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Tales from the trenches of college touring
Be prepared, pay attention to the pitch
School food
Choose your own personalized Chicken Tender Challenge to make college visits a little more memorable. - photo by Allison Johnson

When my son was six months old, I watched a friend order her young daughter nothing but chicken tenders for dinner. I silently vowed never to be one of those moms. Fast forward 17 years, and my son has chosen chicken tenders as one of the standards by which he’ll judge the colleges he visits. Over the past few months, we’ve visited colleges all over the U.S., and a recent East Coast tour offered the perfect opportunity to once more raise our cholesterol levels. Since I am now clearly an expert on the college tour experience, I offer up these pointers: 

  1. Get comfortable. Back in the late 1980s, you showed up for a student tour and hoped to squeeze in an interview as well. Nowadays, families are subjected to a one hour information session, a one hour student tour (which is never an hour), and if you’re a glutton for punishment, there’s a one hour dorm tour as well. The lesson? Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. The other lesson? Be careful what you wear and do. At one college, I overheard the admissions people dissing a mom who happened to be wearing another college’s shirt. At another school, a younger sibling monopolized the Q&A with questions like, “Who’s your mascot?” and “Is the suit hot?” Too many students betrayed the quality of their listening skills by asking questions already answered in the presentation. Remember, the admissions staff know who is on the tour, and they also checked you in. Don’t give them a reason to look you up unless you brought along a cure for cancer.
  2. Popsicle
    The best hotel on our college tour featured a Popsicle hotline. - photo by Allison Johnson
    Bring your own pen and paper. I cannot stress this strongly enough: you won’t remember a thing. Nope, nothing. There will be a bunch of buildings and Charlie Brown’s teacher talking at you, and it will all flow in one ear and out the other. And yet, the admissions sessions are surprisingly helpful opportunities to create cheat sheets. I know this because the notes I scribbled on the back of parking maps are the only evidence I have that I actually was there. Also, some schools send post-visit surveys, so having that cheat sheet could give you demonstrated interest brownie points. 
  3. Pay attention to the pitch. Admissions is a two-way street, and a college tour is mostly about impressing you, not the other way around. Ask yourself what rings true about their pitch and then ask what their story is hiding. One school claimed to be the most technologically advanced school in the nation then proceeded to show us a room with three minuscule 3D printers. Another prestigious school spent its information session talking about how brilliant students bond and feed off each other. The pitch masked a class-size that, according to a later tour guide, rarely dropped below 150 students per class. That school was so large that 40 minutes into the tour I turned to another parent and asked, “have we even left the first building yet?!” 
  4. Potato head
    Take time during college visits to explore the surrounding area. In Rochester, New York, we discovered the Strong Museum of Play, featuring a giant Mr. Potato Head. - photo by Allison Johnson
    Choose your own Chicken Tender Challenge. College touring can be mind-numbing. If your child finds something quirky to comparatively collect data on, you’re all going to remember it more. My son, who has many food allergies, chose chicken tenders because it’s one of the few fast foods he’s universally able to eat. It gave us a mission for lunches and a starting point for comparisons. Speaking of which...
  5. Keep your opinions to yourself (at first). At one school that shall remain nameless, I watched a large spider crawl 10 feet across a wall, down the wall, halfway across the floor and then back, before disappearing behind the shoes of an impeccably dressed dad. I do not remember what the tour guide said, but I perfectly remember that man’s loafers. Twenty minutes later and now outside, I glanced at the man and saw that a 15-foot string of spider web floated off the top of his head. I deserve an award for (a) not running screaming from campus and (b) not breathing a word of the spider incident until my son later admitted that he didn't like the school. I would have taken that spider story to the grave if he had truly loved the school – but I wouldn’t have come to visit him, not even for graduation. 
  6. School tours
    Be sure to check out the walls of the colleges you visit to see what kind of student interests and activities are posted.
    Keep an eye on the walls (not necessarily for spiders). The walls say everything about what the school values and what the students do. At the spider school, the only flyers up around campus read, “Are you anxious? Stressed out? There’s help available.” While I’m glad there’s help available, especially considering the freeloading spider population, if stress is all that's going on there, it says a lot. 
  7. Check out the other kids on campus besides those working for admissions. Every single tour guide inexplicably wore short shorts that they spent the duration of the tour picking out of their crotch. If we based our opinions on the tour guides, I’d assume that tech schools are filled with Daisy Duke wannabes. It’s good to keep an open (if baffled) mind about who else goes to school there and whether your student would fit in.
  8. Build in some fun, whether you’re visiting schools one at a time or on a bulk trip. My son and I took planes, trains and automobiles. We discovered cool museums, comic shops, Revolutionary War battlefields, the “Grand Canyon of the East,” and the world’s strongest whole bean coffee that’s also been sent to the International Space Station. We bowled. He tried to teach me how to play Magic. I taught him how to ride Boston’s T. We had meaningful conversations at our meals. We remembered that we actually like each other. Those memories will remain long after he’s graduated from whatever college he chooses.
  9.  Keep Calm and Carry On. In the end, I tried most of all not to get too invested. We parents are just along for the ride (or rather the ability to rent cars and book hotel rooms). Your child will know when they visit a school that feels right, and if you know them well enough, chances are good you’ll sense it too.