Here’s a photo that pretty much sums up what I would turn in if I got that assignment:


My daughter and I recently spent about a week visiting colleges. She’s a rising senior and interested in “away.” So off we went. (Sometimes lately I debate with myself about this blog– how much should I write about my family’s own college experiences vs sticking to my original topic of how to pay for college. Feel free to weigh in because I haven’t come up with an answer other than, “It’s my blog so I can write about whatever I feel like.”)

A week-long internship in Chicago, a cousin working in New York, and an uncle who went to Yale walked into my daughter’s summer plans… so we decided to visit some colleges. We decided that, if we’re going all the way to New York, Boston and Chicago (from Portland OR), we’re going to visit colleges. Plus, she never got around to scheduling things so I got to assemble the list. The end result: an action-packed schedule that included elite, highly-selective, and selective schools in different areas.

She’s already visited a lot of large public schools up and down the west coast and a few schools in far-flung locations, so I wanted her to see small and medium-sized ones. We focused on schools surrounding the cities we visited, and on seeing the cities themselves, all without renting a car. I also wanted her to see the difference between elite schools and those in the tier or two below. Over the course of our trip, we toured 9 schools and walked around several more. It was a lot: we walked more than 6 miles each day. Adding east coast heat and humidity made for a couple of grumpy Northwesterners most evenings– but I think it worked really well to see a lot of schools in a pretty compact schedule.

Here’s what I liked about our trip:

  • It was great to visit so many schools at once because it really put the onus on the school to stand out from the pack. Guess what? They all have tons of research and internship opportunities for undergraduates. They all have Quidditch teams. It’s pretty straightforward to double major or change major. Lots of students study abroad. As private schools, all had low student:teacher ratios and very few classes taught by anything other than a full professor. Most have something that students paint in support of a cause or just for fun, and these all have sets of rules for how you protect your handiwork. Most have great food in the dining halls, beautiful libraries, study areas so quiet that people complain if you turn pages in your book too loudly, performing arts groups that anyone can participate in, and so many a capella groups that people pass out buttons that say “I can’t sing” for students to wear during the club fair. A short list of them told us something really memorable or special.
  • Although we didn’t do the full “I-95 Tour” that several admissions officers remarked on, we found that many of the students and families on our tours had visited the same schools as we did. It was interesting to hear different perspectives on what we were seeing and hear what other schools they were looking at, given that we all came from different parts of the country or world.
  • When you see a lot of the same thing, you naturally start to develop priorities and preferences and can develop your own matrix to evaluate what you’re seeing. For example, going into this, my daughter felt it was important to go to a school on a quarter system because she had been told that made double majors easier. She quickly learned that double majoring is easy at just about any school but something she really cared about was how the school saw its role in integrating students into campus life. She also concluded that she wants to go to an urban university, so she identified a couple of safety schools in urban areas where she’ll likely receive merit aid and where she’d be happy to attend if she doesn’t get an acceptable offer from one of her top choices.
  • When you are repeatedly told the same thing, even a teenager can absorb it. In this case it was that essays are probably the most important part of the application. At least 90% of them went a step further, saying, “Make sure you write about yourself and answer the prompt.” (Hint: You have a couple of weeks before school starts, and most schools publish their essay questions on Aug. 1, so now is a great time to get started on these before schoolwork hits.) Something else we heard consistently at the elite schools: grades and test scores are looked at primarily for the purpose of determining whether you can handle the academics at the school, not to rank applicants. At Yale, for example, the admissions officer basically said, “We look at your transcript and test scores exactly long enough to decide whether your application goes into the pile of ‘students who are ready for Yale’ or into the other pile. Then we set them aside and look at everything else.”
  • Personally, I was glad that my daughter was really open-minded about what she was seeing. She had some pretty strong feelings about what schools she was interested in going into the trip and was a little less than thrilled that I was making her go to all these other schools. However, her top three choices after our trip were all schools that were schedule fillers going into the trip. So that tells me she was listening and observing while we were there.

If I were to change something about our trip, it would be this: I wish we went a year earlier, when she was a rising junior instead of a rising senior. Schools look really different in person than in brochures or online. Junior year is such a challenging and important year in high school, I think it would have been really helpful for her to have a better sense of what her top choices would be and what that meant for academics.