Let’s rethink some well-meaning expert advice on touring colleges.

Share story

Having studied the college-visit process as a parent and writer for a long time, I sense trouble. Experts are taking it too seriously, threatening family harmony and mental health.

The educational consulting firm IvyWise suggests taking voluminous notes and pictures, inspecting many more buildings than seen on the tour and sitting in on lectures. The college admission services company Princeton Review recommends interviewing undergraduates on the quad, staying overnight in a dorm and tracking down campus flaws, such as undersized gyms.

Students have heard such advice for decades. Essentially, they are told to bring a clipboard with a checkoff list to each campus. The message is clear: The visits will be drudgery, but so what? College is important.

These well-meaning advisers seem to have forgotten that the visits usually occur during family vacations. The parents may be into it, full of hope for their children’s future. But not every 16-year-old is ready to do drill sergeant inspections. If you have children who love taking notes, let them. Otherwise, parents should rethink the tips they are getting.

One of the worst suggestions is No. 1 on Princeton Review’s “Get the Most Out of Your College Visits” nine-item list: “Schedule your visit while school is in session. You won’t get a realistic idea of student life in August.”

But if the college is in session, then the kid’s high school is also likely to be open. It makes little sense to miss important classes to visit colleges the student may never attend. And banning break visits hobbles the sensible tradition of making college exploration part of a family vacation. It reduces the chances of anybody having any fun.

When dealing with average teenagers not fascinated by college talk, parents should make visits as casual as possible. Think of each campus as a theme park. They have lovely vistas, amusing monuments and restaurants that cater to youthful tastes. The potential applicant should sign the visitor book at the admission office. Colleges like to see proof of what they call “demonstrated interest.”

But parents should take a lighthearted view of the briefings and campus tours. Remember that teens often enjoy sharing with friends the dumbest things they heard from tour guides.

The proper time for note-taking and visits to class is when students will be looking only at colleges that admitted them.

Kids need vacations, too. My experience is that they prefer to spend family jaunts playing miniature golf, consuming sugar-rich foods and bicycling through natural wonders. As for looking deep into their prospective schools, they can find just about everything they need online.

Teenagers often have idiosyncratic views of what makes a good college. One of our sons, a golfer, rejected any campus where even a single snowflake had ever fallen. Our daughter put great emphasis on access to Starbucks.

Her more serious thoughts she kept to herself, but she still turned out to be a better college student than either of her parents. The campus visits were fun and our family came through the process in good shape. That’s the way to spend a tour.