This summer, tens of thousands of soon-to-be college freshmen will take to the open road in search of what will likely become their home for the next four long, years. And, as a parent, your first job is to understand that you’re there for support, but you’re not alone.
“If your student is fortunate enough to have a great high school counselor, encourage them to take ownership of the process, ask questions — and, this can be the challenging part — share the information with you,” said Gary A. Clark, Jr., director of Undergraduate Admission and Relations with Schools at UCLA. “Most colleges and university admission offices assign an admission counselor to work with students from specific high schools.”
Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University likes to stress the importance of the college road trip by quoting from a sign he once saw in a high school counseling office: “Choosing a college without visiting the campus is like marrying a blind date before you meet face-to-face.”
However, there is a lot of preparation to be done before hitting the road. Long before students begin to focus on what colleges to visit on their trip — they have some homework to do.
“Choosing the right school starts with [your son or daughter] asking themselves the right questions,” stresses Clark. “What are the qualities and characteristics of a university that are important to them? Size, location, academic programs, faculty/student interaction, campus life … each of these may be an important factor in their search.”
“It doesn’t start with mapping the trip, it begins with some self-reflection about who they are, what they liked and didn’t like about their high school experience, and what else they want out of college besides a degree,” added Sexton. “The actual college search will eventually be made more focused if you do this first, before you introduce factors of size, distance, location, mission, majors, cost, graduation rate, etc.”
Get an early start
Griffin Jimenez, a senior at Torrey Pines High School in San Diego, decided to visit schools well in advance of applying to them, allowing him to aggressively narrow the field and eliminate unwanted stress.
“I visited 11 of the 12 schools before submitting applications,” said Jimenez. “I had many friends who were unsure of where to apply because they hadn’t been on any visits and thus didn’t know what type of atmosphere, size or location they were looking for. Visiting early gave me a chance to see exactly what I wanted in a school and helped narrow down the schools to which I should apply.”
Jimenez said he took advantage of early action admissions, which is a process that allows students who apply early to take advantage of higher acceptance rates without having to make a commitment to enroll if accepted. Typically, colleges will offer early action admissions in November, giving students the opportunity to apply at multiple colleges while not have to make a decision on an offer until May of the following year.
“By submitting applications through the early action process, I found out that I was accepted at three schools by January,” said Jimenez. “Not only did it help to eliminate applying to a couple of ‘safety schools,’ but it has made the long wait until April much easier — at least I knew that I already had three great options, and I’m a lot less stressed than many of my friends who have yet to receive an acceptance letter.”
Clark suggests helping students realize that there isn’t just one perfect fit for them — there could be several. Students put a great deal of pressure on themselves to get into that one dream college and can lose sight of the fact that there may be a number of colleges where they could be very happy.
“Remember, students often look to their parents and families as emotional barometers in this process. Knowing that you’re proud of them regardless of any specific admission outcome brings their anxiety level way down,” he added.
Dos and don’ts
Start with a short trip close to home. “Students (and parents) become more savvy consumers with each campus visit they make. Before investing in plane tickets to the ‘exotic’ far away locations, visit some local/regional places — big and small — and those in that sweet spot in-between,” said Sexton.
Timing is also a key issue. While acknowledging that the high schoolers of today are very busy people, Sexton adds that taking the college road trip during summer may not be the best idea because a largely empty campus won’t give prospective students the true school vibe.
On every college trip there are some cardinal rules to keep in mind. Always make a reservation for campus tours. This can be done online on the college website, where you can find out when and where the tours leave, if the college is in session or on break that week, and if there is an open house for prospective students. Always allow at least an hour more to go back and see what the tour missed or visit the areas most important to you. Talk to students other than the tour guides, read the bulletin boards, eat the food, etc.
Clark suggests taking advantage of the fact that a current student will be leading the tour. “Ask about the student’s experience on campus … not the general experience of most students, but the experience he or she is having,” he advised. “Does he or she speak with faculty outside of class? Has he or she studied abroad? Did he or she change their major and how did they choose?”
Jimenez did take one of those long summer road trips and says that based on his experience (he has two younger sisters), it can be a family affair. “But the trip works best if the siblings are in 8th grade and above. They can then learn about what possible future endeavors are most appealing. Younger kids can tag along, but obviously won’t fully comprehend the campus experiences.”
Southland parent Joe Yogerst strongly advises against having the college road trip double as the summer family vacation. “I took the family on a two-week drive from southern Virginia to New York during which we tried to combine visits to seven colleges with Gettysburg and theme parks — and it was an absolute disaster.” His older daughter found it hard to concentrate on the education experience and the rest of the family grew impatient during the college visits. “That trip generated the biggest fights we have ever had as a family.”
Much less successful was a road trip that Yogerst and his older daughter Chelsea undertook on their own after she was accepted to various colleges. “This time it was just the two of us and we limited the trip to two places — Boston and New York. Without distractions, Chelsea was able to concentrate on the task at hand and determine that Tufts University is where she wanted to spend her college years,” Yogerst said.
Safe at home
Solana Beach resident and high school senior Amanda Cowles faced a different obstacle. Even though she wanted to attend college back east, her parents would only let her visit schools in California before her early action or rolling application acceptance letters came in.
Due to her hectic school and extracurricular schedule, Cowles ended up going on a number of long weekend trips, hitting about four campuses each time, instead of one extended trip. She made some of these trips with her mother, but she found that the ones she took alone were actually more cost effective.
“I applied to mostly smaller private schools,” said Cowles. “They were all abundantly helpful, even going as far as offering travel stipends and discounted hotels. These schools really want you, especially if you are an accepted student, so I took advantage of the opportunity.”
When traveling alone, some colleges offered dorm rooms stays and even gave her meal tickets to the student cafeteria. She also made use of resources closer to home. “My school has a Facebook page where you can contact alumni from your high school at basically any school and see if they wouldn’t mind you crashing with them. It’s also just helpful to find someone from [California] there.”
Apps are your friends
“Planning ahead helps you get more from the experience, and it decreases your stress by creating room for delays and personal time,” said Kevin Preis, Founder of Go See Campus, a website that includes a College Planner tool that guides you through the college tour process.
Go See Campus (www.goseecampus.com) can create a complete itinerary, provide turn-by-turn directions and generate school maps that include parking facilities, nearby dining sites and more. The site also offers college advice, a college visit guide, an interactive community, and university reviews.
There are a number of mobile apps available including Quad2Quad (www.quad2quad.com), which claims it can “take the pain” out of college visit planning by assembling data in one location of the 74 most frequently visited schools in the U.S. AAA’s TripTik Travel Planner (travelinformation.aaa.com/internet-triptik) can be customized to add colleges and points of interest to your route. You can also book hotels along your route right from the maps and zoom in to see more details of a specific area.
If your college trip is a whirlwind of visits, it can become hard to differentiate between the colleges after a while and impressions can get jumbled. Welcome to College (www.welcometocollege.com) provides phone and tablet apps which offer students an 11-question tracker to help them organize and record their impressions during a campus visit. These comments can be kept private for personal use or shared publicly for other students on the app’s school profile pages.
At the end of the day, Clark stressed that while college and university websites often provide a remarkable array of resources for students and families — and a number of third-party sites that also provide useful tools — there’s no substitute for the in-person, on-site college visit and tour.
—Julia Clerk, Brand Publishing WriterCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times