Cliffs Notes For The College Tour

Campus visits can be a big help in picking a school

Barreling across Houston's South Loop Freeway at 75 miles per hour in a driving rainstorm, I fumble with a Hertz map as I dart between 18-wheelers. Am I late for an interview with Bob Dole or a one-on-one with Compaq Computer CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer? Nope. I'm headed for something really important: a college visit. Daughter Erin and I are en route to Rice University, sprinting to make a 2 p.m. session for prospective applicants. Thanks to air-traffic delays and Noah-like rains during our drive to campus, we arrive to find the information session ended, the walking tour group long departed. Well, there's always tomorrow.

Such angst is a far cry from the "old days" (as my daughter describes them), when I pondered where to go to college. I applied to six or seven schools, all but one sight unseen. I ended up at the University of Missouri's journalism school not because its program was top-rated (it was) or its location some bucolic paradise (it wasn't), but because it was the only school I could reasonably afford.

RUSH HOUR. Unfortunately, my daughter is not one to be deterred by such detail. Besides, in a day when the annual cost of attending a top college equals the sticker price of a small Lexus, few parents are willing to make college decisions without first kicking the tires. So this year, we joined the annual migration of families piling into planes, trains, buses, or minivans in search of the perfect school. While our list was by no means typical--my daughter is looking only at schools strong in business or engineering--our experience provides insights helpful for almost any student or parent facing college visits.

Unless your child is very focused, don't start visits until the spring of the junior year in high school. Don't wait until summer, though: There's nothing worse than an empty campus. When Erin and I saw the University of Delaware on a Saturday in July, the lack of activity was eerie. And avoid local high school holidays: The University of Pennsylvania on Rosh Hashanah was like Grand Central Station at rush hour.

Choosing where to visit may require some family negotiation. Include some schools your child thinks are "cool," a few you prefer for career reasons, and your state university. (It's often cheaper and easier to get into, so use it as a floor for comparisons.) Sample schools of varying sizes. Erin enjoyed touring tiny Swarthmore College on foot, but the buses that traverse sprawling Rutgers University turned her off.

During each visit, attend an admissions-information session (most schools hold them at least once each fall weekday) to learn about application deadlines, testing requirements, academic programs, and financial aid. A student-led tour usually follows. But don't end your visit there. "The biggest mistake people make is spending too much time in the admissions office," says Nanette Clift, director of recruitment for Washington University in St. Louis.

CANDID COLLEGIANS. To learn things the glossy brochures leave out, walk around the campus, explore the adjacent neighborhood, or just hang around the student center and strike up conversations with students. (Don't worry--they'll know you're a parent.) For example, we found collegians at Carnegie Mellon University candid about how black students often must supplement their social life with visits to nearby University of Pittsburgh, which enrolls far more blacks. And wandering into the men's room at a Pennsylvania State University residence hall, I noticed a condom dispenser--something lacking at the dorm parents had toured earlier that day.

If possible, have your student stay overnight in a dorm. Many private schools (and some public ones like the University of Virginia) have formal guest programs for seniors who reserve space several weeks in advance. Erin stayed at Carnegie Mellon, Wash U., and Rice, and picked up valuable intelligence on the "feel" of each campus. "People left their doors open in the dorms at Wash U., and people would just walk in and start conversations," she recalls. "At Rice they talked a lot about studying."

Compare your impressions with your child's--you may be surprised how they differ. Erin raved about Delaware, which left me cold. I was impressed by the business program at Ivy League Penn; Erin dismissed its urban campus as "way too busy." Such differences help me understand the kind of place where she'll be most comfortable for the next four years. Now, if I could just figure out how to pay for it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.