The College Campus Search, What I’ve Learned, And Tips for Newbies

I miss going on college tours. Now that my kids are either on the graduated side of college or close to it, sadly, those opportunities to explore the different higher educational systems are few. There are the nieces and nephews and friends’ kids, and that has been great fun, but it’s a hobby that really requires a dedicated child who wants to explore.

You can do some great people-watching on these tours. And if you visit enough colleges, you begin to figure out that the campus administrators who write the speeches that the students give as they walk backwards through the campus, itself an amazing feat, especially when the speaker is wearing flip-flops, must all take the same speech-writing seminar. They are virtually all the same.

Of course, once in a while a student speaker will actually walk normally, not backwards, to the next stop on the campus tour and then wait for the gathering crowd to catch up before giving the spiel. These college reps do a good job explaining some history of their learning institution, and telling you about the different “colleges,” such as engineering, or fine arts, or science. They’ll talk about the residential living styles (think “dorms”). You have your “suite” style, dorm, with a cluster of a few different rooms, all with their own locking doors, that share a common kitchen or lounge area, and a shared bath. There may be separate facilities for males and females, but not always. Or there’s what I call the “traditional” style, which is the one long hallway with rooms on either side, and the baths are down the hall. Usually, these days, the floors are mixed, meaning “men” and “women” live on them. As we are talking about our kids, perhaps we should say it this way: boys will reside in one room or two, and then girls may have the next room, all down the hallway. And while the girls’ rooms may have more fru fru, it doesn’t mean that these rooms will be kept cleaner than the guys’. I can almost guarantee that there will be separate boys and girls bathrooms on these traditional, long hallway floors, unless the building is quite old and has not been renovated since the days of single-sex dorms. In that case, either the guys and girls will share the same facility, or one floor’s restroom will be for guys, and another floor’s restroom will be for women. But wait, there’s more! Some campuses have deliberately created unisex bathrooms. In some schools, traditional-style dorms floors are staggered, so women live on one floor, and men live on the next floor, and then women, and then men. Another style of dorms is called “residential learning communities.” Students choose a particular themed residence hall, for example, one with an ecological focus, or an historical, or a leadership focus, and all students living in that hall participate in activities and classes pertaining to that focal area.

While taking these tours, we have been invited to peek into students’ dorm rooms about 75% of the time. Sometimes tours do not have access to rooms because students are on break and the buildings are closed, or the entire dorm is being renovated. It’s a nice opportunity for kids to glimpse college life.

There are some differences, to be sure, from campus to campus. There are the large and small and urban and suburban schools. But even two urban schools within a couple of miles from each other can be very, very different. One elite private institution almost didn’t let us into the administrator’s talk session because we were scheduled for a different time that morning. It didn’t matter that this session was just beginning, and our entrance would not disturb the speaker or guests, or that the audience was very small, leaving row after row of vacant chairs. Our flights had arrived ridiculously late in the middle of the night, and so our plans had to change. We knew going in that this institution has a reputation for courting the elite. Still, it offered the courses and majors of interest to my daughter, and so it was worth checking out. We can tell ourselves now, after the experience, that it is just as important, or even more so, to know what you don’t like in a school than what you do like. After finally being allowed into the administrator’s talk, and I felt like we had to do a bit of groveling to get in, we heard the speaker begin every single sentence with, “Here at _____ University, ….” Their PowerPoint presentation offered countless photos of kids wearing business suits. Never was there a jeans-clad student to be seen. The name-dropping was relentless. “This President” and “That President” and “This CEO” matriculated here. They offered a gorgeous campus and stellar classes, but it was not for us, so we politely declined the tour. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. We didn’t just decline the tour. We rushed out of there as fast as one could move in that heat and then walked two or three miles in the blazing sun just to escape!

Whenever we visited campuses, my children and I wrote notes, questions and comments to each other in a small notebook we carried just for these tours. The same day that we started this tour of schools in one city, when we were sleep-deprived and jet-lagged, the second university on our agenda offered ice cream cones to the visiting families; temperatures were sizzling. This was the perfect way to begin our next tour. Nobody in that school seemed concerned that little kids accompanying parents, and big kids, were walking around dripping ice cream.  And once again, we had to inform the people at the check-in table that we were scheduled for a different time. “No problem,” they said, smiling. “Glad you could make it”! They also turned to my son and asked him about his plans for college in a few years, and would he like the university to count him as a prospective student and send him mailings? I breathed a sigh of relief.

We toured the university and then attended the informational session. When the speaker entertained questions, one mom stood up and in a jam-packed auditorium, asked if she could write her son’s letter of recommendation because the teachers and her son didn’t always get along. The woman’s poor kid just slunk in his chair. (The answer was a firm, “No.”) My daughter grabbed the notebook and wrote “!!!” I concurred. Other kids slinking were the ones whose parents stood up and said things like, “My kid took the following AP (Advanced Placement) classes,” and then began to list them, and provide the top-notch grade achieved for each exam taken. The mother went on, “So, does she need to take “X” or “Y” courses as a freshman”? Now my kid is writing furiously in the little pad. “The web site GIVES the answer!” She’s beginning to slink in sympathy for these kids. So am I.

In one session, another mother and daughter team were sending each other notes in their little notepad, too, but they were having a fight. “Scribble, Scribble, Scribble! Underline three or four times!” The girl shoves the pad to her mother. The mother reads it and with a flourish of the pen, retorts, “Scribble, Scribble, SCRIBBLE! Then, “Exclamation points!!!” She shoves the pad back into her daughter’s hands. “SCRIBBLE.” Shove. “More Scribble and underlining.” Shove.  We actually couldn’t see what they were writing, as they were sitting a few rows in front of us and to the side, and that would have been eavesdropping, but we could tell through their exaggerated arm movements that this was one serious fume session. And not one word was spoken. We could only speculate about the miserable drive home; either they would be letting out their vocal rage, or it would be a drive of strained silence. Either way, I was grateful this was not us and was glad when that session finished.

There will be things you will want to ask the student guide, privately, not within ear shot of the crowd, because the “company line” is not what you’re looking for here. From what I gather, colleges under-report sexual crimes, rapes. They will also downplay the incidence of drugs and alcohol on campus. What parent holding the purse strings of a prospective student will want to hear that drugs are easily attainable, and that every weekend the ambulance is called several times for binge drinkers? Ask about it. We were told in one very small rural school and in another larger, more urban school, that alcohol and drugs were not an issue and that the students were serious about learning there. That’s a nice line, and I know these smart kids work hard, but if you put them in the middle of nowhere with no public bus access and very little to do, you’re still going to tell me that they don’t drink and smoke? And if kids move to an area replete with public transportation that is near large urban centers, they are not going to partake? It’s not realistic. How many times do ambulances get called? What is the college doing to cut down on some of this behavior? How do the Residence Advisors handle it? The tour guides will tell everybody about the campus “blue lights” emergency call boxes, and you’ll see them. These are emergency phones that can be used at any time, and they are important. And they will tell you that they have a wonderful walking escort service for students to use late at night to return to the dorm from the library. But be sure to ask, again, privately, how many kids use the system? The guide isn’t going to want to tell the entire group that only a few kids each week partake of this great service.

All college tour guides will tell you this: “We have many clubs and activities on campus, but if you don’t see the one you that interests you the most, then you can start your own club!” Truth be told, there are a lot of activities on most campuses, and it’s hard to even think of a club that doesn’t exist, but it happens. These days, you’ll find quidditch teams, and fine teas clubs, role-playing gaming groups, and ballroom dance teams, plus all the usual sports teams. There are always political groups, ecology clubs and religious and spiritual organizations. In one university in our Nation’s Capital, free tickets to hear political speakers are more coveted than tickets to rock concerts.

Even though you may begin to joke that all college tours sound alike after a while, each school will highlight some individual aspects of campus life that will help your son or daughter with his or her choice. Some tour guides will explain things like this: “When your laundry is done, either in the washer or dryer, you will automatically get a text message telling you so.” Or, “With so many events held on campus, we frequently have “cake alerts” that go out in text messages or emails to students, notifying them of leftovers.” What college student doesn’t want free food? Or, “Our dining hall is so beautiful it looks like Hogwarts.” Or, “When you get married, you can request that the school ring the bells in the tower in honor of this event.” Or, “You can use your ‘Campus Bucks’ at local establishments, including restaurants, book stores, hair salons, and movie theaters, so you don’t have to use cash to pay for these things.” It’s brilliant! Mom and Dad just put money on the account, and then haggle with their student to take more meals in the dining hall and not go to so many restaurants. Kids learn pretty quickly that sodas and iced teas add a lot to a bill, so they’ll ask for water nine times out of ten.

Campuses all have their special atmospheres about them. Some, in the California coastal redwoods, make you think of summer camp. You see deer as you walk the paths, and the light coming through the tall trees hits the ground making sun stripes. Urban schools can be near subway stations, but still have areas that are peaceful and calming. Colleges out in wooded areas are gorgeous year-round, but administrators warn students not to take walks in the woods during hunting season, even if kids are wearing bright orange! One college situated in an area known for its acreage of crops and herds of livestock provides beautiful dorms that are down-wind from these lands, offering students a unique, earthy aroma. On one sprawling, suburban, flat campus, all the students ride bicycles. Sophomores through seniors amusingly point out the new students because they have the “freshman stripe.” It’s the line of rain water on a bicycle rider’s back that gets kicked up by the back tire because there is no rear fender. (Parents will also note that not one of these super-intelligent, high-scoring SAT students on the campus is smart enough to wear a helmet, but that’s another discussion.) There are schools on or near the ocean; I’ve seen kids reading chemistry books while sunbathing on the beach.

Yes, college-shopping is stressful. Figuring out where to go can be most difficult. Just applying to college isn’t cheap, and at no time does anyone ever forget about the fees and tuition and room and board and travel costs and books and outfitting the dorm room. But the search can be a lot of fun if you remember to bring your sense of humor with you. Read the web sites first so you don’t embarrass your kid, and save the arguments, even if they are on pen and paper, for later. Enjoy the journey and the time you are spending with your child. Remember, if you don’t like something, fabulous! My daughter, son and I enjoyed the schools that were not concerned with a Who’s Who list. We crossed-off an option, and that was most helpful. Do grab a bite to eat in the dining hall, or at least have a coffee at the student union, and relax. Are there students milling around? Is it a comfortable campus? Does your kid look interested? Bored? Chat with some students. You can find out about where kids go to hear good music for cheap, or which dorm’s dining hall offers the tastiest options. Take the campus shuttle or bus somewhere and even talk with the student driver before you board. Remember, there is no one perfect choice – and what’s the worst thing that can happen? It doesn’t work out, and so your child tries again. By this time, you know everything there is to know about the search process, so the second time’s a charm.