Both Sides Now: College Campus Visit Tips From a Dad Who Knows

As Joni Mitchell’s 1969 iconic song “Both Sides Now” says, I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from give and take, and still somehow

I survived.

Survived what, you may ask? Survived the college campus tour. Just how daunting is a campus tour? Allow me to elaborate.

When I took my daughter on college visits to more than a dozen colleges and universities, I figured it would be oh so easy. After all, with 30+ years of higher education experience and a wife who was a guidance counselor, I knew it all.

Oh, how wrong I was.

There was the time that we got up before the crack of dawn and drove four hours in the car to attend an early morning open house. Once we got to the school’s parking lot, my daughter announced, “I don’t like how it looks, I’m not going in.” After trying to reason with her I resorted to “Get out of the damn car, plaster a smile on your face, and look interested, now!” Yes, I admit, I was reduced to a crazed lunatic after 15 minutes of dealing with a stubborn and tired teen.

Moral of the story: teen biorhythms don’t acclimate well to early morning visits.

Then there was the college I really wanted my daughter to like. We drove to campus and went on a tour. Unfortunately, the tour guide ignored our questions, sighed when we asked to see the college’s fine arts building, and exclaimed when she opened the hallway door to a residence hall, “Huh, it doesn’t smell today.” That went over well. After returning to the admissions office, the counselor on duty ignored us and instead gave her undivided attention to a visiting football player. Needless to say, my daughter’s interest in the school evaporated despite my assertions that we just happened to get a bad tour guide and counselor and she should look beyond them to the other many great attributes the college had to offer.

Moral of the story: first impressions do matter.

We then attended an open house at a university that looked beautiful on their website and in their publications. I told my wife that, in reality, the school looked nothing like their photos and that it would not be a good fit for our daughter based on a number of factors. She insisted we visit. We did. It was horrible. During a departmental presentation, the two faculty members who spoke decided to fight and contradict each other. When asked about study abroad opportunities they informed us that, “We don’t believe in sending our students abroad. We want all their experiences to be local.” And regarding internships they said, “Oh, we don’t have many relationships established. We let our students find them on their own.” Umm, ok. Let’s just say we couldn’t get out of there fast enough!

Moral of the story: a picture is indeed worth a thousand words and the ones used to describe this visit aren’t printable!

Alas, college names were flying off my daughter’s list right and left. Sure, some of our visits went well, but the bad ones lingered in her memory. My wife and I tried to reason with her as both parents and educational professionals. She informed us that we didn’t know anything and that she should just go to her guidance counselor as she knew more than we did. Months of frustration built up and I responded, “I know your guidance counselor. She has met with you once in your entire high school career. What makes you think she knows what school would best fit your needs?” How do you think this diatribe worked out? It only made things worse. No one spoke in our household for quite a while.

Moral of the story: know your audience and think before you speak.

What did I learn when looking at the college visit from both sides now? Many things. First of all, parenthood is hard. There’s no operator’s manual for dealing with teens. All the higher education experience in the world doesn’t prepare you to be calm and non-judgmental when it’s your own child.

What advice do I have for parents?

  1. Be calm and know that this too shall pass. While it is good to guide your child, it is also a difficult and stressful time for them. Tread lightly. In addition to all the drama of being a teen, deciding where to spend your college years can seem overwhelming.
  2. Have patience. Plan your college visits carefully. If the distance is great, drive up the night before to check out the area and make sure you and your child are rested. A day long open house is exhausting – both physically and definitely emotionally.
  3. Prepare questions in advance and let your child know that you may ask some of them but, ultimately, it is up to them to get the answers they need.
  4. If you get a bad tour guide, don’t give up. Come back for an open house or a repeat visit.
  5. Above all, try to make the whole experience enjoyable and fun. In the long run it’ll make your life, and your child’s college search process, so much better. Show your child that you care, but not too much. Let them think they’re the ones in charge of the process.

As the rest of the song goes, But now it's just another show. You leave 'em laughing when you go. And if you care, don't let them know. Don't give yourself away.

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In addition to his work with Estrela Consulting, Kevin Mayne is the Vice President for Enrollment Management at Landmark College.