My husband and I schlepped our son to 17 colleges in his quest to find his dream school. On our worst day, at a selective mid-size university in a Boston suburb, the Admissions Office charged a small fortune for parking (no validation!). Then, because we were early, they suggested we get lunch at one of their student dining facilities. After sloshing across campus in the pouring rain, we filled our plates at the buffet. The bill was $20.01, and the stone-faced cashier frowned sternly as we searched our pockets for a lone penny rather than break another large bill. No, she made it clear, she was NOT going to let that penny slide, even though we were potential customers who might shell out for four years of staggeringly pricey tuition. Later, the tour guide’s spiel was so heavily punctuated with “ums”, “ya knows”, and giggles we felt as though we were trapped in the first half of Legally Blonde. Fortunately, my son did not like this pillar of academe any more than we did – because we wouldn’t have let him go there even on a full scholarship.
When he did find the school he was destined for, it seemed like love at first sight. But we went back two more times to be sure. In between, with pit stops at a plethora of other schools, we learned some valuable college tour lessons:
1) If your tour guide seems confused, stuck-up, or overly scripted, find another. Some are friendly, funny, and chock full of info; others…not so much. I am truly amazed that there is not more quality control in this area and that schools are essentially leaving it to novices to “close” big ticket sales. But listen, there is no law that says you have to “dance with the date that brung ya.” Vote with your feet and move on to another group. Simultaneous tours are usually crossing paths all over campus.
2) Do the information session before the tour. You’ll be armed with smarter questions if you get an overview of the school beforehand.
3) Now get off the tour. Spend as much time as you can walking around on your own. Amble to where the tours don’t take you. Snoop. Sneak, Eavesdrop. Stand outside of classrooms and listen. Try to eat at the dining hall. Talk to – and observe – random students in action. Are they smiling? Are they animated? Are they talking to one another or zoned out in iPod land?
4) Eye the bulletin boards and the school paper. See what’s going on, what activities are coming up, where people are volunteering, and what social issues seem to be getting attention. It’s a great way to scope out the non-academic scene and whether or not your kid is likely to fit in.
5) Try to go when school is in session – even as a “drop-in.” There are lots of Saturday morning tours (when the “real students” are sleeping) and lots of summer tours (when undergrads are back home). These are ideal times for administrators to show you what they want you to see, but less ideal for you to get the real flavor of the campus. Scheduling college visits is always a challenge, (no doubt everyone in your family is already on overdrive), but if at all possible try to go on a “typical” day in the life of the school. If you can’t coordinate this with their official tour, the trip is still worth it. You can learn a lot with a drop-in visit to admissions, a campus map, and a sharp eye. If the admissions folks are snarky about it…well, that tells you something right there, doesn’t it?