5 Benefits of The College Tour For Parents

by Vera Hough
Originally Published: 

Two years ago, I spent a portion of the summer driving around the East Coast, looking at colleges with my son, a rising senior. This summer I will repeat the process with my daughter, and I can’t wait. The college tour is a rite of passage that can give applicants clarity about what college might be like, what they’re looking for in a school, and what schools themselves are looking for. But I also can’t help enjoying what these visits do for me:

1. I am the most laid-back person in the room.

I was fourth in my high school class and a National Merit scholarship winner, and I attended an Ivy League college, so you could say that I made it to the top of the higher education game. I know exactly what that did and did not do for me. So while in a perfect world I’d like to give my kids the moon, I know that the moon and a dime will get you 10 cents. Real life is about who you are and what you do, not where you went to college. I also have one child with a chronic disease and another with multiple disabilities, so I am continually reminded that what the world considers high achievement doesn’t mean much without love and good health. A lot of other parents we encounter on walking tours and in info sessions are vibrating with palpable anxiety, and they ask a lot of incredibly loaded questions. (What if my daughter takes a semester abroad and misses a job fair? Do some AP classes count more than others?)

Being the cool customer in the room is a very novel experience for me.

2. I get to know myself again.

I have four kids ranging from 6 to 19. The past two decades have been pretty busy—some of that time could be described as a blur. In the years to come, I look forward to more time writing, traveling and enjoying my husband’s company. Right now, any quiet time I get is akin to seeing an old friend I’ve missed, only the friend is myself. On these college trips, I encounter so much new art, architecture, food and music—and I have some space and time to think about what I like, and what I want more of.

My son is an artist, so a certain portion of our college tour was spent touring art studios—both group and individual spaces. He ultimately decided that he wanted the smorgasbord of a liberal arts education, while I was still looking wistfully at the lost prospect of a conservatory experience. “Do I want to be an artist?” I wondered. On further reflection, I realized that after years of interruption, what I craved was immersion—and I am consciously taking time to sit still, focus and try to experience “flow.” As a friend cleverly observed, I’m looking for single-mindedness after years of single-handedness.

3. Suddenly I have a glamorous life.

It’s not exactly Club Med, but there’s a lot to be said for a different hotel every night and three meals a day in restaurants. I applaud the increasing availability of suites in low-priced hotels. I delight in the spread of coffeehouses, brewpubs and French bakeries over the cities of the Eastern Seaboard. Henry James said, “‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” but for “afternoon tea” I would substitute “hotel breakfast” or “watching television alone in a king-size bed.” Ah, the coffee refills; oh, the Turner Classic Movies. I love to cook, but I also adore hearing myself say, “Where shall we have dinner tonight?” Four hours on the Pennsylvania Turnpike isn’t exactly like flying first class, but after a while you learn to play that cruise control like a violin, and with someone in the passenger seat changing the CDs, it’s a pretty luxurious experience. It doesn’t hurt if your teenager knows the right CD to spin in the sixth hour of driving is definitely “The Immaculate Collection.” Vogue!

4. I can hold on tight to my babies a little while longer…

I don’t know about your teenagers, but mine spend a lot of time out with friends and alone in their bedrooms. The togetherness of the college tour lets me reconnect with my kids and spend not only quality but also quantity time with them. As many parents know, the car—with its low-level eye contact and hypnotic, confessional atmosphere—is a great place to talk about weighty subjects, and long hours in the car mean you can go from serious to silly and back to serious again. Sharing music, meals and evenings in close quarters gives me an opportunity to learn about what’s going on with my kids right now and see how their tastes are forming. There’s lots of time to hear stories about what’s going on in school and out—and for me to share my own stories and memories. Sometimes I even get a little evening cuddle in front of the television, so it’s like having a toddler who can comment intelligently on The Mindy Project.

5. …and I’m forced to let go.

There is no better place to practice keeping quiet than on the college tour. I already went to college, so while I get to guide, it’s my child’s turn to consider and to choose. It’s really important to get those first reactions untainted by parental blabbing. College is a place to encounter new ideas and new pastimes, to find out who you are and what you value. I can hope that some of the deepest values my husband and I tried to plant have taken root, but we are getting ready to step out of the garden and let our children tend their own crops. One first step is letting them form their own opinions, ask their own questions and make some of their own decisions about the colleges you visit. That said, there are few things more fun than the moment your child leans over during the info session to whisper, “We don’t need to take the tour,” and you whisper back, “I totally agree.” More time for that delicious dinner and evening in the hotel. With your baby.

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