Make Campus Visits
Many years ago, during spring break of my oldest daughter’s junior year in high school, my husband and I embarked on the first of many campus tours. We packed our four kids, ages 17, 15, 14, and 9, into the family van and set out to visit five northeastern schools. I was excited. I had loved college and couldn’t wait to take my daughter shopping for what I was sure would be a great four years.
I was so jazzed that even a freak snowstorm and the abrupt demise of our minivan’s transmission barely dented my enthusiasm. What finally broke my spirits was noticing toward the end of the week that my daughter had been in a bad mood the entire time. Good grief, I thought, we were doing this for her! What was her problem?
What’s wrong with this picture?
Turns out, the problem was me. In planning the trip, I had completely failed to consider her perspective. In my mind, college was a fun-filled, world-expanding experience. But in hers, it represented four years of working even harder than she’d worked in high school - which was pretty hard. Unfortunately, the college visits only reinforced that perception. Information sessions ranged from discussions of how unlikely it was that students would get in to how quickly they could start doing research if they did. No wonder my daughter wasn’t thrilled. If you’d like your daughter’s college visits to be more enjoyable, learn from my mistakes.
Don’t wait until spring of junior year to start.
Start making informal campus visits in 9th and 10th grades, before kids become anxious about admissions and too busy with schoolwork and extracurricular activities to take a weekend off. Start with a day trip to a nearby college and expand to weekend jaunts. Schedule your trips to include an activity that your son enjoys, like watching a soccer game or catching a play. Do not ask anyone about research unless you have the unusual kid who genuinely wants to do it.
If possible, leave young siblings home.
Visiting a college with just one child is a great opportunity to bond with a son or daughter who will soon be leaving home. Also, the car trip will be much more enjoyable without young children kicking each other in the back seat.
Spread visits out.
Visiting just one or two colleges on a weekend allows the visit to be thorough but relaxed. It also helps your child remember the features of each college. If you must visit several colleges on one trip, keep a pen and paper handy to jot down your impressions of each college while you’re there, because by the end of the week you’ll be hard-pressed to remember which college had the flame-throwing club and which allowed students to spend their meal plan money at Chuck E. Cheese.
Try to visit a college when it’s in session.
Colleges are frequently on break at the same time as high schools, so be sure to check whether classes are in session when you plan your visits. Talking to current students is one of the best ways to learn what it would be like to attend a particular college, so try to visit while they’re on campus.
Make the visit fun.
Applying to college is hard work, so your teenager will need plenty of motivation to persist. The message that college will increase his earning capacity and likelihood of employment is accurate and important, but the message that it’s a blast is a lot more persuasive.
Keep the focus on college life.
Many students and parents get so caught up in the stressful process of applying to college and figuring out how to pay for it that they lose sight of what lies beyond—the experience itself. Use the campus visit as an opportunity to remind your child that college is a time to make lifelong friends and to discover a variety of new interests in the classroom and beyond. In short, it should be an exciting and rewarding four years that will be well worth the effort it takes to get there.
Final Note: Remember Who’s Going
Campus visits can stir up a lot of emotions for parents. Some of them center on your child’s future – sorrow that she will be leaving home and excitement for her impending adventure – and others relate to your past. As you stroll across the main quad on a crisp fall day, or stop for a cup of cappuccino in the café at the student center, memories of your own college days, regrets about things you didn’t get to experience, and thoughts of what you’d do differently a second time around are likely to be swirling around in your head. You’re only human, and it’s natural to see the world through the lens of your own experiences. But be careful not to project that perspective onto your daughter. One of the most difficult challenges parents face is recognizing that a child may be very different from a parent – and that's okay.
Bottom line: Choosing a college is one process where it can be especially hard to remain on the sidelines, but very important that you do so. Granted, if you know your son has the attention span of a chipmunk, I think it’s reasonable to challenge his desire to attend a large university that holds introductory courses in an amphitheatre. But it’s not reasonable to challenge the idea of a large school because your vision of the perfect class is six students and a professor lounging under a tree sipping lattes. So when you visit a college, keep a low profile. Ask your son to articulate what he likes or dislikes about the campus, and when it comes to making final choices, help him think through the pros and cons of each school, but do your best to leave your own preferences out of the process.
Next article: Compose the List.
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