College tours: Making the most of campus trips with high-schoolers
In a 30-mile stretch of the San Diego freeway, my 16-year-old son and I passed three major traffic accidents — including one that...
Seattle Times arts & entertainment editor
College tour informationThe College Board, at www.collegeboard.com, offers comprehensive information for prospective college students. You'll find:
• A database that allows you instantly to access basic facts about any U.S. college or university; compare schools; and identify schools similar to others you're considering.
• Advice about how to narrow your college search.
• Tools for planning college visits and checklists to take with you.
• Tips for surfing college websites.
Close-to-home toursWashington colleges
Out-of-town tours are not practical for every family. But you can find out a lot about your child's college preferences without leaving the state — or even Seattle. Rural, small town or big city? Greek system or dorms? Traditional or nontraditional curriculum? Consider a visit to a range of schools within a day's drive. Here's an in-state sampling:
University of Washington: A big, public, research university with a something-for-everyone array of classes and a strong Pac-10 athletic tradition (www.washington.edu).
University of Puget Sound: A small (2,600 students) private school, with a liberal-arts curriculum, whose Tacoma campus is considered one of the most beautiful in the country (www.pugetsound.edu).
Bellevue College: An accessible community college that now offers some four-year degrees (www.bellevuecollege.edu).
Gonzaga: A private, Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition, with nearly 5,000 undergraduates. Located in Spokane (www.gonzaga.edu).
The Evergreen State College: In Olympia, a public liberal-arts college where students play a strong role in directing their own learning (www.evergreen.edu).
Narrow your college search in the comfort of your home or local library. All colleges have websites, many with "virtual tours." Some are collections of web pages. Others have animations, videos or interactive maps, including:
Western Washington University: Bellingham's public university has a nifty interactive map of residence halls at housing.wwu.edu/tour/index.php.
Whitman College: Via video, students walk prospective applicants through the Walla Walla campus at experience.whitman.edu/experience.html.
Seattle University: An easy-to-navigate audio-slide show introduces viewers to campus buildings, student life and university resources at www.seattleu.edu/su_experience.
Questions to askon college toursMost college tours are led by college students. They work for the admissions office and receive training, but their opinions may still be "pretty unfiltered," says Tory Brundage, a senior admissions counselor at the University of Washington. Take advantage of students' firsthand experiences by asking key questions, such as ...
Where do most students live?: Dorms? Fraternities? Or is it a commuter campus? How does the mix affect campus life?
What activities are available?: Sports? Music? Political or social groups? Will your child be able to pursue his or her interests?
What special opportunities and services are offered?: Study-abroad programs? Libraries? Health-care centers? Career guidance?
What traditions are specific to this campus? Festivals? Annual events? Graduation rituals?
Traveling? Send us a postcard
In a 30-mile stretch of the San Diego freeway, my 16-year-old son and I passed three major traffic accidents — including one that left a school bus dangerously close to rolling down a hilly median onto Interstate 405.
That's when I thought to myself: This college touring stuff is not for the faint of heart.
We logged 400 miles on jampacked Southern California freeways to visit four universities in four days. We took two student-led tours (at UCLA and UC San Diego) and two self-guided tours (University of Southern California and UC Santa Barbara), ate a lot of fast food and spent more money than I care to relate.
But we learned a lot — sometimes in the first five minutes on a campus — or even earlier. (As we were pulling into the drive at UC Santa Barbara, my son said, with just a hint of trepidation in his voice, "This sure seems a long way from the city.")
Campus visits, whether here in Seattle or farther afield, can instantly clarify a host of issues that college-bound high-schoolers will face in the coming months. Big city or small town? In state or out? Traditional campus or urban setting?
More importantly, they can jolt a student into thinking about realities that would take months of parental nagging to convey.
"UCLA accepts one in four applicants," a student tour guide there told us. She went on: Sophomore and junior grades matter. Your extracurriculars will be scrutinized. SAT scores count. Private schools and out-of-state schools are expensive and scholarships go to the students who track them down and earn them.
Teenagers much prefer being schooled in these matters by student guides than by pamphlets or, worse, parents.
Looking back on our trip to Southern California, my son said it really opened his eyes to the variety of schools he had to consider. Before, "college" had been one undifferentiated concept.
His advice: "Try to visit a few different types. If you can't go out of state, visit the UW, Seattle U., maybe some other fairly close colleges if you can. Even if you're not going to go to one of them, you'll be able to tell what kind of campus and what kind of school you're looking for."
Do your homework
Planning a college tour can be as difficult as prepping for an exam: You have to chart an itinerary, book lodgings, reserve spots on campus tours.
If you're heading to unfamiliar terrain, you also have to figure out in advance how much ground you can cover; you don't want to have to move so fast that there's no time to absorb or reflect (or eat, for that matter — a critical point when it comes to traveling with teenagers).
Finally, you want to build in time to have fun with your high schooler. Remember, this is the kid who's going to leave home this year or next. How often do you get to hang out together? You only have so many more days left before he or she becomes a visitor in your family.
In the long hours of driving on our recent trip, my son and I worked five crossword puzzles. (OK, four and a half. But that Saturday L.A. Times puzzle was hard.) We caught a ballgame at Dodgers Stadium. We sang along to Eminem and Rihanna's "Love the Way You Lie" about 100 times.
We learned a lot about the choices ahead, but we also made some memories to look back on. So get ready and go. Just be sure to buckle up when you climb in that rental car.
Colleg-tour road map
Here are some tips for planning your own college tour, informed by Tory Brundage, a senior admissions counselor at the University of Washington.
When to go: The sooner the better. A visit as early as 10th grade can give a student "a sense of how fun and cool it is to be a college student," Brundage says. "It gets people really excited." Plan a few more trips (or virtual tours — see sidebar) once a student has narrowed down his or her search, to rule out the obvious "no's." Then you might schedule final visits when a student is making a choice between two or three universities.
How long to stay: Brundage suggests that a good visit will take three to four hours. A student-led tour typically lasts about 90 minutes, then you may want to stay for an info session with an admissions counselor. Start or finish with lunch on campus to soak up the atmosphere.
What type of tour: If you're visiting several campuses in a few days, it may not be practical to take a guided tour at each. Self-guided walk-arounds are also an option, and admissions offices will often provide maps and guidebooks. But be aware that the depth of information you get on a student-led tour far surpasses what you'll get from a quick drop-in; reserve a spot on a tour for your child's top picks and save the drive-throughs for the "maybes."
My son advises, "I'd say definitely go on guided tours if you can, as opposed to just walking around schools on your own. ... The students really give you the feeling of what campus life is like."
What to look for: "Look and feel" is very important, Brundage stresses. Do you like the culture on campus and in surrounding areas? "Most people who do their undergraduate years somewhere will often stay living there at least for some time," he says. You have to be able to picture yourself living on or around the campus. "Not everyone is meant to live in Seattle for four years," he says. "Or in Pullman. They're very different."
The right stuff: Perhaps the most important advice Brundage offers is that students should look for "a good match." Even the so-called best school might not be the best one for your offspring.
"Ask yourself: Is this the right fit for you — academically, socially, financially?" Students need to consider all three before finding a campus they can call home.
Lynn Jacobson: 206-464-2714 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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