Lessons From A College Tour

By: Bonnie Klein


Two of our children have already graduated college, and even though both our ‘babies’ are still at universities, our college touring days should be long over. Yet, last week we packed our bags, made hotel reservations, called admissions offices, and headed back out on the college tour, this time not as prospective parents, but as co-founders of Daytripper University, a college touring website.

Our college trip covered 5 schools in 5 days, a trip allowing for ample time to visit each school while still leaving a few hours free for exploring the surrounding neighborhood. All in all it was a good trip, but we made some mistakes and learned a few things along the way. Here we share some insights so you can make the most of your college tours.

Have a plan: We mapped out a realistic 5-day trip from our home base in NY to Virginia and D.C., starting in NY on Thursday, flying to our first stop and returning back to NY via Amtrak’s Acela on Monday afternoon, renting a car in between. An early morning flight got us to our first campus by lunch, with some time in the afternoon to do some exploring around town. As we weren’t spending more than one night in each destination, we choose hotels that were convenient to campus. Campus tours were booked online in advance. We made all of our dinner reservations, but left lunch open, except for one reservation for brunch on the Sunday.  

Do your research: College trips differ from vacations in that you have limited time and an strict agenda of visiting schools, working on the individual schools schedules of tours and information sessions.  Many universities only offer tours Mondays-Fridays, while some do conduct tours on Saturdays. Due to our schedule we had a forced free day on Sunday, and had to double up schools on the Monday. In our opinion two schools in one day is one too many, if time allows one tour a day is ideal. Try and give each school the attention and time it deserves. Weekdays tours are also better as campus is more active when classes are in session. Side note: having Sunday off in the middle of a “tour trip” turned out to be something we needed. We forgot how exhausting visiting schools can be and that information overload seeps in—our day off allowed us to do some sightseeing in D.C. a mini vacation day so to speak.

Make a Packing List: Make a list and check it twice, we can’t tell you how many times over the years we’ve been forced to visit the local CVS for toothpaste and hair brushes. Don’t forget your phone and computer chargers. Check the weather; if rain is in the forecast, bring a light raincoat. Snow? Pack those boots. Look at the morning and evening temperatures:, tours start early and we were cold before it warmed up midday.  Layers are your friend--a vest, heavier sweater and a big scarf always go a long way. Last and most importantly, bring comfortable shoes as you’ll be covering a lot of ground.

Entertainment: If your traveling by car, jazz up your Spotify playlist before you leave.  Download some podcasts, or a musical soundtrack from a favorite show that will appeal to both you and your child. (Our families have been known to have sing-alongs to Hamilton and Les Miserable) Bring a few snacks, gum or healthy bars for the road to starve away boredom, and a notebook and pen so your child can write down their impressions of each school. If this is the start of your college touring, a fun idea might be to bring a map and a big old sharpie. Over the course of your touring you can track all the schools you visited and keep it as a memento of your college travels. (Of course this is also something you’ll have to decide to “recycle” once your child leaves the house and you’re doing an empty nest clean up.)  

Talk to Students: On our own college tours, we made the mistake of engaging solely with our tour guides as a way to get to know the school. While tour guides are personable and informed, they are also cheerleaders for their school and unlikely to always give you an authentic take. As Daytrippers, we now stop kids all the time on campus and haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t want to talk about their school—most kids are very happy to speak with you and answer any questions you have. So engage with students, as their walking on the quad, in the dining hall, in the student union—ask questions about their favorite class, what they do on the weekends, school traditions and spirit, their professors, dining hall food, the dorms—you’ll get to the real heart of life on campus. Don’t be hesitant to ask for some negatives: “What is your least favorite thing about your school” can reveal valuable information. Tip: If you or your child are shy, a good way to approach someone is by asking for directions to the student union or admissions office—then start a conversation from there.

Leave Preconceived Impressions at Home: One of the schools we visited on this trip was one that we, as adults, remember from our own college days as being a party school, and one that was usually applied to as a safety.  And yet, during our recent trip, we and were completely surprised and impressed with the depth of its programs, enthusiasm and achievement of its students, as well as the many opportunities for research, internships and to study abroad. Had we skipped this school, we would have missed a university that has changed tremendously in the last few decades.  

Impressions: It’s hard to look beyond the weather on a gray rainy day. Any campus looks better on a bright sunny day. Unfortunately, you can’t control the weather, so try and put on “rose colored” glasses to imagine the quad filled with students and sun drenched buildings.

Downtime: Touring and checking in-checking out each day is tiring; you need to throw something fun in. Wander and window shop the main street of town; go to a movie after dinner, or perhaps a fun place for ice cream. Check to see if there’s a sporting event or concert that coincides with your visit.

Alternative Plans:  If you miss your scheduled tour or want to work around your own schedule, head to the college’s website and download a self- guided tour or visit the admissions office, where most schools can provide you with a self guided map. These tours usually take 30-40 minutes and many academic buildings are open to the public during business hours, so you can pop in for a peek.