I remember when my first child became a Junior in high school. Suddenly this "college search" process was dropped in my lap, and it was nothing like what I went through as a High School Junior 25, (ahem!) 30 years earlier. We regularly travel, I often plan family trips and even help my friends and family plan theirs. But I was completely stymied by this idea of planning a trip to places that might not be listed on Trip Advisor or worse, colleges located in areas so popular, that if you hadn't booked a hotel room on your child's first birthday, you won't find one available on a fall weekend!
This isn't just a helicopter parent problem! Your child may be the most independent soul, who signed up for her own SATS, and carefully researched her major, and developed a perfectly curated list of possibilities; but no one lets 17 year olds book flights and hotels, so this is your job, mom and dad! It's especially difficult for busy, working parents (some with younger kids at home) to plan an effective (and maybe fun?!) college visit trip . And it will be your job to create a trip that encompasses 6 institutions, in 3 states, in inconveniently connected locations. And oh by the way, you'll want to make it a memorable "last" vacation with your (insert your preferred adjective here- anxious, surly, bored, embarrassed) teen and possibly their bored and squirmy younger siblings.
It doesn't have to be an impossible odyssey! I recently learned that Active Travels will customize a college tour itinerary for families that can also include other activities in or near college towns. I think this is a genius idea, and I'm impressed with Active Travels, which creates travel itineraries for clients who want to have an independent and active trips. (Note: I have not used Active Travels services myself, but have been a long time fan of founder Steve and Lisa's travel writing and approach to travel and I have had friends use their other travel services with excellent results)
So if college travel planning is on your plate, see if Active Travels can help and here are a few of my own hard won hacks for creating a trip that will be both productive and fun!
1 Make the first college visits a staycation
Teens are usually anxious or even disinterested about the first visits. It's a great idea to visit a couple of campuses right in your back yard early in the process, and to choose schools your student would never consider attending. Both you and your student will learn how the process works and feel less anxious when visiting the schools "that matter" to your student. In our case, we arrived super early for a visit to a suburban Boston campus as one of the first college visits for our daughter. High in spirits to start the process, riding in our Mini Cooper, we headed toward the visitors garage and the gate swung up, welcoming us. We pulled forward only to confront a closed metal grate covering the garage entrance. The gate behind us then dropped, trapping us in the Mini Cooper between it and the gated garage with no where to go, no way to open either gate, and an embarrassing call to make to campus security. Not exactly the best first impression! These local visits allow you to work out the kinks in your touring behaviors (I was told that I ask too many questions and to cork it, and we were able to coach our daughters about having more confidence when they met people on campus) These low key, local visits allow a student to get a mental idea of concepts such as a small vs large college, or a suburban vs city campus, so they can rule out distant schools without a needing a visit based on their comfort levels with the type of location or size of the school.
2 Try to have a good mix of colleges to visit
A third of the schools you'll visit, he has about a 10% chance of getting into, but he will have even less chance if you don't show up on campus, so you have to go! Another third he will reject as soon as the acceptance letter arrives (even with a giant scholarship offer). But often it's one of the colleges added as an afterthought, that ends up being the place your child will attend and love! Try to take the advice of your child's counselor about schools in your child's eye level range. When visiting the dream school in the dream town, think about seeing other institutions in the same place. Sometimes they will be delighted with another great school in a similar location if they don't get into the dreamy one!
3 Know who you need to see at the college and make sure you arrange those meetings first
If your student has a special interest in athletics, art or a unique program to audition for or special need that must be met, be sure that your teen has contacted the school and that the person or coach you need to see is available to meet with your student when you plan to be there. You don't want to have to make a second expensive trip to do something you can do with a little pre planning.
4 Enjoy time together and the uniqueness of the place you will be visiting
We visited colleges in Minnesota, we made a mini vacation out of it because we knew if she didn't get in (she didn't) we weren't likely to be back there any time soon. We enjoyed the visiting Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and the Mall of America, and remembering the fun we had touring in Minnesota took the sting out of the expense of the flights and hotels, even if it didn't help with disappointment of the rejection letter.
Also, it's true that this may be one of the last trips you'll get to take with your children. Once they are busy with college, internships and travel with their pals, there will be little time to squeeze in a family vacation. Adding onto the college tour to include tourist visits is a great way to spend time together. My cousin recently took her mother and two teens on a southern road trip to see a handful of South Eastern Conference schools (and taking the good advice of #2, and visiting several others in the area!) All involved cited it as one of the best trips they had ever taken, and they know it will be one of the last!