How to Make College Touring Fun: Tips for Your Trips

By: Bonnie Klein

Last week on a girls’ weekend away I visited the fascinating, weirdly eccentric American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. I kept thinking how my daughter would have loved it and was frustrated that I hadn’t brought her there after touring John Hopkins University a few years back. But, I didn’t know about it back then, or the wonderful Baltimore Museum of Art either, actually in Hopkins backyard, because I hadn’t done much research beyond tour times and information sessions. As an avid traveler, I constantly get queries from friends, relatives, business associates, and even now my friend's grown kids, yet I dropped the ball on my own trip. I was focused on the college visit only and not on things to do beyond the tour.

Luckily, that was one of the first and only times we approached touring as something to get over with, and rather than a quick in-and-out visit, we approached our other college stops as mini-trips--as opportunities to spend more time together and see parts of the country for the first time. After all, you never know when you might be in Cleveland again; you might as well visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Parents, listen up: spending time on the road together is fun, and an excellent way to make our kids enthusiastic about the college search process. The build-up to junior and senior year is stressful, and there’s no denying the pressure, the applications deadlines, prep work for the SAT and ACT, and tough course loads. While we can’t change the current culture and frenzy and only help our children handle the stress, touring schools is one part of the process we can take control of and even make enjoyable.

As a veteran of my own kids’ college tours and thanks to my recent travels on the road for Daytripper University, here are some of the best tips, I’ve learned throughout these past few years.  

  • Be a college tourist! Pack your camera and view the tour as a mini family vacation. Two tours in one day, in my opinion, is one too many. If you can, don’t overload your trip. Block out some free time in either the morning or the afternoon to mix it up, to have some fun. Traveling to see colleges is expensive; if you arrange your tours to correspond with school vacations you can sneak in an extra day or two to visit some of our country’s great sights as well as the schools on your list. It would be a shame to tour Vanderbilt without getting a taste of Nashville’s music history at The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum or to tour UVA without a historic stop at Monticello. In Chicago, the Architectural boat tour is a must. And it doesn’t have to be just sightseeing; visiting Delaware on a summer Friday? How about Dewey Beach for the weekend? Boston schools correspond nicely with Cape Cod. The oceanfront promenade in Santa Monica is just a short drive from UCLA, rent bikes and go for a cruise.

  • While there are endless activities in cities like Chicago, DC, and NY, small towns have their own attractions. Many schools have interesting museums on campus. Parts of the country are rife with historical sites. Chefs have been leaving big cities, and the food movement near many colleges is on fire. Farmers Markets have sprouted in small towns often with more personality than their big city counterparts. Many schools have hiking and biking trails right on campus; just remember to pack your sneakers.

  • Hit the bookstore --I know one family who bought teddy bears from every school they went to—another family collected coffee mugs. My daughter purchased way too many t-shirts and sweatshirts while accompanying her brother on his tours, and then on her own. Now that she wears her own school colors, I have adopted lots of her comfy school shirts, pajama bottoms, and other college apparel.

  • Journal it! Buy a sketchbook, a glue stick and some colored markers at an art store before your first trip. Once on campus, everyone in the family can be a scavenger. Save all the cards from the restaurants you go to, collect newspapers or flyers at each school, buy postcards at the bookstore. Plane tickets, train receipts, maps—anything is fair game. Each night your child can write down all their highlights-- make a collage, doodle, record the days' activities and meals, and write down thoughts of each school. This is not only a great keepsake, but it’s a good way to look back and remember your impressions of each school.

  • Is your child a sports fan? Plan to see schools in Boston when the Red Sox are playing at the legendary Fenway Park, or see the Celtics at the TD Garden. Depending on the time of year, catch the Lakers at the Staples Center in LA or the Dodgers or 49ers in San Francisco. See some of the storied franchises such as the Dallas Cowboys after a visit to SMU or the Pittsburgh Steelers after visits to Carnegie Mellon or the University of Pittsburgh. Visit the Big Ten schools during basketball or football season. Your child may not remember the information session, but they will never forget 100, 000 fans screaming “Go Blue” in the Big House at Michigan. The basketball program at UNC has been so successful there’s a whole museum, the Carolina Basketball Museum, on campus dedicated to Tar Heels history. At Penn State experience the legends of the Blue and White at the All Sports Museum.

  • College towns are dynamic, high-energy places, with fun shops, restaurants, and coffee shops. Universities are often the cultural hotspot, with excellent music venues and movie theaters that attract guest speakers, art house movies, and music and dance productions. Do some research before your trip to see what’s happening while you’re in town.

  • Is there something the area you’re visiting is known for? For example, New Haven is famous for its pizza, so plan a pizza tour when visiting Yale or nearby Quinnipiac. You can’t visit Berkeley without a visit to Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' groundbreaking farm-to-table restaurant, still going strong after 40 years. Ithaca’s motto is “Ithaca is Gorges”; so don’t miss the beautiful waterfalls. Athens has a thriving music scene, and Portland Oregon has food trucks like nowhere else. Do some Google searching and see what each stop’s claim to fame is.

  • Download a playlist, audiobook or podcast if you’re traveling by car. Hours on the road can get monotonous, but not if you’re enjoying the latest Lin Manuel Miranda interview with Oprah or the next chapter of Stephen King’s The Outsider. Serial, an investigative journalism podcast; kept my family entertained on the road. We interspersed Serial with some comedy shows that my son had downloaded. Spend some time planning together beforehand to find things that spark all of your interests.

  • Let your child take the driver’s seat and plan a half-day during the trip. Encourage them to do some independent research and pick the restaurant, a local attraction that appeals to them, a hike—their own original itinerary—maybe even leave it as a surprise.

Heading out on the college tour with your kids is a wonderful bonding experience, something you will all look back on and cherish. Time on the road allows for rambling conversations without all the distractions of home. High school juniors and especially seniors already have one foot out the door, so it’s also a way to savor precious time.  So turn the music up loud and hit the road. Long after the tours blend together, you’ll continue to remember this time shared.