Tip for parents: Make the visit about them, not you

I know this may seem obvious, but it’s awfully easy for us parents to get a little excited and start to dominate the college search process. This is your child’s future and education, and while hopefully we, as parents, can be valuable assets, ultimately the school has to sing to them.

I made this mistake in a significant way in two of our first four college visits. One was to my undergraduate alma mater, and way too much of that day ended up being me flitting along memory lane and catching up with faculty and departments that had been important to me when I’d been a student. This was particularly unhelpful for Thomas, because his academic interests are very different from mine, so listening to me babble on with people in math and computing really didn’t help him understand the creative writing or theatre programs.

(I suspect that visits to parental alma maters are particularly fraught with this sort of risk, and that more than a few parents have inadvertently spoiled the pot for their child. I’d love to hear about people’s experiences with alma mater visits in the comments.)

Another of those early visits was to a college that the University of Minnesota, Morris, where I teach, often lists as a “comparison school”. Our computing program was in the midst of a regular self-study, and I had arranged to meet with some people in their computer science program to collect some comparison data. This was extremely valuable to me, but again ended up being a significant chunk of time that did very little to help Thomas understand how that school would or wouldn’t be a fit for him.

As we talked over those visits later in the car as we headed back across country, I came to realize that I’d had my priorities turned around in those visits, and I made every effort in the future to ensure that the focus was on Thomas and not on me. I didn’t schedule any further visits with computing programs, and I even made a point of leaving my camera gear at home so I wouldn’t be tempted to get wrapped up in being a photo nerd instead of a supportive dad. Tom certainly could have gone and checked out some other space while I talked with computer science folks, but after those first experiences I decided I really wanted to make sure I was focused on his visit, and I’ve never regretted that decision.

Lastly, as a faculty member I regularly meet with prospective students and their parents, and it’s often very hard to get past the parents and to the student. There are few things more frustrating, for example, than trying to talk to the student, and having the parent answer for them. You’re about to send your child off to college, where they will have to make an academic, intellectual, and social life for themselves, largely without you, all of which is a key part of making the successful transition to adulthood. Now is a great time to start that process. Let them ask and answer the questions – I assure you that they’ll need to do that in class, in office hours, and in advising sessions.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t have a role to play; I’m still asking my parents for advice, and Thomas isn’t shy about contacting us for ideas or feedback. But play that role mostly before and after the visit, and less so during. Talk to your child before the visit about who they want to talk to and why, what kinds of questions they might want to ask, and what facilities they might want to see. Run a practice interview in the car on the way there if that makes sense. Debrief (and take notes!) after the visit is over. Go over the highlights and disappointments of the visit. Brainstorm follow-up questions or issues you’ll want to talk to someone about later. This can be a great opportunity to hone your college visit skills, making you all even better prepared for the next visit!

Don’t feel, however, that you have to be (or should be!) totally silent. A few well-placed questions can reveal a lot, and shows a level of interest and enthusiasm on your part that is important for your child and the folks at the school you’re visiting. Just make sure that the balance favors their voice instead of yours, and do your best to let them answer questions about their goals and interests.

What If You Don’t Know What Your Major Might Be?

When we started our trip, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to study.  Because of this, some parts of college visits became a lot easier; I knew which faculty I wanted to talk to (or at least which departments to learn more about), and I knew what kind of questions would be important to ask. (What theatre spaces are there? Is there a student literary journal, and can I get a copy?)

Not everyone knows that they want to study however, and that’s totally okay!  A successful college experience doesn’t require going in with a plan; plenty of people only discover what they love after they arrive, often because they’ve had zero exposure to a topic or a field before college.  So how do you figure out if a college is right for you when you’re not sure what you want?  How do you figure out if you’re going to stumble upon a happy accident?

My advice is to think about what kinds of things appealed in your pre-college academic career.  You don’t need to know the one thing that you’d love to do for the rest of your life, but hopefully, after some thinking, you’ll come up with at least one class or one teacher that you feel positively about, along with maybe three or four areas of study that seem at least vaguely interesting and possible.  Then explore these!  When we visited, we tried to arrange two faculty meetings, one for each of the academic areas I knew I was interested in.  Depending on how your schedule works, maybe you could try and schedule a couple of visits with faculty in fields that seem intriguing.

When setting up these meetings, be honest with the faculty that you don’t know if their field is what you want to study; this will be a cue for them to try and explain (and maybe sell) their department to you! If you show an honest interest in a faculty member’s field, however small, they will almost always respond enthusiastically. Also try to give them a sense for why you are potentially interested in their field; they may be able to suggest other areas that would be cool to explore. Lastly, ask faculty about the relationships between different academic departments; get a sense of whether or not there’s any mingling or cooperation between them.  This will be helpful if you decide to switch majors partway through or to add a minor or second major after you start.  If you’re not fully certain on what you want to study, you’ll want a school with flexibility; make sure you find a college that allows people to easily change their academic focus and encourages inter-departmental mingling and cooperation (in both students and faculty). It would be good to talk to both faculty and current students about this; their perspectives might differ in illuminating ways.

On tours, ask your tour guides about the student groups and activities they’re involved in.  Again, you don’t have to be a dedicated fan of chess or Asian media, but if you show an genuine interest, your tour guides will be likely to respond positively and potentially describe a group or activity to you that you realize connects with you. And even if their activities don’t click with you, you can learn a lot from hearing their enthusiasm (or lack of it) in student activities and organizations on campus.

We understand that it can be intimating to ask questions about things you don’t know much about!  That’s why it’s important to be clear about the amount of previous experience you have, so the person you’re talking to won’t start talking in terms you don’t understand.  If they’re genuinely interested in helping you, they’ll hopefully want to share their passion with you and won’t be upset at your lack of knowledge.  If, however, they react negatively to questions or lack of familiarity, that in and of itself probably speaks volumes.  So go ask questions!  Ask about anything that might be interesting!  There is never such a thing as asking too many questions.

Take A Whole Day Per School

Imagine you’re planning to buy a new car.  You read online and in magazines about the specs of the car.  You talk with the dealership about the price and payment plan.  You even go out to the site and look at the car, sit in the car, feel the steering wheel and the pedals beneath your feat.  Then you promptly get out of the car, tell the dealer that you had a wonderful time but that you need more time to know for sure whether you want to buy the car.

What’s missing?  You never actually drove the car.  This is what you’re doing when you cut your time at a college short.  Say you read all the view books the college puts out, read every inch of the website, even visit the college and wander around a little, but you don’t plan well, so maybe you don’t yourself enough time to take a tour, or maybe you arrive 5 minutes before the tour and info session, have them both, and then instantly leave.  You’re missing out on some of the most important aspects of a college: do you feel comfortable in the space?  Do you have a sense of how the faculty in your areas of study approach their practice, and does it match your learning style?  Do the students look happy, miserable, overworked, or energetic?  You’re also not giving yourself the time to pay full attention during the tour and the time after to process what you’ve seen/learned.  If you’re seriously considering a college, you should try to plan a whole day (4-5 hours at least) to be spent visiting it.  This allows for you to arrive, get acquainted with where the admissions building is, maybe wonder around a little, and then have the info session, tour, interview, and one or two faculty visits without feeling rushed.  If you’re visiting a college on a tight schedule, you’re going to be constantly checking your watch and worrying about whether you’re going to finish everything you’re doing with enough time to go wherever you’ve planned to go after.  There won’t be time to just wander around the space, get food on campus (if the dining area is open), talk to random students and admission staff, and allow yourself to wander into the kinds of chance encounters that can often really make you fall in love with a school.

At one school we visited, I arrived early to a class I was going to visit, and in wandering around the theatre space, I managed to run into a group of theatre students on break between classes.  I asked if I could sit with them and chat with them about the college, and they happily agreed.  They made me feel valued and welcomed at the college, and were incredibly friendly and informative about the theatre program and the school as a whole.  At another school, simply by wandering around the theatre offices, we were found by a faculty member who invited us into her office.  We spent the next hour or so talking with her about the programs at the school and her experiences in theatre, and it was a really wonderful opportunity that made that school one of my favorites.

What’s this all about?

My son Thomas and I visited way too many colleges between his sophomore and senior years in high school, and really learned a lot in the process. Quite a few people have suggested that we write up some tips and suggestions based on our experience; this blog is a start on that journey.

We certainly believe that campus visits are an extremely valuable experience, and time on campus helped us to love some schools we weren’t initially all that keen on, and really cooled our enthusiasm for schools that had once been high on the list. Sometimes that’s because the school just wasn’t what we thought it was going to be. On other occasions, however, we realized that even though we really liked and admired what was happening at a school, it wasn’t the right school for Tom.  These changes almost always came from details, experiences, and knowledge that’s inaccessible in a view book or a website, so it is crucial to physically visit a place.  Otherwise, how will you know if it really feels like home?

And, in the end, that’s really the point. Finding a school that really makes you, the college bound student, sing. So we’re not here to tell you where to go – we don’t know you and we don’t know what you want and need. But we do hope that we can help you look effectively for what you want and need.

One thing all our travels taught us is that effective campus visits are definitely a skill, and a skill you can get better at with practice and guidance. We certainly got better at it as we went along, and we hope that we can help you start in a more effective place so you can make the most out of all of your visits.

Some Quick Statistics:

All college visits took place between June of 2010 and July 2011 (13 months).

Total colleges visited: 20.
4 in the summer of 2010.
4 in the spring of 2011.
12 in the summer of 2011.

Total miles driven: ~13,000.
~5,000 in the summer of 2010.
~3,000 in the spring of 2011.
~5,000 in the summer of 2011.

18 colleges were private liberal arts colleges.
2 were Ivy League schools.
2 were state public liberal arts college.
1 was a Great Books program college.

Total enrollment in the colleges ranged from 300 students to 14,513 (including graduate students).

Tuition of colleges visited ranges from $20,063 to $61,000.

Geographic distribution of the colleges was as follows:
3 in the Pacific Northwest.
1 in the Midwest.
1 in the Southwest.
3 in the South.
12 in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic/New England area.

Total schools applied to: 2.
1 school applied to Early Decision in the fall/winter of 2011.
1 school applied to Early Action in the fall/winter of 2011.

Total schools accepted to: 1.  Because this was an Early Decision school, I had to withdraw my Early Action application, so I never discovered whether I was accepted there or not.