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Taking the Kids

Canvassing the Campuses

March 16, 1997|EILEEN OGINTZ

After visiting six college campuses in four days, high school junior Shaen Robertshaw had reached his limit--a full day and two campuses before the all-important tour was scheduled to end.

"At that point, we gave up and drove home," said Shaen's mother, Susan Lewandowski. "When they've had enough, it's time to quit."

Lewandowski knows those glazed looks on prospective collegians all too well. She's an admissions officer at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where high school students and their families come from as far as California and abroad to see the classic New England women's college and other campuses nearby.

"Try to make these trips fun," Lewandowski said. "Look at it as a rite of passage that won't come around again."

This month, during high school spring break, is the beginning of the big college touring season. It continues through the summer (even though experts say it's best to visit when school is in session) and through the next school year.

Many families, in fact, plan vacations around the campuses they want to see, enlisting the help of the growing number of private college admission consultants to help organize their itinerary.

"A lot of people just drive around and see the buildings. That's a mistake," said Zola Dincin Schneider, a veteran educational consultant and author of "The College Board's Campus Visits and College Interviews" (College Board, $9.95).

Schneider recommends vacationing at a resort area near the campuses you want to visit and planning day trips with your high-school child while the rest of the family heads out on a hike, to sightsee or simply laze by the pool.

Other tips from experts and parents:

* Call far in advance to arrange meetings with faculty, students or even an overnight stay in a dorm for your child.

* Arrange an admission interview, if possible.

* Schedule no more than two campus visits per day so there's enough time to get a sense of each place. Walk the campus, visit the library, talk to students.

"After we were done, we sat in the student union at Northwestern University and looked at the boys," recalled Janet Plotkin, a Connecticut teacher whose daughter recently graduated from the elite Illinois school and whose son was touring campuses with his dad this week. "Visiting is a costly proposition, but the more they visit, the more they understand what they want," she explained.

Other parents send their children with friends on organized student bus tours, such as the Charleston, S.C.-based College Visits company that shows students a number of campuses in the same geographic area over several days.

"Parents are starting the process earlier and putting more into it because the cost is so great. They're becoming smart consumers," observes Robert Rummerfield, who left his post as a Johns Hopkins University admissions officer to start College Visits. (Call [800] 944-2798.)

Some students return several times to the same campus before making a decision. Others know as soon as they get out of the car. New Yorker Cookie Rumely, for one, said the visits made all the difference in helping her daughter Maria, now a freshman at New Orleans' Tulane University, recognize that she was a city girl at heart. Rumely's advice: Jot down notes and impressions immediately after leaving each campus.

Susan Lewandowski adds that snapping plenty of photos helps, as does planning sufficient time to relax. Stretch the budget a bit to indulge yourself and your child with a special meal, a round of golf or a nice hotel.

"This should be a happy time, a very rich parent-child experience," said Janet Spencer, co-author of the newly revised "Princeton Review Student Advantage Guide to Visiting College Campuses" (Random House, $20). To make the most of the experience, this guide suggests local attractions and places to stay near the country's 250 most-visited campuses.

Spencer's advice: Plan as much as you can and include lesser known schools in the region you're visiting.

For too many families, these college trips are fraught with confusion, exhaustion, tension (Will she get in?) and sheer terror (How will I afford it? Will he be safe on this city campus?).

No wonder parents feel overwhelmed by student-led tours, financial-aid information sessions and visits to the gym, dorms and cafeteria. Some complain they don't have the time or money to travel from campus to campus when students are applying to 10 or more schools. Admissions experts counter they wouldn't buy a car without seeing it and college is a much larger and more important investment.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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