Every August for the past six years, I have gone online and pre-ordered my black and tan executive desk diary planner, which is delivered to my doorstep every September. I find it a little annoying that I have to wait that long, but that’s the first date that it becomes available. I plan my vacations a year (sometimes two) in advance, settle on Halloween costumes in June, and buy holiday gifts year round. I am the consummate planner and have been my whole life. So it came as a surprise to no one when I mapped out a college tour for my two sons when they were entering their freshman and junior years of high school. For me, waiting until the summer before my oldest son’s senior year was out of the question. My friends and family laughed at me, but when it was all said and done, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Here’s why.
Narrowing your scope
At last count, there were over 3,000 accredited colleges and universities in the United States alone. How will you ever come up with “The List?” You want to narrow your scope by helping your child figure out both what they do and do not want in a school. Some of these decisions will come easily and be readily apparent. Others will present themselves along the way, and the things that are important to them may surprise you both. And while you are obviously looking at specific schools, you are also getting ideas about specific kinds of schools – large/small, city/suburbs, school spirit/community, size of classes, faculty availability and the list goes on. Everett, my oldest son, came away from our tour with a pretty definitive list. No schools in rural settings (“I can’t see myself going to college in the middle of cornfields”), no schools without a decent Greek life, and no schools without big time sports, both competitive and intramural. In addition to the obvious black and white choices, watch for the little things along the way that capture your children’s interest. For Anderson, my younger son, the mere existence of the pirate acapella group “Argh!, ” which devotes itself entirely to singing sea shanties, sold him on Brown. On another tour, our student guide mentioned that she knows people who drink 8-10 beers on any given Wednesday night. That statement alone made Anderson cross the school off his list. You may think that he is judging too hastily, but your child will have an intuition about the school’s environment that you might not recognize. And at this point, it is just as important to figure out which schools to eliminate as it is to figure out which ones will make the cut.
Perhaps your child is already motivated, knows they want to go to Harvard, knows what they have to do to get in and believes everything that you are telling them about the importance of their GPA, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, and leadership positions. Or maybe you have a teenager like 99% of the rest of us. You need someone and something else to get him or her motivated and buying into the program. You need college admissions officers. They will tell him or her in no uncertain terms what they are looking for in their applicant pool and student body. You will no longer be the nagging, overbearing, and decidedly ignorant source of college information. Your child will have heard it straight from the horse’s mouth. In addition, visiting college campuses and meeting with admissions officers and current students makes the whole idea of college come to life. No longer is it something that is going to happen at some distant point in the future, but they finally realize that it is right around the corner. They may or may not fall in love with one of the colleges, but if they do, they will have that image in their mind as they go through their high school years. My 16 year old stood in awe of the dome at Syracuse. Between that and the video at the Newhouse School of Communications, Syracuse had him at hello. Interested in broadcast journalism and sports management, he honed right in on the percentage of graduates who end up with jobs in their field within four months of graduation. The number? 94%. He is on a bullet train to a career in sports broadcasting. For him, the idea of studying American history in an Ivory Tower is far less appealing than getting hands on experience at a studio in Syracuse. Would he get that from reading the college brochure? I don’t think so.
Do you really want to wait until six months before the applications are due to start thinking about the best place for your child’s higher education? Going to college is expensive, time consuming, and arguably one of the most important decisions that you and your child will make in your young adult’s life. Should you rush it or leave it to chance? It is almost never too early to start thinking about where your child would do best, be happiest, and get the most out of college. In addition to the college tour, there are lots of other ways to expose your children to a variety of college campuses. Many colleges offer summer academic programs and athletic camps. If the camps are overnight, often the participants will stay in the dorms, eat in the school’s dining hall, and use the college’s playing fields and athletic facilities. One of my earliest memories of “college” is when I attended my dad’s 25th college reunion. Not everyone brought their kids, but what a great introduction to the magic of college for an elementary school child. Take advantage of these opportunities, and when your child is entering his or her senior year of high school, their list will be ready and you will have the confidence that you have done your due diligence.
(P.S. – I have a daughter who was ten when I took my two boys on the weeklong college tour. She stayed home – even I can’t plan THAT far in advance.)