of great schools that may not be “household names” that may be a great fit for your student. (Pro Tip: many of these less well-known schools are just as great as the big names, and may even offer more financial aid than their more popular competitors who don’t need to offer aid to the thousands of students wanting to go there!) After compiling a list of possibilities, have them spend some time on the schools’ websites, take online virtual tours and narrow down the list of schools to ones that really fit what your child is looking for (and have a profile that has a good chance of admitting your student). That being said, I am all for letting kids apply to “reach” schools. I would never want to limit their dreams, and I was willing to spend the application fee for the possibility of them getting into their dream school, but you can help manage their expectations at the same time.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF TOURISTY THINGS NEAR THE SCHOOLS
When it’s time to hit the road (or board the flight) to go look at schools in person, it would be a shame to go to some really cool parts of the country to visit schools and not see the interesting things there are right there (or close by). These college tour trips shouldn’t be all business and it will lighten the mood—and help your student relax—if the entire focus isn’t on them making these important life decisions. Whether that’s a visit to a Broadway show while you’re in the Big Apple touring NYU or making a day trip to the Grand Canyon while visiting Northern Arizona University, be sure to build in some family fun along the way. Kids are already dealing with a lot of stress and anxiety about feeling like they have to have their whole life figured out when picking a major and a college. Creating an opportunity that gives everyone a chance to let off steam during a college tour can help release some of the pressure before anyone blows their top.
TAKE NOTES ON EACH UNIVERSITY, MOM (OR DAD)
After you’ve been to more than two universities, they all tend to run together. Which college was the one with the lazy river? (Yes, there really are colleges that have all of the bells and whistles, like a lazy river on campus, but hopefully that feature won’t be the thing that makes your kid choose that school). Was that special dinosaur collection at College X or University of Y? This is a great way for parents to participate in the tour process. I was always the “scribe” on tours, taking copious notes and keeping track of pros and cons as my daughters got to focus more on the feel or vibe of the place and spend more energy talking to other students on the tours. This really allowed them to get an idea if they felt like a good fit for them. Believe me, your notes will come in very handy later on when your family talks through all of the options about what campus makes it to the short list of schools to actually apply to. (Pro Tip: EVERY school has blue call boxes for safety. Focus on the important differences between colleges and don’t get swayed by features that all schools likely have and talk about on their tours.)
Bonus Tip: Take lots of photos of your kid(s) at each campus. This way, when they apply for and get accepted at that school, they’ll have a “this is the day I knew where I belonged” memory.
HAVE YOUR KID LEAD THE WAY ON PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
The time between high school and college is a scary one. No one’s going to tell them to get up and go to class, or which train to catch to go to their internship across town. If your kid is more of a “country mouse” and would be intimidated by public transportation, that may help narrow their focus to small town colleges rather than a large university in a big city. If they aren’t scared of a challenge, let them try to navigate the system while you’re there for a tour to see if they feel like it’s something they could handle when you’re not there to keep on the right path…literally.
EASE INTO COLLEGE VISITS IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD
One of the easiest ways to get used to what to do and see on a college visit is to visit your local college or university. Almost every locale has at least one or two schools you can visit and get a feel for what to expect, and what to look for, on other future visits. And you don’t have to plan an expensive trip to do this. Most colleges offer tours year-round and weekends, so plan a tour date with your student and ease into the whole idea of college tours. Even the most reluctant teenager is willing to give their parents a couple of hours on a weekend to indulge them in their zealous prodding to look at schools! Who knows, your kid may actually end up wanting to stay close to home and may love the way the hometown school makes them feel.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX (OR YOUR COMFORT ZONE)
I am the product of public universities and I love my alma mater with all my heart. And before my first daughter was college shopping, my only experience with college was public universities. I was therefore really surprised to learn how affordable private universities can be, depending on your family’s financial situation. I now have one private university grad and one senior at another private university; both experiences—while very different—have been extremely rewarding. Neither kid will have a ton of debt and will have a great education from a university that they truly feel was the place they were meant to be. Before you write off private colleges or universities, look into their financial aid packages (those websites I mentioned above have great information). It might surprise you! I am 100% confident that we came out way ahead, financially speaking, by sending our kids to private universities.
Another thing you might consider that I hadn’t in the past: sending your kid to school abroad. My middle daughter just jetted off to England to finish her bachelor’s degree and she’s going to have the time of her life. I had not considered going to school abroad (but boy do I wish I had now!) I see some acquaintances on social media posting about their kids doing just that and I think it’s becoming more popular and acceptable. Again, if your kid is adventurous and independent, this might just be something they would love!
Pro Tip: Another way to think about the box is to consider community college as an affordable and comfortable way for your kid to ease their way into college. This is a great way to save costs and keep their (or your) debt to a minimum!
IN THE END, THERE MAY BE NO PERFECT COLLEGE
Keep in mind that there may not be a college or university that has every single thing your student (or you!) have in their mind as Perfect U. As you and your child are making plans for their future, talk about what is important to them and have them rank these wish list items in a priority order. How important are sports teams? Or Greek Life? Or religion as a part of the curriculum or identity of the school? Big city with non-stop activities or rural location with lots of opportunities for outdoor adventures? Make this list before you start planning your trip. This may help narrow your list to a certain part of the country, the type of school or type of community that they want to grow in.
In the end, try to let the decision be up to them and support them in their choice. And then let them fly. As a recovering helicopter parent, I know it’s not easy, but you’ve made it this far, Mom and/or Dad. They will thank you for helping them find their path, but remember to let them take the lead from here on out.