Poems & Essays

08 Jun

Tips for Surviving The College Tour

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My older sister gives amazing advice. Without being condescending or bossy, she analyzes situations and offers her reasoned, helpful opinion. As a child, she used to fold and create entire miniature origami families of South American penguins and forest animals. Today, she folds and unfolds proteins in her science laboratory, as she seeks answers to nature’s stubborn secrets.

I often turn to her when seeking counsel about life in general and parenting in particular. I ran into a wall, however, when asking her for advice about navigating the competitive process of college admissions. Alas, she lives in Canada, and my nephew eased gently from his high school into the University of Toronto. I like to imagine that his toughest decision involved figuring out the color (or should I say “colour”) of his notebooks for classes.

In Westchester, New York, where we live, the college process seeps into the everyday lives of high school students and their families. Although students can receive an incredible education with dedicated and gifted professors at thousands of institutions of higher learning, there are certain colleges that capture the imagination and hopes of many young people. The research opportunities, diversity of the student body, school history, and level of school spirit all swirl together to create an unrealistic but persistent fantasy that life-long happiness will result from admission.

What really counts in finding a great school is finding a great match for individual students. Sneakers on the ground of a college can help students figure out how they feel and whether or not they can imagine living there for four years. Today’s guidance counselors encourage students to make a binding commitment to an early decision choice, which raises their chances of admission. Many colleges tell students that showing “demonstrated interest” may their bolster chances of admission, as well. And so the tour becomes another crucial step.

What are we supposed to look for on the tour? Since my older sister has no experience in this field and will tell you that the entire process is insanely out of control, it falls to me to share a little insight with those of you just embarking on this process. In an effort to play big sister, I offer you a few unsolicited tips for making the most of your college visits.

  1. Wear comfortable shoes. You will be walking on cobblestone, flagstones, concrete, and muddy grass, as you are dragged hither and yon through lovely campuses that all start to look the same after the first fifty minutes. Try not to stare at students walking near you like residents of a zoo, as you imagine your child living and going to classes nearby.
  2. Stand as close to the tour guide as possible, as many of them tend to speak in their quiet, indoor voices. They also rarely repeat parents’ or students’ questions to the group before answering them, so you may be lucky enough to hear answers for which you’ll be guessing the questions. It’s like playing a game of Jeopardy in ninety-degree heat. “I’ll take ‘what’s the distribution requirement for graduation for $65,000, Alex.”
  3. Don’t feel pressured to take notes when you see other parents dutifully scribbling away during the information session. Typically, the charming admissions officer is not telling you any secrets that you can’t find on a website, and honestly, what are those people writing down anyway (that the tour will be over by 11:15 am and that there is a coupon for 25% off one item at the school book store tucked into the folder given to you at the start of the day)?
  4. Try not to roll your eyes when a parent starts asking specific questions that only apply to his or her child during the information session. All parents care about health and safety issues and required classes. Just refrain from being that parent who hijacks the general information session. And definitely don’t be the parent who asks what the university likes to do with your child’s bucket of 5’s on Advanced Placement exams. You may be tripped on the above-mentioned cobblestones.
  5. Do not expect to take in too much knowledge about the school’s history and architecture after taking the tour. On one tour, the guide pointed to one of the beautiful libraries on campus and explained, “This is one of our great libraries on campus. It’s really quiet.”I was surprised the note-taking mom didn’t write that earth-shattering piece of information down, too.
  6. Chat with other parents on the tour. Do they seem level headed, courteous, even funny? If you like the parents on the tour, perhaps their children will have similar qualities.
  7. Try not to talk too much to your future undergrad about the tour once it’s over. Anything you say may be wrong, misconstrued, and warped to show that you are overly critical, optimistic, or both. Let your child be the one to offer feedback first. You can focus on mentioning the cleanliness of the restrooms in the student center or the incredible ability of your tour guide to speak and walk backward simultaneously.
  8. Remember that experiencing this process of investigating colleges is a privilege. And while I don’t agree with parents who blithely assert that “everyone lands up at the college perfect for him or her,” I do believe that students who take a positive attitude and a willingness to learn from others will be just fine. And if all else fails, there’s always the opportunity to transfer after freshman year. And of course, you can always consider moving to Canada.



Raised in Norfolk, Virginia, Sharon G. Forman is a reform rabbi and has worked in the field of Jewish education for twenty-four years. She is the author of Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions (URJ, 2006), a chapter on the intersection between breastfeeding and Judaism in Lisa Grushcow’s The Sacred Encounter (CCAR Press, 2014), and most recently The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings (2015). She has had essays published and posted in Kveller, Literary Mama, Lilith.org, The Times of Israel, Mamalode, ReformJudaism.org, The Bitter Southerner, Parent.co, and Mothers Always Write. An essay she wrote about her own high school school experience was just featured in a literary forum in New Rochelle, New York for read650. For the past thirteen years, she has lived with her husband and three children in Westchester, New York where she teaches Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and chases after a rambunctious dog.

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