It’s not unusual for middle school students to discuss their upcoming college plans. Blog posts, newspapers and even Facebook stress the need to start preparing for college far in advance of high school graduation. This preparation usually involves college visits that might be across town or across the country. Here are some tips to get the most out of a college visit beyond having a cheerful tour guide and seeing a professional website.

College Visits Mean New Travel

College Tour, College Visits, College Visit, Road Trip

Photo Credit: Allan Clark

Many, many years ago, when high school students did assignments on stone tablets, I began my college search when my high school drama teacher suggested I attend the college where he was beginning to teach. I filled out a paper application, paid my deposit and enrolled. End of college search.

We entered a whole new world when our daughter Sondra began applying to colleges. Expensive glossy catalogs arrived daily, showing smiling students enjoying pizza, lounging on grassy hillsides and even riding unicycles. Who needs pictures of students studying or actually sitting in classes?

After visiting one ivy covered campus after another, we found some ways to maximize the time and expense of visiting numerous colleges. (And yes, one of those ideas involved sending Sondra off on a plane by herself to visit two colleges.)

Is Your Child Really Ivy-League Material?

Unless your son or daughter is destined to be a bio-nuclear chemo-physics major (with a minor in ancient Biblical languages), the majority of colleges will give your child a decent education. Most companies simply look for college graduates, so…get ready to…gasp… not take the college search so seriously! There are many quality colleges beyond Harvard and Princeton.

How to Ensure a College Visit is Also a Unique Travel Experience Yes, it sounds prestigious to have your teen at an Ivy League college. But will those colleges fit with your student’s personality and income level?

I heard from several small town, middle class college freshman who received scholarships at prestigious colleges. They all shared how difficult it was to adjust to peers who had attended private boarding schools and spent summers traveling the world rather than working at a local café.

All students have a learning curve when it comes to leaving home to attend college. That learning curve will not be so steep if your child attends a college suited to his or her lifestyle and finances.

Write it Down!

When visiting colleges, take notes, even if your teen doesn’t. A few photos or videos will help jog your memory of each school. It won’t take long to mix up which college had the new gym and which had a complete TV studio for students. We visited numerous colleges in the south, all with magnolia trees, Tudor styled buildings and bricked courtyards. Our car drives were punctuated with lively “discussions” over which college had the triple room dorms and which had the outdated business lab, because they all blended together.

Be Adventurous

Encourage your teen to look at a college that may not fit their “ideal standard”. Sondra insisted she wanted to attend a college with 10,000 or more students. We got her to visit a college of 3,500 and she completely changed her mind and saw a smaller college could fit all her needs. One high school senior was determined to attend college in a major metropolitan city. On the way to visiting a college in downtown Seattle, she agreed to stop at a suburban college outside the city. Suddenly the wide open spaces, lower living costs and outdoorsy atmosphere changed her mind about attending college in the city.

Join Forces

College Tour, College Visits, College Visit, Road Trip

Photo Credit: Allan Clark

Does your teenager have friends looking at nearby colleges? Could you tag team with other parents and do a College Carpool? One weekend you drive two or three students to a college and the next week another parent takes a group. Of course the adults compare notes afterwards!

One dad, (who I think was sad to see his daughter travel cross country for school) created an “Exploration Day.” He found three small, well respected colleges within a three hour drive and took his daughter and friends to visit those on one day. They left early, drove to each college, walked around, spontaneously spoke with students and got a general feel of the place. While his daughter did select an out of state college, her friend actually selected one of the schools they visited that day. Just shows what is available in your own area!

One mom asked a local graduate of a college her daughter was interested in, to come over for dinner. She invited her daughter’s friends and parents over as well, so everyone could get a first-hand account of that particular college.

Watch the Budget

While it’s nice to visit colleges as a family, it drains the budget and work schedule. For Sondra’s last two college visits, we sent her from Seattle to the LA area by plane to look at two colleges. Both schools were more than helpful in picking her up and getting her from place to place. If your child feels comfortable (and you do!) let them try a college visit on their own.

It’s OK not to visit every college. Sondra was accepted at 13 colleges and we never expected to visit all of them. Instead of flying or driving off on another trip, we waited until her financial aid award letter arrived from each school. If the package seemed promising, and she was still interested, we attempted to visit the school.

College Tour, College Visits, College Visit, Road Trip

Photo Credit: Allan Clark

Prepare for Those Interviews!

Many organized college visits include an interview with the admissions director. This is an important experience, especially if your teenager’s grades aren’t stellar!

One mother sat by in shock as her normally outgoing, verbal son spoke to the admission director in mono-symbols.

Your teenager may think it is silly, but try to get them to do some role playing. Practice shaking hands, and looking the admissions staff directly in the eyes. Rehearse answers to questions such as “What would you change about your high school experience?”

Because Sondra is skilled at doing TV and radio interviews, she knew how to handle herself during admissions interviews. Two colleges accepted her after the interview even though her paperwork wasn’t complete.

Most of all, relax! While it’s nice if your child attends Princeton, most students thrive in the thousands of other colleges offering quality classes taught by caring professors. Distract yourself by starting to think how you’ll transport all your child’s belongings to college! And for now, just enjoy the travel time with your teen as you travel from college to college.

What is your best tip for exploring colleges? Share with us in the comment section below.