What to Expect on a College Tour

The details on what happens and how your teenager may be feeling about it.

by Anne Vaccaro Brady

You and your student are likely to approach  college visits very differently. The first sign will be that you’re the excited one, anxious to learn everything about the school. Your son  will look like he hardly wants to be there. And it’s practically a given that you’ll be asking more questions than your child, especially when you take the campus tour.

The information session The admissions representative will offer a short overview of the college, usually through a PowerPoint presentation or video. You’ll learn about the college’s many majors and its prestigious rankings, opportunities for study abroad and research, average class size, famous alumni, quality of the current students and the highlights of campus life.

Next you’ll be informed about admissions requirements, including average SAT and ACT scores, minimum high school coursework and GPA, the secret to that winning college essay and submission deadlines. Almost every presentation at this point will include these three facts: the college prefers students whose grades have gone up since freshman year (they understand the first year of high school can be rough for many kids); who’ve taken the most challenging courses and not looked for the easy A; and who use the essay to tell something about themselves that can’t be found in another part of the application.

Then you’ll hear some numbers, including the all-important accepted students’ rate, which stresses out parents almost as much as the brief discussion that follows on the cost of tuition. You might get some relief with the follow-up on how financial aid and scholarships are awarded.

Now it’s time for questions. Don’t be surprised by how many parents and how few kids raise their hands.

The campus tour current student, one who is very adept at walking backward while talking, leads the tour. The quality of your guide, for better or worse, will have an influence on your child’s opinion of the college.

Please be sure to heed the advice about wearing comfortable shoes and appropriate clothing. Our recent February tour included walking on snow-covered paths in below-freezing temperatures. Packing an umbrella is a good idea, too.

Your child may not say much as you meander along the campus, but he’ll be paying attention to the size and layout of the school, checking out the students making their way across campus and figuring out that this isn’t anything like high school. He’ll be listening to find out what students do on- and off-campus on weekends. A visit to a sample dorm room will drive home the fact that he’ll be sharing space with a roommate, probably for the first time.

The two facts you will hear on almost every college tour involve the hundreds of clubs for students to join (plus the opportunity to start a new one), and access to the millions of books in the library. I don’t know why, but all colleges feel we need to know this.

The accepted students tour Some colleges offer Accepted Student Days, a good chance to see other potential freshmen and meet upperclassmen. These events offer more than the standard tour and info session, and might be the time when your child says, “This is the one.”

On this visit students are focused on the size of that sample dorm room (for boys that means how big a TV they can bring to play video games and for girls if there’s enough closet and drawer space for their clothes—sexist but true), what looks worth eating in the food court, if those kids walking by on campus seem to like it here, and what there really is to do on weekends.

Whether this is your first or last college tour, make the most of it by respecting your teenager’s view on the experience. On the way home, discuss the visit, but let her do most of the talking. This is your chance to learn what she wants from a college and to assist her in finding the right fit.

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