Spring break for some means relaxing at home, or skiing, or perhaps a trip to a tropical island. But, if you’ve got a high school junior at home, spring break can also mean it’s time to start touring colleges. Maybe not the dream vacation of sipping margaritas under the palm trees that you hoped for, but if you plan it right, this CAN be a fun time too.
As the parent of a high school junior as well as an essay specialist at Breakaway Prep, I am in the unique position of already knowing a lot about this process while simultaneously trying to stay sane as I help my son navigate this step in the college admissions journey. However, just because I know a lot about applying to college, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a cakewalk for my son. Although we have already utilized resources such as college guide books and the high school counselor, I also know how valuable it can be to outsource and seek expert help from a private college counselor. That is how I will ensure I can remain as objective and nag-free as possible.
In addition to prepping for the upcoming ACT, my son first had to figure out which colleges he wanted to visit over his spring break. “Figure out” was the key phrase as he (or rather “we”) embarked on this process. While making a list of schools to tour might be straightforward to let’s say, a student who knows he only wants to apply to Big 10 schools, for other kids this can be an overwhelming task.
I knew we had to approach his college visit planning with a little bit of strategy and a whole lot of flexibility. What I’ve learned through others who have taken college tour trips is try not schedule too many tours over a short time frame. Also, if you can, try to intersperse fun diversions along the way. My brother took my niece on a whirlwind trip of visiting nine schools over the course of seven days. That jam-packed schedule worked just fine for my niece, but I know that if I did that with my son, by day three he’d be throwing a toddler-type tantrum with arms and legs flailing, screaming, “no more!”. That’s why I’ve scheduled just four college visits, with only two of those that are back-to-back on consecutive days. The third college visit is a short day trip from our house. And the final visit is near skiing, so we are bringing the whole family for that trip and spending an extra day on the slopes. My hope is that the overall experience is positive and gears up my son for tackling the Common App with energy and enthusiasm…a mom can dream!
So, here’s how we came up with our initial college visit list:
Location, Location, Location
Some kids narrow their college search by climate, particular states, or only wanting to be a certain distance from home. Also, financial reasons can factor into the search, if paying in-state tuition is important. My son used to think he would be willing to go to college anywhere in the country, but after being at boarding school this past year, he now knows what it feels like to be 2 ½ hours away from home, living in the middle of nowhere, without a car. His tune has changed to thinking that a few hours away from home is preferable and so we’ve narrowed his search to the northeast. He also has put in his plea for having a car at school, but that’s a separate matter to be addressed at a later — much later — date.
The College Counselor: A Resource and A Sanity Saver
Even though I work in this industry, the college counselor’s input and support are crucial, offering you information and advice that you simply can’t get from the Princeton Review Guide to Colleges. At this stage, before standardized test scores are in, the counselor can make college visit recommendations based on grades, student interests and extracurricular involvement. Our counselor gave us a few more schools to consider, to coincide with where we were already going to be traveling, and she also provided helpful feedback about the schools already on our visit list. The best part is that our counselor is knowledgeable and calm, two important qualities when dealing with stressed out parents.
Coaches Who Woo You
My son is an athlete and will likely play basketball in college. Coaches from various Division III schools have expressed an interest in him already, which helps refine this search too. Of the four schools we are visiting, two are schools where the coach has reached out. While the athletic component may open some doors for him at certain schools, he also has to be sure he is evaluating the entire college or university. The question every athlete should ask himself (or herself) is, “if you broke your leg and couldn’t play your sport for a year, would you still be happy at that school?” Remember, it’s all about the RIGHT FIT! The other factor to consider is that most of the Division III schools where he could play are small (under 3,000 students), which brings me to my next point…
Size It Up
My son isn’t sure if he’d prefer a big, medium, or small school, which is why we are touring one big university (10,000 students) and one medium-sized school (5,500 students) in addition to the two small ones. As a graduate of University of Michigan, I think that anything under 10,000 students seems tiny, but I know I have to keep my biases to myself. Note: Parents should be seen and not heard on college tours, if possible. Keeping our opinions to ourselves is important if we want our kids to not be swayed in a direction that might end up being the wrong way. In other words, don’t hum the Michigan fight song while touring Ohio State, although I wouldn’t blame you if you did.
Urban vs. Suburban vs. Rural
In this initial round of tours, it just so happens that the four schools we are seeing are in rural or semi-rural areas, although each apparently has a nice town or small city near campus. I do know that right now, my son is not a big city-loving kid. He went to a basketball camp for high school recruits at NYU two years ago and he knew right then that an urban college environment was not for him. He practically ran back to our car and was silent until we had returned to the haven of suburbia. But, preferences change so perhaps we’ll visit a school in an urban location during round two of tours.
Yes, I did say round two, because most likely you WILL do this again! Some families wait until acceptances come in and then go on more visits, whether or not they saw the schools in the first round of tours. Other families prefer to visit more schools during the summer before senior year and yet again during the fall of senior year.
I’m not sure yet how many more tours we will do, but I’m hoping these upcoming visits will at least help my son have a better idea of the type of college environment he prefers. That alone will be worth giving up vacation time. My margarita by the pool can wait…
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