Here, in these early days of our glorious digital era, you can see universities all over the country without ever leaving your home. Some you can even tour via virtual reality. Amazing! Money-saving! Impersonal!
If your daughter is going to invest four or five years of her life living in an entirely new environment, if your son is going to be a short flight but a long drive away, then your college-selection decision process calls for some actual reality: it's time for a road trip.
Here's what you need to do to have a successful road trip when visiting schools.
Determine where you need to go—not just where you want to go
In population centers it's easy to pick a direction and, within an hour, drive past a handful of colleges. Less-populated areas may offer fewer options. So how to begin?
If your student has even an inkling of which major to pursue, you have your first clue. Narrow the field by identifying the schools that offer what your student needs. Then, ask yourselves...
What does each college need?
So you've found three schools that you'd like to visit. Great! Before loading up the car, though, consult your high school guidance counselor, do some research online, or call each Admissions office to determine if your student has a realistic chance at getting in.
The usual factors will apply, of course: test scores, grades, activities, etc. But there are less-obvious factors you'll need to consider.
Maybe a ton of people from your state already apply to the school you like, or the university will only accept a couple of students from your high school. Don't take it personally. Some things just come down to numbers. Better to find this out in the prep stage.
Plan your route; define (and share) duties
So the first school on your tour is 253 miles away. The second is just 10 miles from there. The third is ... 400 miles from both of those?! That means your return trip is roughly 700 miles. Time to share the workload.
Your student's recently acquired driver's license will come in handy as you take turns sharing the wheel. I suggest two-hour shifts. No one gets too tired too soon.
Other chores to claim or assign:
Who's taking notes at the info sessions?
Who's documenting the trip for the folks back home?
For that second one, I created a College Tours album in my iPhotos and invited the Mrs., grandma, my son's godfather, and my sister to it. Each night we'd pick our favorite tour photos and update the album. The folks back home appreciated it. Plus, it gave us a broader perspective when certain moments would bring to mind my late father: "Man, Pop Pop wouldn't love this school too much would he, son?"
Register for info sessions officially—and early
Each college's website will have a place for you to see the dates, times, and slots available for their info sessions.
Your student will likely have to create an account, but that's handy to have—the school will reach out to you should anything change on their end.
Plan well and you can do one info session/tour in the morning and another at a second college that afternoon.
Most info sessions will let you know exactly how many freshman places are available and how many applicants they'll get for them. If this isn't mentioned, be sure to ask for the numbers. It could influence your application process.
Minimize expenses, maximize knowledge
Wherever you're headed, think if you know anybody on the way, or anybody near your destination.
Hotel rooms are easy to come by, and if you travel midweek you can save a little on that expense. But maybe there's a relative, a family friend,or an old classmate who can put you up for the night?
Even if you don't know someone who can house you, you might well know someone at home who has a sibling or relative or contact at one of the school's you'll be visiting. Make that connection, if only for a cup of coffee and some first-hand feedback about the school you're touring.
Talk—it's a rare opportunity
Our son is a teenager. Thankfully, a really together young man but a teen just the same. So conversations can be a bit of the ol' teeth-pulling. The oddest thing happened when he got his driver's license, though.
When he's a passenger, my son is usually clad in headphones, immersed in his Spotify playlists. When he's driving, however, and he cannot wear headphones or use his smartphone, he chats. And chats. And chats. Almost absent-mindedly, and not at all as a distraction to his driving.
We have some very interesting conversations. I get insight into his thought process regarding high school and college, and I try not to overreact. But it's a welcome thrill. If you can, use this time together to talk about anything and everything. It may be the best part of your road trip.
Don Ritchie is an award-fearing writer-producer who appreciates being just out of the spotlight. When he's not contributing to nitrocollege.com, he's probably muttering to himself "I really need to get writing for nitrocollege.com." He resides in Chester County, PA, with his wife and son, both of whom are used to the muttering by now. The dog merely looks on quizzically. Read more by Don Ritchie