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.