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View from Vis: College Touring Advice from a College Counselor

Sarah Patterson

Sarah Deeb Patterson '97 and Brian Burgemeister, Visitation's deans of college counseling, balance plenty of one-on-one student meetings with relationship-building with college admissions officers throughout the country. Another facet of their job is touring college campuses to help Vis students discover new options of universities that will provide them with the ideal fit. But Sarah also spent a day looking at colleges with her nephew, and in this month's View from Vis blog post, she offers recommendations for parents on how to optimize the college tour.

College Touring Advice from a College Counselor

Several months ago, I spent a day visiting colleges. I see colleges all the time; it is an ongoing part of my professional development as a college counselor. But this day of tours was different. I was touring with my nephew Ben, a rising senior from Massachusetts who had flown into the Twin Cities to check out some schools here.

This day was about Ben, not about me and my role, so I did my best to follow his lead and not coopt the process. And reflecting back, it got me thinking: visiting colleges must be REALLY hard for parents. Your own kid! Your hopes and dreams for them! What a difficult task it must be to hold back on your own preferences and opinions and let your child figure out the best college fit for herself. And with such an important decision! As parents, we think we know what is best for our children, yet many teenagers are pretty convinced that their parents do not have the answers. I can only imagine how difficult it will be for me when my own kids starting looking at colleges -- and how they might insist that Dad take them on a tour instead.

So how do parents navigate this tricky situation? In the following list, you will see I am not offering some of the more typical advice such as "leave extra time to find the admissions building" and "wear comfy shoes." Instead, I offer some suggestions on how touring colleges can be meaningful and a good use of time to discern if this college could be your child's home for the next four years.

  1. Let your child lead: Let's say your daughter is in the middle of a sports season, is tutoring for the ACT and has three tests this week. If you want to handle the travel arrangements and book the tour and information session at a college, go for it. But once you arrive on campus, have your daughter check herself in at the arrival desk. Let her do the talking. I've been on many a tour where I have heard overeager parents answer questions directed at their child. Even if your child is shy or quiet or nervous, the student can handle this situation. After all, she is going to college soon. When Ben and I visited Macalester College, I was surprised to see that they split the parents from the students for the tour. Macalester seemed to know too well that students might be more engaged if their parents aren't standing next to them. It was a great reminder to the adults about who these visits are intended for.
  1. Ask good questions: I always feel badly for the tour guides who lead an hour-long tour where no one says anything to them for sixty LONG minutes, so I strongly encourage you and your student to ask questions.

When you ask questions, the important goal is to establish what kind of experience your child will have at the college, both academically and socially. For instance, ask about the academic experience. Who helps students select their courses? Have you found your advisor helpful? Has it been easy to connect personally with professors? How have you used the career center? How would you describe the workload for your classes?

Also ask about the social scene: Has it been easy to meet people and make friends? Is there a sense of community among students? What kinds of conversations do students have with one another?

This is your chance to hear from a current student. Take advantage of it.

  1. Take notes and photos: I am always blown away when I see families on a tour or sitting in an information session and no one is writing anything down. I want to say, "Write this down! You'll never remember it!"

I take lots of notes when I tour a campus. This is especially important if you and your child will see more than one school in a day or several colleges over the course of a week. All the information quickly runs together, and, trust me, you won't be able to distinguish all that information after a week of visits. More importantly, this visit might be the only chance your daughter will have to see this school, and it may be many months before she makes a college decision. Therefore, notes – and photos you take – will become helpful resources in April of senior year as she is trying to make a decision.

  1. Find ice cream or pizza nearby: Actually, it doesn't have to be either of those things, but make the day fun. These visits are one more way you can make memories with your daughter. Maybe you and your daughter can bond over how hilarious the last tour guide was, or how it was impossibly difficult to find the campus. That last one is a memory I have from my own college search 20 years ago. My mom and I must have driven past the turn onto Tufts' campus five times before we figured it out. Thankfully my mom did not give up, as I ended up enrolling there. And I still think about that day and it makes me smile, how we laughed and laughed as we went around in circles using those New England roundabouts. So go make some memories with your daughter. This might be my most important advice of all.