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Plan a college trip with your high school student

By Diane Schwemm

Last spring, our family made a great decision. My middle son (a junior) and I would spend about half of his March break on a college-scouting trip while my husband and youngest son stayed home.

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It hadn’t occurred to us to do that with our oldest son. His college visits happened the summer before his senior year in high school (or not at all). But Evan was ready to start looking.

The five-day jaunt included overnights with my college roommate in New York City, a stopover with cousins in Massachusetts, a rest day with my sister and her family in Connecticut, and two nights in quiet motels (March is not “high season” in upstate New York). There were rainy day campus tours and sunny ones, plus an impromptu stroll through a misty campus that was on spring break but where we spoke to a couple of work study students on duty at the admission office and performing arts center. We did a lot of driving and a lot of talking. The trip didn’t finalize anything, but it got Evan thinking, and aspiring.

Which is why I suggest taking your high school juniors and seniors on college trips. Over spring break, summer vacation, the long fall weekend…whenever you can fit it in.

A trip like this doesn’t need to eat up oodles of time. You might plan a two or three day mini driving trip, or four to five nights in another part of the country. One parent can take the student, or you can fold a few campus visits into a family vacation to any part of the country that appeals to you.

story-icon-bar-convo-3These visits can provide another kind of reality check. Is the campus an easy day’s drive? Is there an inexpensive direct flight or do you need to make a connection? How does your student feel about this? How do you feel?

Your student doesn’t have to know exactly what he wants in a college to make the investment of time and money worthwhile. He’ll learn more about that along the way. It does help if you’ve started to sketch out a college search strategy. This means talking about the basics, such as the family budget for higher education, your student’s potential academic/career/personal goals, and a few geographic parameters.

Why visit colleges?

“Actually visiting the schools was great, and it’s much easier to think about what it would be like to go there once you’ve been. It’s hard to be at home imagining it, and being lucky enough to travel there makes a big difference.”

That quote is from my 17-year-old neighbor, and she says it all. Nothing compares to being there in person. The tour, the info session, wandering around campus and town, having unscripted conversations with students…all of these things will coalesce in your student’s mind and heart as a feeling — sometimes a very strong feeling — that this college could be a great fit (or not so much).

Sometimes the appeal of a certain school is confirmed, and sometimes the opposite happens. On our trip, my son recognized that he wasn’t ready to live in a city as big as Manhattan. A non-traditional college which intrigued him in theory turned out to be too alternative when he actually saw it. The tour at one university left us both feeling as cold as ice, and not just because of the weather. Meanwhile, at another school, the tour guides couldn’t have been warmer despite a chilly drizzle.

When should we go?

  • Visit nearby schools as soon as your high school student is interested. Summer before junior year isn’t too soon.
  • Fall of junior year is a good time for an exploratory trip. School is in session, and campuses look their best. My friend Carly reflected on a fall weekend trip with her daughter: “It was great to take a trip early in junior year as there was no pressure to make any kind of decision or rank places into a list. We could just enjoy the vibe, and see what the school had to offer.”
  • Junior year spring break — Your student may still be a bit fuzzy, which is why this timing is key. A collection of well-chosen college visits will bring things into sharper focus.
  • Summer before senior year — Students aren’t on campus at most colleges, but this is obviously the easiest time for many families to travel and Admission Offices have lots of events. If campus interviews are available, schedule these as well.
  • Fall of senior year — Your student is narrowing down her list for real. If possible, squeeze in a few final visits and interviews. She will feel more confident and more clear about what she’s looking for. 

How do we plan a successful trip?

Quote“It’s hard to find time in a busy student’s life to take off. Early in the fall semester seemed to work well — my daughter was able to relax and not worry about missing work. Combining a weekend with a Monday holiday, we spent two days travelling and a full day at each school (we only visited two). That seemed like the right amount.” — Parent of a junior

Watch your pace

If you don’t want to end up with a “cranky, over-toured” student, “resist the urge to visit two schools in one day,” said my friend Bob. You will get to fewer schools this way, but the overall experiences will be better. If you really want/need to fit in that second campus, and it’s close by, consider skipping the information session at one or both schools, and/or seeing the full show at one and making the second school a more casual encounter.

Reserve your spot

When Evan and I planned our trip last March, we built the itinerary around logistics: which school offered a Sunday morning tour (only one did), when the different schools were on their own spring breaks (some Admission Offices were closed, plus we wanted to see students), etc. Your student can research this on the college websites, and should be the one to reserve the tours and information sessions. Typically there are morning and afternoon options. Don’t forget to factor in drive time, and down time.

Utilize your connections

“No matter how remote or how many years it’s been,” my friend Karen said, “people are happy to show off their school, even if it’s only for a few minutes or a meal.” Look up a cousin’s daughter who is a current student, or an old friend who works at the university and can give you a behind-the-scenes tour. These personal contacts will be the most meaningful.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s new High School Parent eNews and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for a preview of what’s ahead. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow High School parents by joining our High School Parent Facebook group.

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