I spent last weekend looking at colleges with my daughter. Of course, it had been my plan to complete this process a bit earlier this time around, yet here we are, the fall of senior year, we’re ready to launch, and we are just finishing up our college visits. However, I do think we are in pretty good shape. Of the final three remaining school visits, one is a third visit—to sit in on classes—at the current first choice school; one is an “official” visit to my son’s college; and one is a school that was added to our list just this week. Once those visits are complete, we’ll stop visiting. But for those of you just beginning this process—no matter the age of your child—I have compiled a list of helpful tips.
Start Early. Let’s face it. High school guidance is not what it once was. I remember in my public school days, we sat down with a guidance counselor and developed a list of the colleges we should investigate. That list contained safety schools, reach schools, and several schools in between. Perhaps that is why I have helped my children to create lists of schools that run the gamut. And then we have taken the time to investigate each school and visit the most promising schools on the list, a time-consuming process that should be started in late sophomore or early junior year. Even in the fall of senior year, our list is changing, evolving, and constantly re-ordering.
Invest your time. If you pay attention on the tours, you will know where you will be investing your resources—both your money and your child. If I am going to invest a good deal of money in a school, I want to know about it. Recently, I was on a tour with another mother who was so busy texting that she was not at all focused on anything the tour guide was saying. I felt bad for her daughter, who will receive little meaningful advice from her mother, and I also felt bad for the tour guide, who was more than aware of this mother’s inability to put her phone away and offer her full attention.
Be an advisor in the process. High school seniors are still kids in so many ways. The decision of which college to attend is a big one. My kids have always attended the local schools and been with the same people. How do they know where they will be happy for the next four years? I can gently guide and suggest, and I can push them complete each step of the college process. I can pay attention to things we see and hear on the college visits, but most importantly, I can listen to what my child is saying and how he/she is reacting on our various campus visits.
Don’t be afraid to say the things your child needs to hear. I have been known to comment on the minimal endowment of a school and how that shows fiscal instability. I have commented on the glaring lack of students on a campus as well as inattentive faculty and staff. I have also been known to say, “That wasn’t the cleanest campus I’ve seen,” because maintenance is often the first area where cuts are made. As parents, we can spot problem areas that our children might miss.
Trust your gut (and teach your son or daughter to do the same). Every college campus has its own atmosphere and feel. When you walk onto the campus, you will get a feel for whether the school is a place you will be comfortable or not. The students, the buildings, the attitudes are all apparent, and they all reveal secrets. Pay attention. Feel the feels. If you don’t feel enlivened and comfortable with what you see, it’s probably not the school for you. Then again, if you look around and think, “I could definitely be happy here,” maybe it is your school.
Watch your step. And finally, a tip for the wanderer. If you decide to wander around a school on your own, be careful. Some doors will lock behind you. Those with a school ID can use it to unlock the doors, but those without may find themselves trapped in a hallway or stairwell they didn’t intend to be trapped in. I have no reason (at least not one that I will admit) to know this information. I will just say, trust me on this one. Check all doors before you let them close.
As I finish up my second time through this process, I am constantly learning. Next time, I’m going to complete the college search earlier, especially because my youngest has very busy summers. But also, I have a feeling the third time around—the last time—I might be able to get it right.