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'90s Family

The Grand Tour

Early admissions have changed the way colleges --and students--do business. But as one family found, you still have to visit to find the best fit.


It was a bitterly cold day late in March 1995, and I was sitting on a bench next to a statue of Ben Franklin at the University of Pennsylvania. My husband, Paul, aimed his Nikon for the photo op. "Get in the picture," he called to our 16-year-old daughter. Julia rolled her eyes and groaned: "This is so embarrassing." Adam, our 11-year-old son, made rabbit ears over Ben's head. Snap. It was one of the few photos taken on Julia's college tour.

When our daughter, a junior at Harvard-Westlake School, had asked if she could visit some East Coast colleges, Paul and I at first said no. Sending her east to college would be expensive enough; we didn't want to spend extra now. But Vanna Cairns, Julia's college counselor, and parents of seniors who had done tours persuaded us. Whether Julia was applying to the University of California campuses or to the Ivy League, they argued, visiting the campuses would make the concept of "going away to college" real to her and help her decide which college was her first choice.

Until recently, this decision wasn't so important, because students applied to a number of colleges and decided which to attend from among those that accepted them. But the scenario has changed. Now many top colleges have instituted binding "early admissions" policies. Early admissions candidates apply to only one college (usually by Nov. 1, instead of by the regular admissions deadline of Dec. 31). If they are accepted (by Dec. 15 instead of by the regular admissions acceptance date of April 15), they are obligated to attend.

Just how advantageous is it to apply early? This year, those colleges with binding early admissions policies--Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Princeton, Stanford, Penn, Williams and Yale among them--filled between 23% and 49% of their freshman classes from early admissions candidates.

As a travel writer, I have planned my share of complicated travel itineraries, but coordinating a schedule in which we could visit 10 colleges scattered throughout five states in eight days was a challenge.

I consulted "The Complete Guide to College Visits" (Carol Publishing Group, 1992), a 610-page tome by Janet Spencer and Sandra Maleson, two mothers who had once faced the college tour-planning task. For every major American college, the book lists the times of campus tours and information sessions; policies about visiting classes, having interviews and staying overnight in the dorms; and directions to the campus along with a selection of hotels and motels. Armed with the guide and maps, I put together a tight but workable itinerary.

Julia had hoped to take the trip without her little brother, but it was unavoidable. Adam spent more time playing "X-Man" in campus video arcades than taking tours and was a good trooper. But I'd advise any family taking their high school student to visit colleges to leave much younger children at home. The trip has enough built-in stress and anxiety without adding sibling squabbling to the mix. For the tour foreshadows the wrenching separation that will occur when the student goes off to college.

That first day at Penn, we learned that unless you take an organized campus tour, it is difficult to experience the flavor of a school. Since we had arrived too late for the last tour of the day, we wandered around admiring the splendid gothic architecture and sizing up the students. Paul and I were impressed, but Julia felt "overwhelmed, too young to go to college, and I can't relate to this." She crossed Penn off her list.

After that, we took a tour at each campus. Each guide was a spunky, high-achieving senior with a good sense of humor and school spirit, and was skilled at walking backward so he or she could face the group without bashing into something. Julia distanced herself from us during the tours and flinched whenever we asked a question. ("Do you really have a clothes-optional dorm here?") Fear of being humiliated by one's parents is all part of the teenager's separation process.

We realized that visiting a school when class is in session is crucial to a good experience. The two colleges we visited over the weekend seemed dead compared to those we'd seen when the campus was alive with students hurrying to and from class, crowding into the dining halls and generally hanging out. Talking to students was also helpful. It took some encouragement to get Julia to approach strangers, but she found that the students she met were all open, honest and boosters of their schools.

As the trip progressed, Paul and I learned to keep our opinions of each college to ourselves. Otherwise, in typical teenage fashion, Julia would voice the opposite opinion. It was particularly difficult for us when we visited Princeton, the college Paul and I felt was ideal for Julia if she could get in.

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