How to parent on college visits

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By Christine VanDeVelde

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Confession: I like to be in control. Fact: If you want a good college visit experience with your son or daughter, you must cede control. Ugh!

You’ve heard it a hundred times from the college counselor, and people like me: When it comes to the college search and application process, students must be in the driver’s seat. Well, college visits are the one time where you are probably in the driver’s seat, but everything else at this dance should be “student’s choice.” That goes for where you sit on Southwest, which Starbucks you stop at, what music is dialed in on the radio, and where you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.

If you are able to visit campuses in person, these trips can be a peak parenting experience, no matter what may happen. My daughter and I toured a Chicago-area school in a blizzard that shut down O’Hare for two days and found us California natives buying armfuls of hoodies to layer. We holed up in our hotel, ordering room service and watching “Night at the Museum.” It was wonderful — the kind of together time that would soon be in short supply. While touring one expansive university, both my husband and daughter had to run out and purchase new shoes — blisters from all that walking! Highway construction caused a detour on the way from Connecticut to upstate New York, so last-minute Broadway tickets were purchased — “Legally Blonde,” here we come. The lesson here: Surrender, acquiesce (SAT word), and go with the flow.

There is nothing like getting a student onto a college campus to sharpen his thinking about what he wants and — heads up, parents of boys — to motivate him to dive into the application process. Also, some colleges may take a student’s visit into account when making their admission decision because they are looking for “demonstrated interest.” Students show demonstrated interest when they take various actions that signal to a school that they are seriously considering it. Not all schools consider demonstrated interest in the admission decision, but for those that do, a visit can be important. The rule of thumb is, if a college is within a day’s driving distance, you should make the effort to visit.

Parents, you actually do have a role here beyond responding to the navigation system. Your son or daughter may be the decision-maker, but you’re there for support — as observer and sounding board. Encourage your student to trust his instincts but keep an open mind. Discuss the factors that provoke a negative or positive response and help him figure out exactly where and when he had those feelings on campus. And don’t be afraid to explore his doubts. Students can learn as much about what they want from a negative reaction as from a positive one.

With all this firmly in mind, here’s more of my advice on surviving — and thriving — on the road:

  • Don’t get territorial. Traveling in close quarters can cause friction. One more time: let your student pick the music in the car, the TV shows in the hotel room, and the restaurants where you eat.
  • Do leave siblings at home if possible. The trip is about your college-bound teen, and she is anxious. Leaving siblings at home will enable a student to explore a campus in-depth to determine if she will thrive there.
  • Don’t go to war with a student over attending an info session or tour if his gut instinct tells him this college isn’t going to stay on the list — even if it’s just ten minutes after you’ve driven onto campus.
  • Do require your student to keep any interview appointments that have been set up even if she’s vetoed the tour. It’s common courtesy.
  • Do let the student do the talking at the info session, on the tour, and during any downtime on campus.
  • Do consider taking a separate tour from the one your teenager is on, if possible, or let him wander campus alone after the official tour. It may provide a comfort zone for him to ask questions or strike up conversations he otherwise wouldn’t.
  • Do let students — all students, not just your son or daughter — go first with their questions. Feel free to make your own inquiries about campus safety, Internet access, or season football tickets, but only after it’s clear no student is going to ask these questions.

“There is nothing like getting a student onto a college campus to sharpen his thinking about what he wants and — heads up, parents of boys — to motivate him to dive into the application process.”   

The ritual of the college road trip can be a crucial part of the letting-go process for students and parents. In giving up some control and taking things as they come — whether it’s traffic, skipping an info session, or curling up to watch Ben Stiller movies in a blizzard — you’re making memories that will be very important to you in the coming months and years. Corny, but true!


My daughter, Roark, was a tour guide at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, for three years, and she also worked in the university’s admission office while an undergraduate. Here’s her perspective on college tours:

  • All campus tours will blur together. Every school offers “over 300 clubs” and an “amazing study abroad program.” Students must make some type of note to differentiate them. A quick shorthand way I recommend is to use an iPhone app or notebook and every time you hear or see something that makes you excited about the school draw a smiley face. That way you’re not taking obsessive notes, but when you’re on the plane or bus home you can notice that School A had 3 smiles and School B had 15 smiles. That tells you something.
  • The students should ask questions! And dig into topics beyond academics and cafeteria food. Ask about the things that really interest and concern you. In addition, consider asking the tour guide:
    • “What did you do last weekend? And be honest.”
    • “What else was offered that you elected not to participate in?”
    • “If your week was a pie chart, what percentages are class, class work, social, and extracurricular activities?”
      Please note: there is no such thing as a stupid question. I guarantee someone else on the tour is wondering the same thing and isn’t speaking up. 
  • Finally — and this is the hardest advice to take — don’t put too much stock in your tour guide. She is only ONE person out of likely thousands. For better or worse, your experience won’t be that of your tour guide’s. 

Encourage your teenager not to let one bad campus visit — such as a pretentious tour guide — turn him off entirely to that school. One experience on one day is probably not an accurate reflection of what it’s like to live and learn there for four years. On the other hand, if a student is excited about a school despite a poorly trained guide or in horrible weather, he might want to move that school to the top of the list.

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