Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Look for fun, not facts, on your campus visits

[This is my Local Living section column for June 10, 2010.]

I have three children. All went to college.

I accompanied them on 23 campus visits. I read all the college search guides. I became increasingly upset at what the books were suggesting parents or their children do when they arrived at a college on their list.

One guide said to stay overnight in a dorm, attend a concert to assess attendance, check the office hours posted on faculty doors and visit the career center. Others demanded we check the cafeteria menu, inquire about interpersonal relations, assess student fashion choices, see whether courses had ideological biases, investigate how campus funds were allocated, determine whether all health center doctors were certified, make notes on student support services, interview faculty members, tour a dorm, walk around the local community and audit a class.

The many Washington area families going on college tours this summer will get the same advice from the same experts. But I’m here to say don’t listen to them.

Applying to college is stressful enough without every step in the process requiring a clipboard. The average family visit occurs when we are on vacation, for pity’s sake. Why can’t we treat the day like a pleasant stop at a well-known tourist attraction, full of history and intriguing architecture and maybe even free snacks?

Why, in other words, can’t we have fun? The more I think about the standard advice to record every iota of information, the more ridiculous it seems.

The chances of our children being admitted to some of these schools is similar to our chances of winning the office Super Bowl pool. Why not save those inspections, audits and overnights for April of our child’s senior year, after the acceptance letters arrive, so when we start calculating dining hall calorie counts, it will be at a school our child has a 100 percent chance of attending?

The future college student is likely to make a decision heavily influenced by how the place looked that day. Sniffing the breeze and getting a mental picture will be enough. It won’t take us much more effort to collect enough information to know what parts of the university Web site to inspect when we get home.

Accept the written material the admissions office offers, listen to the introductory presentation, take the tour, ask some questions and leave. We should learn what we can without ruining a nice summer day.

Listen to what your children are saying. They know how to alleviate the torture.
The eldest of the Mathews brood spent a lot of time tweaking the elitist excesses of various campuses. The middle one played the local golf courses. The youngest looked for anyone on campus who resembled the TV heartthrob of her high school days, James Van Der Beek of “Dawson’s Creek.”

Looking for entertainment? Listen to questions people ask. Your children will let you know what you said that amused them.

Participants in my Admissions 101 online discussion group at had other examples. RUinVA recalled an earnest student asking, “How many of your junior year abroad programs are in foreign countries?” ArmyBrat1 remembered hearing at the University of Maryland, “Can my son try out for the basketball team?” And at Wellesley, “Can my daughter request Hillary Rodham’s old room?”

Don’t get too serious too soon. Eventually you will be paying for this. Why not enjoy one day when the admission is free?

Read Jay's blog every day at
Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page,

By Jay Mathews  | June 9, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  college campus visits, don't bring a clipboard, have fun, save serious fact-finding for April after your student has been accepted  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Your comment held? We are trying to fix that.
Next: Must-read new report on high school dropouts


I disagree with your suggestion of applying to colleges sight unseen and not visiting until after you know whether you've been admitted. There were a bunch of schools that met my criteria for what I wanted in a college but when I visited them in person I realized they wouldn't be a good "fit". It would've been a waste of time & money to apply to them.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | June 11, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

I agree that visiting a campus and getting a "feel" for the place is one of the best ways to choose. Early in the process we visited two schools that were high on my son's list - one he loved and it became his "stretch" school, the other he didn't like at all and didn't even apply. Another school, Arcadia University, he applied to without visiting. When he was accepted and offered a scholarship, we visited it the next week. He knew almost immediately that he was "home." The beautiful campus, the friendly students, the caring administration, a solid program and a huge commitment to study abroad, all added up to the right decision. A year later, he is very happy with his choice.

Posted by: KHutt | June 13, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company