Every year, the college tour is a rite of passage for students and parents alike, but for some it becomes an occupation. I wanted to make it simple, that is, wait until after my son was accepted, but before we had to give notification to colleges, a two-week period between April 15 and May 1. Had I known that our three-day, three-state, three-college tour was going to be so hectic I might have planned otherwise. I worried: Was this too much pressure, in too little time, to make such an important decision? What was the best approach?
Although there were no right or wrong answers, this rite of passage was harder than I thought to get right: for every decision, another better one could have been made. Of course, I get to do it all over again in four years when my daughter goes to college.
The Big Question: When to Visit
My son and I visited two UC campuses in the spring of his junior year, but by the time senior year rolled around he had forgotten everything he liked about them. And by senior year, unbeknownst to me, he had his heart set on going east. But for those whose first choice is a UC or Cal State, a couple of campus visits, one in junior and another in senior year, makes sense.
East Coast schools are another problem: to visit before, after or both? One father I know took his daughter to New England to see her college choices before she was admitted, and then again afterward. Some parents use the college tour as a kind of marathon summer vacation between junior and senior year, visiting more than a dozen schools on one trip. One parent I know dragged her daughter to 22 different schools.
Since regular students and teachers aren't on most college campuses during summer, I don't see the point, other than saving your child from missing classes during the school year.
The other less costly choice is to visit only after the acceptance letters arrive. My advice: resist pressure from other parents and students to go beforehand. All in all, I'm glad we did.
Use the Internet; Make a Date With Your College Interviewer
I found letters from college interviewers telling my son they would be in town on such and such a date buried under stacks of homework papers. When confronted, he told me he didn't know what he would say to these strangers anyway. After missing a few of these opportunities, his father told him he had to go. He ended up actually liking the interview process, and determined from talking to a Harvard alumnus that he didn't want to go to an Ivy League after all.
Take advantage of "walking tours" on the Internet -- you can get a fairly accurate feel of what college campuses and their buildings look like. Also find out when representatives from out-of-state colleges will be in your area. My son's best friend decided on Boston University after admission counselors came to Los Angeles and presented a slide show of the new athletic center.
Everyone I talked to said eating at the campus cafeteria was mandatory. They didn't say that what you get with your meal is sometimes more than food. When my son visited Wesleyan University, he and his host ate dinner at the freshman cafeteria. In the middle of the meal, the campus streaker ran into the room, threw off his cape and made a loud proclamation: I am Wesleyan. After getting a bored response, he ran naked down the stairs and out the door. I imagine a lot of students lost their appetites, but perhaps not; after all, Wesleyan does have a clothing-optional dorm.
Visiting a dorm room is a must. At BU we viewed the sleeping arrangements of a friend, Yoni, and his roommate, who cleverly arranged their beds perpendicular to each other, to leave more communal space intact, i.e. more room for the TV. While there, we also got a taste of the open-door policy. Yoni's friends were constantly popping in and out, using the computer, making dinner arrangements. I wondered: how do freshmen get any homework done with the doors wide open? The answer: They don't; that's what the college library is for.
There are many opportunities to experience Jewish student life. At Wesleyan, Schmooze With the Jews was in full swing, inviting new recruits to meet Jewish students on campus. Schmooze sponsored a Shabbat service, with free bagels afterward. (The congregation was made up of mostly non-Jews, but then I realized-where there's free food, there's freshman!) At BU, Hillel is the largest organization on campus, with 25 student groups organized around cultural, social and religious events. At Bard College, there's a large Jewish presence, lead by President Leon Botstein, the conductor of the Jerusalem Orchestra. As a matter of fact, the first student we met at Bard was Jewish, Ari from Chicago, who played the trumpet and walked around the campus in 46-degree weather, barefoot.
Don't Judge a College by the Parents It Keeps
The campus tour is a good place for your son/daughter to check out other students and their academic aspirations, while you can check out the parents. Curiously, there was a majority of Californians visiting at the same time as us, easily identified by their unusual clothing. While touring Bard, I met an American Sikh from San Francisco. He told me that he was unsure if his son would be attending college, given that the boy was a sensitive soul concerned with the condition of the world. But when we met up with him later, the Sikh's son seemed most enthusiastic about the school's Division III soccer team. As it turned out, he loved soccer more than saving the world.
True or False: The Last College You Visit Will Be the One You Choose
Somewhere I had heard that the last college you visit will be the one your child will remember the most, thus, the one he or she will choose. Wrong. My son picked the first East Coast college he visited. But, it is true that the last school you visit will be the one your child will know most about, because by that time he/she will have discovered exactly what questions to ask, what professors to see, what classes to attend and anything else he/she has forgotten to do on previous visits. In the end, it doesn't matter because what determines your son or daughter's choice is oftentimes so elusive, not even you, the wise parent, have a clue. (See next topic.)
How did my son finally choose his college, and when did he know that this was the school for him? His first inkling came when he was walking on the Bard College campus and saw students who looked like his friends back home. I noticed then that his shoulders relaxed. When we visited a friend's daughter, Corrie Segal, in her dorm room, I stepped back and let the two of them talk. Soon, a roommate joined the conversation while she fried an egg. Turned out their dorm room was a popular destination: dozens of Polaroids of friends who had spent the night on their couch adorned the walls, while tea bags adorned the ceiling. Corrie explained: one day, while having tea, a friend suggested flinging the tea bags toward the ceiling, where they stuck, with the little strings hanging down. Soon, they found that flinging tea bags was a very satisfying thing to do. By the time we visited, most of the tea bags had already fallen, save one or two, but the remaining tea stains made the ceiling look like a distant constellation. My son was impressed. He was also impressed by Corrie's photographic portfolio, which showed that the school had an impressive arts curriculum, the very thing my son was looking for. In the end, he chose Bard over four other colleges, just in the nick of time; he mailed his acceptance a few days before May 1. I was relieved. He liked the campus, the food, the history class he sat in on, the professors. But I believe it was the tea bags on the ceiling that clinched the deal.
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