College Tripper

On the eve of Anna’s departure for college, I’m running the piece on last year’s ubiquitous college tour.

Six days. Seven schools. Three colds and one case of bronchitis later (hello bronchitis, my old friend), we are through with college touring. Okay, maybe not through, but finished with the grand sweep. In keeping with a promise I made to my children to guard their privacy when I started writing this column, I’ll just say we drove a total of 1200 miles in Anywhere, USA. And yes, we schlepped Adam along in the hope that he won’t want to embark on a similarly exhausting itinerary.

If you take away only one piece of advice from this column let it be the following: do NOT, no matter how tempting it is, immediately ask your college applicant what she thought of the school. I made the egregious mistake of pointing out that early decision candidates fared statistically better in the admissions process. Trust me, your child heard the same thing at the same information session. She doesn’t want to hear it again, especially from you

Unfortunately, a tour guide—usually a current student—can color your perception of a school. You and I know that that’s not a fair assessment of a college. But hey, we’re only human. On our college tours, I developed a twitch if a well-meaning guide used the word “schpiel” more than once, For example, one student guide at a very fine small liberal arts school kept reminding our group that the admissions office told him he had to be sure to give us the “schpiel” on—you fill in the blank. Pointing out that you are giving a “schpiel” is the irritating equivalent of overacting.

Another word I never again want to hear from a tour guide’s mouth is that the school is “awesome.” Awesome covers a large vague, area of accomplishment and fun. Which brings me to another pet peeve. You’re given the impression that kids on these campuses are conducting Nobel Prize-worthy research. Everyone’s racing to find the cure for cancer or write the semiotics textbook of our generation. If this is case, how come I haven’t noticed? I read the papers.

A lot of schools try to claim a piece of the Ivy League cachet. We have public ivies, little ivies, ivy equivalents and actual Ivy League schools. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Among them are plenty of wonderful, scholarly and yes, prestigious schools, that are not one of the “official” eight Ivy League schools. Claiming ersatz ivy status is a red flag that the school is desperate to sell itself.

Various colleges had impressive amenities. For example, Starbucks on campus was very attractive to Anna. My girl expects to go off to college with a fully loaded Starbucks card and she doesn’t want to have to go on an expedition to satisfy her caffeine fix. To be fair, she also carefully inspected science buildings and noted the variety of majors each school offered. Interesting fact: every college campus we visited has an observatory.

At this ridiculously early juncture in his college search, Adam rated schools by how boring the tour guide or the information session could become. But things balanced out if the school’s surrounding environs included a great diner.

Ken was the easiest going of the four of us. He wants Anna to be happy and fulfilled. The rest is commentary for him. He was also the brains behind College Tour 2011-2012. He planned and executed this trip like a six-star general. (That means he joins an exclusive group that only includes George Washington and John Pershing of World War I). We ran on time and our accommodations were first rate.

As for me, my priority is also for Anna to be happy and fulfilled in college. Having said that, I think she can achieve those things on campuses in quaint towns with great shopping. But when it came down to it, I liked schools that had some curriculum requirements—I was especially fond of one university where students had to be proficient in a foreign language. I also paid close attention to places that were equally strong in the sciences and humanities.

In conclusion, (don’t use that well-worn phrase on your college essay!) here are the more salient lessons of College Tour 2011-2012:

Parents, do not speak until spoken to before, during or after a tour or information session. Give your child a neutral answer if she accuses you of favoring one school over another. Say something like: My only wish is for you to be happy. Your kid won’t believe you, but it can make a three hour car ride more bearable.

Whatever you do, take this process one day at a time. That includes not freaking out about the application essays or the tuition within earshot of your future college student. Never, ever, suggest to your child to apply somewhere early decision. Let her come to her own conclusion about a potentially binding contract with a college’s admissions office.

Do marvel at how independent your future collegian is as she marches up to admissions to confirm tour and interview times. And don’t forget to take Vitamin C before, during and after the trip. Stress can weaken the immune system and lead to colds.

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