Nothing beats an on-site campus visit

I fondly recall my first college tour as a junior in high school. My mom and I flew up to Washington state to visit what I thought was my No. 1 choice at the time, the University of Washington. I left Seattle in tears, feeling overwhelmed by the simple walk across the vast campus.

Thankfully, we included Oregon on this visit. I fell in love with Oregon State and the small town of Corvallis; the students were so friendly and down to Earth, not to mention the boy I was dating at the time lived about 30 minutes from there. Washington State was also a pleasant surprise, but one student's story about the black ice in winter entirely turned me off to the place. I pictured my Datsun 280ZX doing doughnuts on the highway, and that was it for me. It also rained for five days straight as we traveled from Seattle to Pullman to Portland and Eugene — and I mean rained.

I returned from that trip and decided that I preferred snow to rain and wanted a college-town feel in a rural or suburban location. I honestly remember telling my sister that my hair didn't look great in the rain and my precious locks could handle snow. I'm sure there was more to that conversation, but I recall that having a strong influence on my decision.

My Pacific Northwest tour left me dreaming of the one place I knew best: the University of Colorado at Boulder. My brother was a sophomore there and I felt comfortable just knowing that he would be there for me.

Looking back, these college visits forced me to have a better sense of what I wanted in a college. I didn't go through the application process feeling confused, like some of my friends whose parents decided to hold off on visits until they actually had their college acceptances in hand. And, the minute I received my college acceptances, I knew where I belonged. I didn't have to trek across the country and make a rash decision about my final selection.

Parents: Don't make this mistake. You want your children to head into their senior year with some familiar options in mind. Don't visit a slew of reach schools, either. It's masochistic to visit only colleges where your children have a slight chance of getting accepted — do you really want them to fall in love with a place where getting in is such a long shot? And, college visits over the summer mean that you and your child will be evaluating campuses solely by the buildings and trained marketers, also known as "tour guides."

There's tremendous value in visiting colleges before the decisions come out next April. Many private universities evaluate a student's demonstrated interest. A college visit is a sure way to prove that. Often these same colleges will ask students on applications to "declare their love" for their schools. It's easier to write an authentic response when you've actually researched the school first-hand.

Furthermore, my college road trip took place during spring break, when the weather in the Pacific Northwest is still not at its best and when the colleges were in full session. If your child was born and raised in Southern California, and they are interested in East Coast or Midwest colleges, time your visits during the winter. Part of "feeling the fit" is feeling the cold.

You want your child to feel the hustle and bustle, or the calm. You want them to sit in on a class where a group of 20 students is interacting with a professor, or have them observe a lecture in a theater with 500 seats led by a graduate student spewing facts as students take copious notes. You want to hear the chatter in the student cafeteria or see students eating quickly while cramming for an exam. Every detail will create a clearer picture in your child's mind of the environment that's right for him or her.

While I remember some petty arguments with my mother, I also recall getting lost in Seattle, wandering in and out of coffee shops, and up and down the aisles of Seattle's finest market. We definitely "made nice" at least for a few days. Many parents would agree it's a bonding experience to take their teenager on a road trip with nothing more than a map and rental car. And there's plenty of time in the car to share your perspective, hear theirs, and just "talk college."

LISA McLAUGHLIN, a Huntington Beach native, is the founder and executive director of EDvantage Consulting Inc., an independent college admission counseling firm in South Orange County. Her column runs on Saturdays. Please send college admissions questions to Lisa@EDvantageConsulting.com.

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