How to Get an Early Start on the College Search

By Julia Fitzgerald

Timely topics
How to Get an Early Start on the College Search

Now that I have successfully sent one child off to college, my friends tend to ask me for college prep and selection advice. Top question — how many schools did you visit, and how did you work it into their busy schedules?

I love watching their faces when I tell them, “Twenty-six schools, seriously.” I know they are thinking, “Isn’t that really overdoing it?” Look, in true mama-says-so fashion, I only do this stuff if it’s going to work out well for me.

“College search” was the single best excuse I have found so far to travel and hangout with my kids. And because it was all about them, they totally went along with it. (Suckers!) Now, we didn’t wait to start the college visit odyssey in the eleventh grade.

Over the last few years, we worked campus visits into vacations, so both of our kids could start to get a mental picture of how big schools differed from small schools. It gave me the opportunity to see what some of these schools, that I only hear about during March Madness, actually look like. We saw Stanford on a San Francisco vacation when my son was in eighth grade, the University of Arizona while we visited Phoenix, and so on. I even managed a spring break business trip in L.A. where I had both kids fly out and we hit USC and UCLA.

It wasn’t until tenth grade Christmas break when we started working in specific college visits, where we officially signed up and listened to the pitches. I made my son do all of the online pre-work to register us for every visit. It proved to be an effective way to gradually transfer his enrollment responsibility from me to him. When we went to visit my family in Dayton for the holiday, we drove from Chicago so we could hit the University of Illinois, University of Dayton, Ohio State and Vanderbilt. Seeing several schools in a short spread was interesting because we could compare the schools and start identifying what “lit” him up and what turned him off.

We also got much better at asking useful questions by listening to other families at the early campus visits. My son went from asking, “Where do you go for good pizza here?” to “Do you offer merit scholarships?” and “How important is Greek life at the university?” Practice does make perfect.

During the spring of his junior year, on long weekends, he and I would cash in my frequent flyer tickets and hit some schools that were high on his list. I also extended an NYC business trip so he could join me to tour Columbia and NYU. He didn’t end up attending either, but we have an epic memory of running the Central Park loop together.

In that critical summer between junior and senior years of high school, I planned a vacation to see multiple schools during one trip. My kids and I went to the Boston area and hit five schools and crushed the Freedom Trail. We visited old friends, learned the train system, ran the St. Charles jogging route and did Boston like crazed tourists. We threw in New Haven and Providence just to round the trip out. On another trip, we took our French exchange student with us to explore the Washington, D.C., Virginia and North Carolina schools.

Ultimately, my son sorted out that he liked schools with a defined campus, an accessible big city and a sports tradition. Oh yes, and he then sorted out the schools that offered the majors and programs that were of interest to him. In the end, he chose based on the major and a well-informed “gut feel” for the school.

Sure, there was a lot of online research that went into the college planning, but nothing — and I mean nothing — beats a good ole road trip to a campus. It’s never too early to start thinking about your child’s academic future! And that includes ACT and SAT prep. Contact your local Sylvan center to learn more about prep programs!