At the University of Chicago, my family, including our son, prospective applicant Seth, loved the Hogwarts-like reading room and the pierogi truck. At Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., we enjoyed the natural history museum and spied on swim team practice. At Colby College in Waterville, Maine, we appreciated the colonial architecture and the modern art collection. So it goes with college campus visits, a mix of research and entertainment through which high schoolers shop for their academic future.
Fall is largely celebrated as college football season, but for high school upperclassmen and their families, it's also college touring season. Or one of them. During the last 18 months, we've embraced the school circuit as our travel theme, making campus calls over weekend getaways and even longer trips. Here are a few ways to make your college research a vacation, too.
Use your vacation budget
Depending on how far you range from home, college visits are expensive. We've done road trips and plane trips, and booked cheaper chain hotels like the Hampton Inn in Rome, N.Y., and splurges including the Hotel Vermont in Burlington. We've saved money using home rentals and by dining at spots students have recommended, including Den Den Café Asiana near Brown University in Providence, R.I.
By any measure, we've invested in travel while visiting colleges, and, given the expense, it is useful to look at the trips, at least in part, as vacations. We used our vacation budget, building college visits into leisure trips (for example, we paired Cape Cod and Brown) and spending long winter weekends in Boston, a hub for regional schools, where we also sought out the trendy new Tiger Mama restaurant and took a historic walking tour. Though we sacrificed that year's ski trip, we still managed to throw snowballs in Boston Common after our Tufts University tour.
Make a two-year plan
Polled by admissions officers on our college tours, the majority of the other students visiting college campuses, we learned, have been juniors and seniors, with a few sophomores sheepishly raising their hands. But sophomore year, especially late in the year, isn't too early. We started touring schools when our son was 15.
"You have to gauge a little by your own child," said Janice Caine, owner of Custom College Visits, an agency that organizes campus tours for families. "You don't necessarily want to pressure them, but I think it's a good time if you have a school that is local to go see them and get an idea of what it's like to be on a college campus and what kinds of questions people are asking."
As college applications have grown — up 6 percent in fall 2015 over the previous year, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling — so have campus visits. Some start with spring break trips. High season follows, during summer vacation. But campuses then are relatively empty (as we found at Middlebury College in Vermont in August), an argument for visits between September and May.
One potential academic benefit to starting college research early in a child's high school career is motivation. "Sometimes colleges get them very excited," Caine said. "So excited they may work harder when they see what it takes."
One at a time
As with academics, so with college visits — for best results, don't cram.
Most visits begin with a 60- to 90-minute information session led by an admissions officer. It is invariably chock-full of facts, figures and tips, requiring full concentration. Following that is the relatively breezy campus tour, usually led by a current student adept at walking backward while pointing out the library, cafeterias, dorms and some version of the campus icon that gets painted as a student prank.
Morning sessions usually end by lunch, making a second afternoon tour possible in places with many schools. But we've found a decompression talk over a substantial sandwich (reason to visit the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor: Zingerman's Delicatessen) is our digestive limit.
Go off the tour itinerary
Think of the campus tour as your skeletal overview. Then go back and fill in the details, for both education and amusement.
"We encourage students to spend free time in the bookstore or walk around and strike up conversations with people in the cafeteria to see if it's a place you feel comfortable," said Robert Rummerfield, the founder and director of College Visits, an agency that runs group college tours.
Campuses are often the cultural focus of college towns, with worthwhile attractions including the music conservatory at Oberlin College in Ohio and the art and natural history museums at Yale. St. Olaf College in Minnesota and Davidson College in North Carolina are among the many that have hiking trails. And college towns tend to attract independent shops and eclectic restaurants.
Consider the journey
Hard as we've tried to vet our destinations with the help of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, we've picked a few duds. Aiming for diversity, we've visited schools that are large, small, rural, urban, public and private. Some are wrong for unexpected reasons. But we've never regretted the bad pick. Sometimes it helps refine your selection criteria. All the time, it's fun.
As with any family trip, it's not where you go, but whom you're with. College trips offer concentrated time with your child, when available time is increasingly rare. On college tours, we've discussed everything from campus drinking and core curricula to the best road-trip playlists and the preponderance of cute mascots at liberal arts schools. (Looking at your polar bear, Bowdoin College.)