The college application process might involve a dizzying whirlwind of tests, essays, and applications, but actually visiting the prospective colleges and universities on your teen’s wish list doesn’t have to be a grin-and-bear-it exercise in tough love. Sure, with a little nimble maneuvering you can see five college campuses in two days—but just don’t expect to get out of your car.
For parents and their college-bound teens alike, touring prospective colleges and universities can be exhausting, expensive, and stressful—but it doesn’t have to be. Even though the task at hand is a serious one, college campus visits can be a great excuse to enjoy a mini-vacation with your busy grown-up kid. We’ve noticed a steady stream of members posting questions related to their family’s personal college touring odyssey in our Forums. Some of these trips involve travel to “the middle of nowhere” (Wooster, Ohio), while others include visits to “college towns” that double as major metropolitan areas (Washington, D.C.) Luckily, members who have already been through the process—whether as students themselves or as parents—have a lot of advice to offer parents in the planning stage.
Here are just a few of their tips for saving time and money, fitting in some fun, and finding out what student life is really like.
Tip #1: Drive with confidence
Unless you want to pad your itinerary with time devoted to getting lost, rent a GPS device. It’s easy to get turned around in some of the country’s prettiest college towns.
Asked in the Forums: “We want to hit William and Mary, University of Richmond, UNC, Duke, University of Virginia, then maybe Guilford, and Washington and Lee. Does anyone have a suggestion for an itinerary?”
One response: “Rent a GPS with the car unless you have one and are bringing it. While it is certainly possible to get directions online, a GPS allows you to drive around the area around a college without worrying about getting lost—you can then get re-routed to college.” –advice from gail (view this thread)
Tip #2: Know where to park
Some campuses are huge. Scoping out campus parking in advance can prevent you from parking in a garage or lot on the opposite end of where your tour begins. You may also find that some of the more obvious parking spots for out-of-town visitors happen to be some of the most expensive.
Asked in the Forums: “My daughter and I are visiting Madison to tour the university. We’ve never been to Wisconsin, let alone Madison. Any ideas where to stay?”
One response: “It’s a big campus, so I think you’ll want to save your walking for the campus itself, not going to/from your hotel. Figure out where on campus you’re going and look for the closest parking to that. If you know you’re just visiting the southeast area then a hotel on/near State St is fine.” —advice from WhereAreWe (view this thread)
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Tip #3: Go off campus
While it’s helpful to see where the higher learning takes place, at some universities a large chunk of student life takes place off the official campus. Eat lunch at a local eatery that caters to students for a slice of co-ed life out of class.
Asked in the Forums: “Would you stay BY Harvard or IN Boston? I have never been to Boston and have only done a small amount of research.”
One response: “Don’t skimp on Harvard Square—kids, even pre-high school ones—seem to catch the youthful vibe there, which is more interesting to them than a lot of historical Boston. I’ve seen this over and over. It isn’t just the campus, it’s the whole area, pretty much all the way out Mass Ave to Central Square. Lots of restaurants there, too, in price ranges that won’t kill you.” –advice from HKP (view this thread)
Tip #4: Create your own tour
Consider skipping the official tour if you’re short on time; your teen might get more out of speaking with a student, professor, or adviser in a particular department of interest.
Asked in the Forums: “I’m taking my son on tours of colleges in the D.C. area—three right downtown, and two in Virginia. Right now I’m befuddled about where we should stay, and if we should rent a car or rely on public transportation…Do you have any preliminary information that might be helpful as I continue to research?”
One response: “We learned a lot by visiting the various student unions/centers, but the absolutely most useful thing my daughter did was to visit the offices and classrooms of the department she planned to major in, to see what it “felt like”. You don’t learn much from those arm-waving tours that mostly tell you who every building was named after; they all blur together pretty quickly.” –advice from Anonymous (view this thread)
Related destinations: Washington D.C.
Tip #5: Stretch your legs
Break up a 200-mile drive from prospective college A to prospective college B with a hike or other outdoor activity somewhere in between.
Asked in the Forums: “My son and I finish a college tour at Bradley in Peoria, Indiana about noon on a Thursday, then drive to Indianapolis to spend the night and see Butler the next morning. Are there are any state parks/historical attractions in-between the two places?”
One response: “In the neighborhood of Turkey Run you can pick up a map and do a driving tour of the famous Park County Covered Bridges. You can canoe, kayak or tube (depending on the weather) down Sugar Creek which goes right through Turkey Run. You can hike the trails, get a picnic at the Turkey Run Inn or have lunch inside, you can also horseback ride. Depending on the time of year, you could visit maple sugar camps to learn about tapping trees and making maple syrup.” –advice from TC (view this thread)
Tip #6: Take a chance on Priceline.com
Since the purpose of your trip isn’t entirely to relax and kickback, you may be less picky about where you stay. If you’ve been reluctant to take a risk and bid for a hotel on Priceline for your big vacation, this might be your chance to try it out and save.
Asked in the Forums: “My daughter and I are visiting the University of Chicago. Any suggestions on where to stay? We’d like to avoid a car…is that wise?”
One response: “Chicago can be very expensive on the weekends. They get a lot of trade shows in that fill up everything. It looks like everything downtown will be over $200. If you use Priceline, it sounds like region 4, Millennium Park would be the best for the bus? If you don’t mind going further you could add region 5, north Michigan Avenue. I would forget region 1, Greater Chicago. There will be some fleabags in that group. Anyone concur?” –advice from kelliebellie (view this thread)
Related destinations: Chicago
Tip #7: Don’t be afraid to talk to students
While the student that leads your official tour will most likely be really friendly and informative, your teen should try to speak with other students for a chance to pick up other perspectives. The college bookstore might be an easy place for your teen to approach other students and casually chat about the school.
Asked in the Forums: “I’m not even sure what questions I need to be asking at this point! What don’t I know?”
One response: “We learned a lot more by just talking to students. Even if your student is shy, he can force himself to walk up to somebody and say, “Hi, I’m thinking of applying for admission here. What should I know?” or “What are the biggest issues on campus right now?” Most students are eager to talk, for better or worse. Remind him that the worst that can happen is being snubbed by somebody he’ll never see again anyway.” –advice from Anonymous (read this thread)
Tip #8: See the sights
If you and your teen plan on visiting a college in a large city popular with tourists, add a little levity to the weekend and join the ranks of carefree vacationers at one or two of the city’s top attractions.
Asked in the Forums: “Can you critique my first-time to NY itinerary for my family of 4, including two teens?”
One response: “If one or both of your kids is thinking of NYU I would try to take a tour. Otherwise it is hard to understand how the school fits in the neighborhood. Another vote for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum if you can fit it in.” –advice from VTTraveler (view this thread)
Related destinations: New York City
Tip #9: Factor in the university’s football schedule
Visiting a football powerhouse the weekend of a home football game can be a fun way to experience the school’s spirit but be sure to book hotel rooms (and tickets) well in advance.
Asked in the Forums: “I’m looking for great USA college towns—any suggestions?”
One response: “For Big 10 universities, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI) and University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI) offer similar campus life with highly rated academics and great football games.” –advice from College Mom (view this thread)
— Katie Hamlin
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Photo credit: Texas A&M, photo by Stu Seeger