Last week was school break, so like many of you I went on college tours. 10 of them if we're counting. A few observations:
Observation #1: No one asks questions of the tour guide
I hang back to let high school students engage, but inevitably no one does. At which point I start throwing out questions, which makes the student guide happy because they've given this tour 47 times and it gets boring just walking around backwards. Sure, some of them can be robotic and stick to the script. But many will share insights if asked, especially about their personal experiences. The info session said the average class size is 20, but how many were in your largest classes as a freshman? How did that change now that you're a junior? What do you do on the weekends? What have your housing options been each year? What clubs and activities are you involved in and why? Even better, after the tour go to the dining hall or student center and ask these questions to random students!
Observation #2: Parents, give your kids some space
Guide kicking off a tour: Where are you from and what's your favorite food?
Visiting high school student: I'm from <wherever> and um...
Visiting student's mom immediately chimes in "Honey, you like Chipotle"
That's why some families split up, parents on one tour and student on another. Some colleges actively encourage this.
Observation #3: Find the differences
After a while, every information session and campus tour can seem like a repeat. All colleges claim to offer challenging academics, glorified traditions, libraries with floors that scale from social to quiet, and of course blue lights for safety. Listen for the differences. A quarter or trimester academic calendar will impact the pace of learning, exams and vacations. A highly-structured curriculum with extensive general ed requirements will provide a different experience than one with more flexible options. A study abroad program where the student is immersively enrolled at a local university will be different than a carved-out program led by the US college's own faculty. A large urban university may offer access to internships that could be tough for a smaller rural college to match, but the smaller college may provide more opportunities for undergraduate research. Figure out what makes each school unique, and decide if that works for you or not.
Observation #4: Take some time, have some fun
Try to schedule your visits so you can spend time at the college beyond the info session and tour. Get off the scripted path. Eat in the dining hall. Get coffee in the student center. Pick up a copy of the student newspaper to get a take on what's important on campus, not just what the admissions marketing brochure highlights. Wander around and off campus. Maybe even take in a student performance or athletic event, which is a great way to understand the vibe of a school and have some fun too!