Originally posted on nytimes.com
Ask my son, who is a junior in high school, if he remembers the Great College Schlep of 2011 with his big sister and he will still fume that it was no kind of summer vacation. Maybe not, but on that virgin tour through 1,200 miles of Anywhere, U.S.A., my husband and I learned a lot about our daughter, the college applicant. She dreaded going away from home more than we realized. She worried about the transition from high school to college, panicking over whether she would she make friends there. She was also consumed with worry in equal parts over whether her roommate would be a psycho, and how she might handle Starbucks withdrawal.
Our son is much more adventurous and laid back than his sister, or I thought he was, until his calm demeanor was rattled at the beginning of his own college tour last month. It turns out he was not so different after all. I quickly relearned some of the lessons from our original Great College Schlep and applied them anew:
Never ask your child what he thinks of the school or his chances. Maybe you can tell he’s inclined toward the school, or worried about getting in. The statistics reeled off in the information session should still stay there. My son’s head is swimming in the same pool of information as mine is. He has heard that early decision candidates may or may not fare better in getting accepted. He has also figured out that he’s close, yet so far, in qualifying for admission to the august institution of the day, and needs no reminder of that dark reality from me.
A tour guide can make or break a kid’s impression of a given school. One 19-year-old coed who has mastered the art of walking backward can color your child’s world for the next nine months. Personally, a tour guide scores big points with me if he doesn’t use the words “spiel” or “awesome.” I develop a twitch when a guide says that the admissions office has told him to give the spiel. As for awesome — the classes are always awesome, the roommates are always awesome and the food is always awesome.
Weather matters. What is not awesome is schlepping around a campus in driving rain. We recently saw a wonderful college in a snowstorm. The gray stone buildings meant to look regal yet welcoming instead looked austere and punishing. Want your child to love your chosen school? Come back when the sun is shining.
Let the family alma mater speak for itself. By the Great College Schlep of 2014, I thought I knew how to play it safe by not offering my opinion on a given college. But my son would argue that he already knows how I feel about the family alma mater because it’s obvious that I walked around the place with a ghost tagging along. I practically cried when we passed my dad’s dorm. I remembered it from his class reunions, which I went to as a child. Still, I spoke only when spoken to — before, during and after the family alma mater tour. And even then, I only opened my mouth to tell my son that there are a lot of colleges where he can be happy. Despite my bout of nostalgia, I truly believe that and hope my son does too.
Don’t talk to other parents on a tour. Kids don’t want to hear how wonderful it is to be young and how much you loved college. And heaven forbid you should get into a conversation with an alumni parent. This will either bore a kid or strike fear in his heart because you have unearthed that most intimidating of all creatures — the legacy applicant. In my son’s mind, someone with parental legacy has an unbreachable advantage. Legacy is nice, I tell him, but any college can fill an entire class with legacies. I say this so often it becomes the 2014 Schlep mantra. Legacy isn’t everything. Of course, that applies at the family alma mater, too.
If other parents talk to you, don’t respond. That brief conversation, even if it’s only about the drive, can open a deep vein of parental snobbery and invite your worst self to respond. On a recent tour of Excellent University, I casually asked a mother whether she and her daughter were also going to visit Big Time University since it was nearby. “Absolutely not,” the woman said. “We’re devoted to our family alma mater. I could never send my child to its rival.”
“Good luck with that,” I said.
“We’re sort of into our family alma mater, too,” my son innocently interjected.
“Really? Well, then good luck to you too,” she fired back.
Not exactly a civil exchange or good role modeling for our kids. It was also the kind of parent spiel I was trying so hard to avoid. If the situation comes up again on the next college tour, I hope I’ve learned my lesson. In fact I have a standard response ready for anything fellow parents and guides say to me. I’ll just smile and say, “Awesome.”