Even though the Common App has made it immeasurably easier to apply to colleges than in the pre-internet dark ages of my youth, at roughly $50 a pop, it still makes sense for kids to pare their list of schools to those they’d really like to attend.
Which is where the college visit comes in. But after completing 12 of these campus cruises with my son or daughter over the past two years, I'm not convinced they accomplish what they should or could.
To begin with, the format is the same at every school: a 45-minute propaganda slide show by someone in the admissions department — complete with obligatory stats on the four-year graduation rate, campus diversity, and all possible positives from their U.S. New & World Report rankings — followed by an hour-long walk around campus guided by a student.
The first part of the program is so generic and predictable that the facts, figures, and slides quickly blend into boredom, no matter how peppy the presenter. (You know it's bad when you glance across the room, as I did at one of these sessions, and find your son attempting to pick up a pencil between his nose and upper lip.) You find yourself hungry to hear something unique or unusual about the college.
It sometimes gets better when the student tour guides take over. But the emphasis is on the sometimes. After each guide gives a 20-second introduction of him or herself, the moms, dads, and kids scramble to line up next to the tour conductor who seems most engaging — and cross their fingers that they guessed right.
You know almost as soon as the tour begins. The hour can either be an interesting, even exhilarating, introduction to life on a vibrant campus or a painful glimpse into the life of a somewhat (dare I say it?) nerdy student. In those cases, the shy or awkward guide suddenly seems representative of the entire student body, leaving little chance the average kid will consider applying there, no matter how attractive the school seemed pre-tour.
My daughter and I saw six schools this summer; sadly, our feelings about them are very closely linked to our opinions of the tour guides. It's embarrassing to admit that, but let's be honest: Assessment by association is hard to avoid.
For example, it is a near-certainty that a 17-year-old male jock will not be impressed with a tour guide who introduces herself as president of the knitting club (true story). Similarly, a male guide who delayed his tour by an awkward five minutes because an annoying insect was buzzing around him — refusing on ethical grounds to swat it, despite my daughter's urging — was dull and uninspiring, which quickly became our view of his school. But the perky young woman who relayed delightful stories about her university's campy traditions and her amazing study abroad, in Italy, had us ready to get our applications in that very day. (Yes, both of us.)
Then there was the earnest guide who walked backwards for the entire tour so that he could maintain eye contact the whole time — he made a very favorable impression, but what does that really tell us about his school?
The other nutty thing about these tours is that they tend to highlight fairly superficial aspects of the college experience. Food takes on super-sized importance, with the number of Starbucks, Dunks, and other fast-food outlets scattered around the place suddenly becoming very meaningful. Quality of the dorms counts more than it should. My daughter and I definitely had more favorable impressions of schools where the dorm rooms on display were done by Bed Bath & Beyond than the ones with linoleum floors and banged-up heavy wooden bunk beds adorned with plastic-covered mattresses.
But though I've just ripped the venerated college tour to shreds, I still wouldn't recommend skipping it. Holding a teenager captive in a rental car for 20 hours, as I did my daughter this summer, has its benefits. Sure, there was the usual amount of fighting over which radio station to play and rolling of eyes when one person sang too loudly, but in between we managed to sneak in some laughs and real conversation.
And yes, MasterCard, that is priceless.
Lenore Scanlon is a working — and college-touring — mother of three teenagers.