College Touring 101

Cherry Blossoms at “U Dub”

Pretending to study at UW library

2018 Update: We’re back on the college touring scene once again — 4th time around in our family! Our 11th grade son is starting the college search process. He’s looking at a few of the large, public universities outside of California (where we live). Given this recent article, it appears looking outside of California is a good idea if he’s interested in attending a large, public university. We’re all feeling pretty relaxed about the whole process and are looking for the best match for him. We know that there are many places where he could be happy, and to keep his options open. If you missed it, you can listen to my daughter talking about her college application, acceptance, and transfer process in this episode of the podcast. My son is fortunate to have three older sisters who can help guide him through the process. 

March, 2015

Last week, my 11th-grade daughter and I took a whirlwind tour through a dozen colleges. Because she doesn’t know where she wants to go, her counselor recommended she start looking around and getting a feel for different schools so she can narrow her options.

Here are a few observations from our trip:

Blinded by Bricks

We were easily romanced by beautiful architecture, especially brick buildings surrounding expansive, lush lawns. We’re suckers for the traditional, stately college environs. We also fell for the modern, tear-jerking recruitment videos and snazzy outreach brochures. Wow! College marketing has really gotten impressive. Through top-quality websites and striking print materials, colleges have learned how to woo a greater number of kids into applying, which lowers their acceptance rates and enhances their image. Who wouldn’t want to go to a school where only 10% of the applicants get in?college scenery

Over-Achieving Ian

At one school we visited, “over-achieving Ian” was everywhere. He was the student representative at the information session, graced the cover of the brochure, and served as a tour guide. When asked what he did for fun, Ian told us he invented a special noise-reducing stethoscope for doctors to use in noisy clinics in third world countries. He also used his engineering skills to design a pump that brought water to a remote village in Central America. “Fun,” indeed! Ian was an impressive kid, no doubt, but I think it was hard for the mere mortals in the audience (parents and kids alike) to relate to him and his spectacular accomplishments.

Our Favorite Tour Guide

Our favorite tour guide didn’t have Ian’s laser focus, but she was friendly and enthusiastic. She admitted to changing her major several times and to still being unsure about what she would do after she graduated. It was refreshing to talk to an articulate, well-rounded young lady who loved her school and was navigating academics, a job, and social life well.

“Where’s Your Dot?”

In this new age of university admissions, many college counselors use a website called “Naviance.” The site shows admissions outcomes for other applicants to each school, and users can see where their black GPA/SAT “dot” falls relative to those applicants. If your “dot” is in the midst of a bunch of green ones, that’s an encouraging sign; it means the school has admitted other students with scores similar to yours. However, if your dot is hovering among a bunch of red Xs, you can pretty safely take that school off your list. After touring a school we liked, I would ask my daughter, “Where’s your dot?” And then we’d either celebrate or joke that it wasn’t a good fit anyway.

“What’s Their Grade?”

Google any college name followed by the word “niche” and you get a special, top-secret (not really) overall “niche grade” along with subgrades for things like housing, academics, campus food, and drug safety. (I assume, based on the low grades on drug safety at many schools, a D- means there are a lot of drugs present?) The site also collects comments and scale ratings (1-5) from current and former students, who chime in with reviews on Greek life, parking, diversity, and even the weather. To get in-depth, you do have to register (it’s free), but once you do, “niche” tells all, so it was a helpful addition to our college sleuthing.

Final Thoughts

College Touring 101My daughter didn’t have one, “this-is-the-place” moment on our college tour. Instead, she had several. She could see herself thriving and being happy in many of the schools we visited. She was able to take a few off her list (thank you, Ian) and seems to prefer a mid-sized school (5,000-6,000 students), but she’s not going to limit herself; there was a smaller school she really liked, and she hasn’t ruled out big state schools, either.

In the end, she’ll probably do what her older sisters did and apply to several colleges, see where she gets in, and do the revisit days to make her final decision. You can’t base a college choice on one tour guide, an amazing video, or a stunningly beautiful brick dorm. To really know a place and decide if it’s a good match, you need to meet other students and experience the school’s culture. Is it a warm, welcoming place? Do kids value academics? Is it all Greek life and party-focused or do kids have other interests?

It’s exciting to be starting this journey with my daughter, and I look forward to seeing where her green dot ends up!


Episode 21: Advice for the College Application and Selection Process

5 Must Reads Before You Drop Your Child at College

Conversations Before College: Who You Are Matters More Than Where You Go

Conversations Before College: Honest Talk About Alcohol

Conversations Before College: Preventing Sexual Assault

Final Conversations Before College

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