Mama Madison: It's time for the college tour

Some hints from the parental side

I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.

It will likely take me some time, and at least a few more collegiate visits, to gather all the research I will need. But in the meantime, I am happy to offer a few helpful hints and observations, in no particular order, based on my recent experience.

There are varying degrees of "Welcome" in offices of admission. Call ahead to see if they have coffee. And an easily accessible bathroom. You'd be surprised. Especially on the latter.

Try to visit a campus you are really interested in during a torrential downpour. No, you may not see any actual students playing ultimate Frisbee on the quads or gleefully walking to class as you might have expected. But you may be gifted with a slicker with the school's logo on the front to wear during the tour. And nothing beats free collegiate swag.

A shocking number of college students, or at least prospective college students, claim to want to be engineers. At least a third off all kids on tours were interested in the field. And while I know STEM careers are hot right now, I have a mild fear engineering may become the new pre-law. Way too many graduates and not enough jobs.

Don't make assumptions about whom the other parents on your tours will be. At one of the selective east coast schools we looked at, I expected everyone to be named Chip, Preston and Blair. But to be honest, I probably looked more like a traditional "Muffy" than any of them. Sure, every kid will be wearing preppy footwear--boat shoes are de rigueur for high schoolers these days. But none of them will look like they've ever been on a boat. And those who aren't in Top-Siders will be sporting Doc Martens, but they've probably never been in punk bands, either.

Every campus has blue-light safety phones that will be pointed out by your enthusiastic student guide during the tour. But when she stops in from of them to explain how they work, she will look right into the eyes of every parent and assure them that NO ONE she knows has ever had to use one.

Most campuses have a logo embedded on the floor of a major building that rumor has it, if you step on, means you will not graduate. Some campuses have taken this superstition to the next level claiming that if the parent of a prospective student steps on it, he or she will not receive financial aid. Needless to say, I did not take my chances.

Collegiate tour guides are exceptionally skilled at walking backwards while talking. They are like highly educated Weebles. It doesn't matter what wayward pothole or branch they encounter, they absolutely never fall down.

All schools will assure you they have a "holistic" admissions process. I personally believe this may be code for "If your kid is a gifted athlete, I plan to spend a 'whole' lot more time on his or her application."

If your child wants to get into a competitive East Coast school, consider moving to Pierre, South Dakota or Bismarck, North Dakota. Admissions counselors seem committed to geographic diversity and, according to them, no one ever applies from the Dakotas.

While it may feel like a roller coaster, touring small liberals arts colleges has very little in common with a trip to Disney World. There are no fast passes to meet directly with the dean of admissions and there are no parades except, perhaps, for homecoming.

And from what I saw, no one gets nearly as excited about getting their picture taken with the mascot of a Division III school as they do with Mickey Mouse.

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