I’m years away from sending my kids off to college (they are 5 and 2) but at 33 years old, my husband and I more or less have never graduated from college. Let me explain…
We met in the dorms our freshman year. He went on to be an admissions counselor at our university after he graduated. He then decided to get his Ph.D. at a university in the Midwest, got his first job as a professor at a university in the south, and now he’s a professor at the same university that we met. I also work for our university in a part-time capacity, so yeah, it’s kind of like we never graduated.
My husband currently serves as his department’s director of undergraduate studies. That means at this time of year, he’s meeting with prospective students to talk about our university and department all the time.
Helping your teenager pick the right college or university is tricky!
And of course, there are lots of personal, financial, and academic reasons to choose one or the other. Naturally, visiting the finalists in person is crucial. Spending a day or two on the campus getting a feel for the place may be the only way for your son or daughter to feel confident they’re making the right choice.
These visits can feel like drinking from a firehose of information. There’s so much to take in and absorb, and every place has its own strengths and weaknesses. Based on our perma-collegiate lifestyle and experience, here is a parent’s guide to college tours. Don’t forget to buy a hoodie at the bookstore when your child finds their perfect fit!
Park the helicopter, pick up the umbrella
My husband has heard our Vice President for Student Affairs say, many times, that parents in college should think of themselves not as helicopters, but umbrellas. To be clear, helicopter parents get a bad rap—all we’re trying to do is make sure our kids are okay! But by the time they get to college, it’s important to take a step back and let the child become an adult. The first step is letting them take charge in asking questions on the college visits. It’s up to them to figure out what they want to know, and ask for that information themselves. Of course, you can talk about these things together in advance but when you’re on campus, it’s your student’s show.
So, what do mom and dad do at this point in a child’s life? Well, imagine you have an umbrella, and your son or daughter doesn’t. You wouldn’t run around behind your child all the time with the umbrella over them, even when the sun was shining, right? However, if a storm comes, and your kid needs you, you’re there to provide cover and support.
Visit when classes are in session
Yes, it’s tempting to take advantage of summer vacation to go on college visits but for any serious contender, make sure you come back when students are there and classes are in session. That way, you can see how crowded the student union is, how a typical day on campus will feel, etc. Plus, you never
know who you might meet to get the unauthorized version of what it’s actually like to be a student on campus.
Ask to meet a professor
My husband asked me to emphasize that your son or daughter should be well aware that most of their days as a college student will be spent, you know,
going to class. Picking a field of study can feel particularly overwhelming. Ask the office of admissions whether it’s possible to meet with a professor in a department your child is considering majoring in. It won’t always be doable, but if you can make a meeting happen, there are a few benefits. First, you can find out more about academic opportunities in detail: what minors, certificates, and cool classes are there to look forward to? Second, what about internships, volunteer opportunities, and professional development in this particular field? Finally, what about extracurriculars related to the major? Many departments have relationships with clubs and student organizations. Find out more now so your student can find their people as soon as they move to campus.
My husband loves meeting with interested students and their families, so don’t be shy about asking for a meeting!
See if you can eat in a dining hall
Eating in a dining hall will give you and your student an opportunity to see what the meals will be like day-to-day. Dining halls have come a long way over the years, even since we were in college. You might find vegan options, ethnic food, locally sourced ingredients, who knows? Each campus has their culinary signature and it’s worth finding out if it’s a good fit for your student.
Take time to explore the town
My husband and I didn’t know each other before college. Weirdly, though, we both independently ended up eating at the same restaurant after our initial visit to our university.
Your child will be living in this area for at least four years. Where do people go out on the weekends? Where do students live, if they’re not in the residence halls for their entire college experience? Getting to know the area is important. You as the parents will be visiting this town too! Plus, college is where lots of people find career opportunities and (not to freak you out any more than you already are) marriage partners. So, it’s completely possible
that your son or daughter might be in this area for some time. Your campus tour guide can recommend areas to visit and places to dine.
Focus on fit
Choosing a college might be the biggest decision your child will have to make (so far). There are so many things to consider, and so many good choices. Ultimately, my husband and I advise focusing on fit. Where does your son or daughter feel at home? Where can they picture themselves attending classes? You can make and should make pro and con lists, and talk things through. But in the end, this is your kid’s choice, and the place they feel like they fit in is likely the right one.