Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Visiting colleges with your teen

I have a confession: I love going on college visits with my teenage daughter.

Maybe it's because my (divorced) parents were so not into the whole college visit thing. Maybe it's because I work in Marketing and love to see and compare how brands market themselves. Maybe it's because I enjoy an old-fashioned road trip and sharing in my daughter's excitement about college. Maybe it's because we only had to visit six schools. Or it could be all of the above.

Granted, we only have one child, who knows what she wants to study (Nutrition/Food Studies), and there are only a dozen or so universities that offer undergraduate degrees in Nutrition, and we were able to quickly narrow down the schools she wanted to visit (at least initially) to six, a very reasonable number. (We also had three backups, in case she didn't like more than one of the six.) Still... I thoroughly enjoyed going through the research process with her, planning our trips (one of my favorite hobbies), visiting each college/university, comparing them, and making up taglines (how I amused myself).

For those interested, here are my summaries -- and taglines -- for the six schools we visited.

First up was Boston University, whose admissions team clearly put a lot of time and money into their admissions presentation, which was conducted by an assistant director of admissions, featured a current student, and included a slick video filled with interesting factoids as well as a helpful slide presentation. If I were to come up with a tagline based on the presentation, it would be "BU, better than you think!"

(I could have been just imagining that BU had a chip on its shoulder, but as my memory of BU was as a party school for underachievers, the presentation definitely had me reconsidering the school and viewing it in a much more favorable light. Well played, BU!)

We also liked BU's campus, which, though urban (the school is located in Boston), still had a nice campus feel.

Next up was NYU, whose marketing tagline seemed to be "New York! F*ck yeah!"

I was underwhelmed (and turned off) by the presentation, given in a small, overcrowded room, in a building under construction, by an assistant director of admission who waxed enthusiastically about New York City and NYU's overseas campuses and study abroad programs, yet barely touched on the school itself, provided little admissions info (as I recall), and seemed like he was trying to scare off potential applicants. But the teenager didn't get the same impression (or didn't care).

Our NYU tour guide, however, a Communications (or was it Theater?) major from Kansas, was great -- very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. (We could all see the teenager being a tour guide.) Indeed, shortly after the tour had concluded, the teenager asked us if she could get an NYU sweatshirt. Cha-ching!

As for the University of Pennsylvania, which we visited on a February day when the mercury did not get above 15 degrees (and felt like -15 with the wind chill), if I had drunk a shot of vodka (or pick your alcohol) every time the assistant director of admissions said ivy league during his presentation, they would have had to rush me to the hospital for alcohol poisoning.

That said, we all thought the Penn presentation was good -- very useful, in terms of navigating the admissions process and showcasing some programs that students browsing the Penn website might not be aware of. But if I had to come up with a tagline for Penn, based on the admissions presentation, it would be "We're Penn, and you're not!" or "UPenn, hell yeah!" or "Penn, did we mention we're an Ivy League school?"

As for the campus tour, didn't love the tour guide (blonde sorority girl, though perfectly nice), but we loved the campus, which is very pretty and compact and has a small-town college feel, although it's in the heart of Philadelphia. (One of Penn's big selling points to prospective students is you can roll out of bed and be at your class within 10 minutes, no transportation necessary; Philadelphia is right there; and you can be in New York City in less than 2 hours.)

Next we drove up to Ithaca, New York, in early April, to visit Cornell, which I had my doubts about (big school, cold weather, not close to anything -- all the things the teenager didn't want), though it has a top-rated Nutrition program. I can't say that it was love at first sight, but it was close. Which surprised all of us.

Maybe it was the "Student Experience" package we booked at the Statler, Cornell's student-run, on-campus hotel, which resulted in us being upgraded to a Tower View Suite, and meeting and talking to so many nice students at the hotel and in the restaurant (where we had dinner and breakfast, both of which were yummy -- best yogurt I've ever had). It definitely wasn't the general Information Session, which was the worst, least helpful  admissions presentation I have ever attended. Totally worthless. (Dude couldn't even figure out how to work the 1990s PowerPoint presentation.)

However, the breakout sessions/panel discussions for the individual colleges, where the director of admissions for Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the school the teenager is interested in (who was fabulous) and three CALS students fielded questions from parents and prospective students, was much better. And our tour guide was great.

My tagline for Cornell, or really CALS: "CALS: Smart, creative people who know what they want to do need only apply."

Our last college road trip (for now), over April break, was to Northern California, to visit Berkeley and Davis. We all were SURE, with capital letters, that the teenager was going to love and want to go to Berkeley. In fact, we would have put money on it. And you know what? (You can probably guess at this point what I am about to write.) Of all the schools we visited, this was her least favorite. Mine, too.

The interesting thing was, the info session was one of the better ones we'd attended. (The guy who gave it studied education and was into statistics.) And we had a very articulate, very perky tour guide (another Theater or Communications major). And the campus is very nice. But we just weren't feeling it.

As for a tagline, I've been wavering between "Cal Berkeley: Just as good as Stanford, if not better!" (Berkeley has a bit of a chip on its shoulder re Stanford.) and "Cal Berkeley: Eh. Whatever." (Berkeley also gives one the impression that they don't need you.)

We had the opposite reaction to Davis, Berkeley's sister school to the Northeast. While Davis is reputed to have a Top Three Nutrition program and has a very cool sounding viticulture program (we all loved the idea of the teenager studying and making wine), we didn't know much about the school or the town and were basically just going for a ride.

Boy were we (pleasantly) surprised.

First off, the town of Davis is adorable. Okay, maybe adorable is not the right word, but it's a great college town, with lots of little eateries and shops and things -- very nice. And the UC-Davis campus.... All I can say is wow.

Maybe it's because we hadn't seen the sun, combined with over 50-degree temperatures, and lush grass and trees and flowers in over six months, but walking around the UC-Davis campus, you felt you were in an arboretum (which, actually, you are). And there are bikes everywhere. No vehicles are allowed, so students and teachers bike (or walk) everywhere. And the gym? OMG. Our giant, relatively new LA Fitness pales in comparison.

The academic buildings looked pretty nice, too (as did the baseball players).

As for the Information Session, it was one of the best we attended -- led by a student, a senior, who just happened to be a Nutrition major, and it was full of useful information about the school and applying. It also had us immediately reconsidering Davis (in a good way). As did our tour guide, an African-American student from LA, who was sporting a black Dodgers baseball camp, who confessed to crying when she first set foot on the campus, being an LA city girl, and not being used to the country, and squirrels, which terrified her. Although we don't think she meant to be, she was a hoot.

My tagline for Davis: "Davis: It's really nice here -- and we have good academics, too!" (Everyone there just seemed so happy and laid back, though everyone we talked with said to not be fooled by appearances, that the school was very challenging academically.)

So basically we are 5 for 6, which in baseball (LET'S GO, METS!!!), as well as in the college search process, is an excellent batting average. And the game plan now, for the fall, is for the teenager to attend classes (and stay overnight) at her top thee schools. If we can figure out how she can do that.

Which brings me to my final topic: College Admissions Websites. Why do so many colleges make it so hard to sign up for info sessions, tours, and/or classroom visits? Of the six schools we visited, Boston University, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Davis, Berkeley had the worst info session/tour sign up process, followed closely by Cornell. Though few of them were a cinch to navigate -- and I write about the web and usability for a living.

And do not get me started about trying to attend a class as a prospective student. (I am looking at you, NYU. Seriously, no online information? You just expect students to go to the Welcome Center the day they want to visit and play classroom roulette? Really? Really, folks. I know. I called. Was transferred twice. And no one could help me beyond saying, "Come down to the Welcome Center." Also, good luck booking an overnight hosting visit, anywhere. The schools that offer them sell out almost as fast as Target sold out of Lilly Pulitzer last weekend.)

ANYWAY.... As someone relatively new to this whole college thing, and fascinated by the process, I'm interested in hearing from other parents, as well as friends who can still recall what it was like when they visited schools, back in the day. Just leave a Comment (in the Comments section).

No comments: