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Surviving the College Tour Meltdown

My daughter Izzy and I packed up the car and headed off to pick up her best friend Taylor and Taylor’s mom, Lynn. We were going to look at colleges in Northern California, and we had a plan. The girls, who will be seniors in high school, had chosen the schools they most wanted to explore. Lynn found hotels, and I mapped out the driving and timing. We had never traveled together but were all feeling organized and excited.

One by one, over the next couple of days, though, each of us had a meltdown. So, what happened? And what did we learn? Here's what I took away from the trip.

After researching schools, I've found that the nuts-and-bolts planning for touring colleges involves everything from air travel to road trips to time off from work to making arrangements for younger siblings. All of these arrangements can make it easy to forget the emotional component of these tours. There’s a lot at stake for parents and teens.

For teens, I imagine the experience goes something like this: Suddenly, a potential university is looming large and concrete. Every missed homework assignment or embarrassing SAT score is dancing before their eyes. What if I'm not good enough? What if I don't get into any of the colleges I apply to? What if I make the wrong choice? And, why does my mom think she knows everything about choosing a college?

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As a parent, your questions might start with how to afford college and move into wondering what it’s going to feel like to drop your baby off at a dorm room and drive away. You might be asking if you’ve really done your job and raised a child self-sufficient enough for college. Is this the right school for your child? And how will you know? How do you help this balky creature, who rejects so many of your overtures of help in a developmentally appropriate—but challenging—show of independence?

Anne Cochran, a nationally recognized college counselor at CHAMPS High School in Van Nuys, Calif., shared an experience she had with her own kids:

“When my son and daughter were in high school, I decided we'd swing through the University of California Santa Cruz campus during a trip up north. The thought of Santa Cruz—ocean, surfing, a respected UC education, green forests, parties, flip-flops, environmentalism, green, everything that's green—sounded like collegiate nirvana to me," she says. "Alas, when we arrived at beautiful UCSC, my kids looked out the windows and wouldn't get out of the car. ‘Mom,’ I heard, ‘This place has zero to do with who we are—it's YOUR fantasy, not ours. ... We want to go to New York City!"

"Parents, give up your own college fantasies," Cochran says. "By the latter part of high school, your kids have probably formed a loose and unspoken framework of what they imagine their college futures to be. At least listen to what they have to say.”

I can relate to Anne’s experience. I found myself trying to convince Izzy that Mills College in Oakland, Calif., would be a great school for her. I mentioned all of the good things about the school. I pointed out the lovely architecture and named illustrious alumni. I was getting annoyed that my sales job wasn’t working when Izzy started laughing at me. She said, “Mom, I think we found the perfect school for you when you leave home and go to college.” I had to admit that she was right, and the tension dissipated.

That is, until we visited a school in San Francisco.

When we got to the University of San Francisco, Taylor was bummed to learn that she'd mixed up this school with a similar university that offered her major. This one didn't have it. Izzy suddenly got very worried over her SAT scores, but didn’t want to talk about it. Lynn and I tried to stay steady, but we were all hungry. One piece of advice: Don’t look into the future on an empty stomach. It makes everyone cranky.

And once you get to the actual tour, keep in mind what's really going to matter.

Will Hummel, an admissions officer at Pomona College, has seen a lot of family dynamics play out during school tours. He shared that conflicts in priorities will often surface between parents and kids.

There’s a difference in "the sort of information that the students or parents are trying to get from us," says Hummel, who worked as a tour guide while he attended Pomona as an undergraduate.

"I know every tour guide can tell you a story about a parent asking a question in front of their son or daughter who just sort of rolled their eyes and clearly didn’t care what the answer was, clearly didn’t want to hear the question asked in the first place."

He says it’s common for families to visit schools and focus on the dorms, specific academic programs and study abroad programs. “As important as all that is," he says, "one thing that unfortunately gets left behind is looking a little more critically at the environment in which a student is going to be most successful."

"It’s less exciting to ask, 'Do you have a good college advising system?' 'Are students going to be able to meet with professors to get feedback?'" he adds. "It’s not as exciting as talking about dorms or sports teams or Greek life, but ultimately I think those sorts of decisions are more important.”

Watching Izzy ask questions at the schools we visited made me really proud of her. She’d done her research, and while dorms and study abroad were at the top of her list, she was also excited to hear about small class size at one school. We looked at every lab classroom with another school’s nursing program. I watched her taking stock as she imagined herself walking or biking around the various campuses.

She and Taylor commented that it was a bonus seeing the number of attractive boys on campus.

Somewhere in Sonoma County, hoping we weren’t literally going to run out of gas, I brought up our meltdowns and my theory that visiting colleges was pulling at everyone’s fears, insecurities and worries more than we'd realized. Izzy and Taylor didn’t say much, but Izzy later told me that was kind of an "aha!" moment for her.

Overall, the trip was a little bittersweet, but it was very cool to see the girls’ excitement and know that college had become just that much more real.

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