The Grand Tour

Search: Like sightseers in Europe, would-be collegians and their parents cram a lot into whirlwind trips as they hunt for the perfect campus.

April 16, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

They've traipsed across Bucknell, wandered the halls of Gettysburg, hiked around Saint Joseph's and driven past Dickinson.

If it's Friday, this must be Loyola -- as in Loyola College in Baltimore. Having driven six hours from their home in Manchester, Conn., Barbara Bosch and her 16-year-old daughter, Joanna, are walking around their sixth college campus. Just another half-dozen or so more to go.

Like hundreds of thousands of their counterparts across the country, the Bosches are scouting for prospective colleges this spring. But this is not just fun and games. Like wide-eyed sightseers on a European package tour, they have a lot of places to see and a short period of time to see them.

"If she isn't happy with her choice, she's not going to do well," says Mrs. Bosch, who has raised her only child alone since her husband's death eight years ago. "I want it to be her choice. But it's an important decision. We want to get it right."

At a time when a four-year college degree can cost $160,000 or more, the business of visiting colleges has never been more serious. Even as more schools offer Web sites with cyber-tours, Q&As, and customized guides, families are finding out there's no substitute for a first-hand experience.

"Parents understand that this is the big investment in their child's future, and they're willing to put in the time," says Lorna Miles Whalen, dean of admissions and enrollment services at the Johns Hopkins University. "The campus visit is the scratch-and-sniff test in the admissions process. It's a few hours on campus to sample the experience."

Pikesville resident Jean Ginsberg and her husband, Edward, were better prepared than most when they started looking at colleges with their 16-year-old daughter, Laura. Mrs. Ginsberg is employed as a guidance counselor at Beth Tfiloh Community School and has advised scores of students and families on just this issue.

Learning a lot

So far, the family has seen 10 schools with at least a half-dozen to go. They think they've learned a lot in the process.

Still, there were issues even a professional can't always foresee. For instance, they had strong feelings about many of the schools they visited -- from MIT to University of Virginia -- but they soon realized it was better for Laura, a junior at Pikesville High School, to form her own opinions.

"We always try hard not to give our impressions away until we get back to the car," Mrs. Ginsberg says. "Then we ask her first, 'How did this feel to you?' "

So how should families manage college visits? What questions should be asked? What is the student's role? The parents?

Experts say college visitors should live by the Boy Scouts motto: Be prepared. Families who get the most out of a campus tour already know the school's strengths and weaknesses -- not just in its academic offerings but in campus life, too.

"The biggest mistake parents make is to not plan a visit far enough in advance or do enough advance research," says Kevin Whatley, director of guidance at Pikesville High and a former admissions officer at Syracuse University. "Parents may only know a school's reputation. They often come into a program less knowledgeable than you'd hope."

Traditionally, students start visiting college campuses during spring break in their junior year of high school, but it's not uncommon for families to start making trips during the summer between sophomore and junior years. Some students start as early as freshman year -- usually because an older brother or sister is making the rounds.

Before anyone starts mapping out an itinerary, it's best if future collegians have a general idea of what kind of school they need -- big or small? In a city, suburb or small town? Near home or far away? Even if students have not settled on a career or a major, they can usually express one preference -- humanities or science?

Visit local campuses

Marilyn Colson, a private educational consultant in Baltimore, often advises students and their families to visit local campuses just to get a feel for the differences between large, medium and small schools.

"Kids ought to look at all kinds of colleges, whether they're near or far," she says. "At least if you look at local schools you can get some flavor of what campus life is like."

Colson also believes that students should take the lead in planning any campus tour. "If they're mature enough to go there, they're mature enough to do the arranging," she says.

Once on campus, prospective students and their families will likely be offered a presentation about the school, a tour (usually led by a student guide), and an interview. They may be given the option of sitting in on classes. Students may even have the chance to spend the night in a dorm room.

If possible, say yes to all of the above, the experts say.

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