College Visits. No, Really. I’m Going to Get to Them This Time.

M and I went on all of these college visits on our own. Cute W was working and J had other activities like camps. I thought that it might be mother-daughter bonding. It was vaguely mother-daughter bonding. Here are a few of the main take-aways from our college visit adventures.

It was insanely busy.

Y’all, I couldn’t believe how many families were visiting these colleges. Really, on a random weekday in the middle of the summer, every college had multiple sign-ups for college tours and information sessions. At a smaller college (Hamilton), they went around the room asking the students where they were from, and there were kids from California and Colorado. At a bigger school (Northeastern), they filled a huge auditorium, and that was only one of several information sessions they were holding that day. As the massive price tags indicate, this college admissions thing is a huge business.

I’ve apparently been deluded about dorms.

Okay, it’s not like I visit colleges all that much, but the last couple of dorm rooms I’ve seen have been the brand-spanking-new ones at my alma mater, Grinnell College, and–long, long ago–my little sister’s first dorm at Fordham at Lincoln Center. At the time, Cute W and I were living in really horrible married student housing nearby, and we were shocked by how unbelievably spoiled these first year college students were, living in a suite that was way better than our apartment in every way possible. Based on these experiences, I’ve been under the vague general impression that dorm rooms are spectacular nowadays. It goes along with an entire mindset that Cute W and I have held, that campuses are now basically doing capital improvements as a sort of academic arms race to get new enrollments, and that this arms race carries through to residence halls which are super-posh. In fact, if the topic were to come up, I would often rant over my third glass of wine that fantastic residence halls are a real disservice to college students, because living someplace totally crappy is a beautiful rite of passage into adulthood, and a dim, stale-smelling dorm room is the perfect palate cleanser to make students who previously lived in upper-middle-class suburbia feel grateful when they manage to score a dingy studio apartment in Ridgewood.

But these residence halls? Not that great. In fact, the first dorm room we visited, at Hamilton, felt downright claustrophobic. I figured that of course they’d show us the nicer ones on the tour, right? Nope, doesn’t seem like it. Among all the dorms we entered, the quality ranged from poor to fine. No rooms where I thought, “Man, these kids are spoiled.” So that was a surprise.

You could definitely feel the vibe.

A large part of me didn’t want to bother visiting colleges during the summer, because of course it’s not the same as during the school year. But I was surprised by how much of a strong vibe we could get even from a relatively quiet summertime campus and the interactions with the admissions staff, both professionals and students. Among our six visits, the clear winner of the vibe award for M was Wellesley. When we walked around the cafeteria, I was really wishing J was with us, because she loves making special infused waters. I texted her a photo.

We liked that students led the admissions discussion. We were also surprised by how moving it was to go into Wellesley’s library. In one room you’re surrounded by stately portraits of past college presidents in ornate frames, and when you do a double take and realize that it’s all women, you feel a bit like you’re living in an alternate dimension, one you’d like to stay in for a while.

M was also a fan of a swing on campus.

Colgate also scored pretty well, vibe-wise, with a one-on-one tour, really impressive students at the presentation, an actual conversation with an admissions official (M was terrified and tongue-tied), and a Chipwich as a parting gift.

The big vibe loser for M was Boston College. We arrived in the morning and were pointed toward a dining hall for breakfast, and it happened to be an unbelievably gloomy place with a food selection that seemed like what you might find at a rundown rural airport. That, coupled with a pretty strong Catholic presence (like the devotionals on display in the bookstore window and the posters announcing mass times), quickly convinced M that this was not the place for her. We ditched out and didn’t even take a tour.

The City is apparently not M’s current groove.

One other reason why we were ready to bail on Boston College so quickly is that, by the time M had visited her fourth college, she had Discovered Something About Herself, which is that she doesn’t think that she wants to attend college in a city. Her first three stops (Hamilton, Colgate, & Williams) were all in small towns, and when she got to Northeastern, she felt like it was too big for her and much more of a city vibe than she wants. She really didn’t like Northeastern, which is interesting, because I was impressed. The students who talked about their experiences there were doing really cool stuff, but it also definitely felt much more vocationally/professionally oriented than what M needs. M is altogether undecided about what she wants to do for a career, and Northeastern, with its roots as a commuter business school, feels like a much better fit for someone who’s already got some direction.

Of course, one perk of staying in the city is that you get a wide variety of food options. We Yelped a Nepalese restaurant near our hotel. It was our first-ever Nepalese food. We liked-didn’t-love it, but I was glad to find someplace within walking distance, and we checked a new country’s food off our unofficial global gourmet tasting list.

And, speaking of M’s groove, what about sports?

M is a very sporty girl. Is she so ultimately sporty that some D-I school is going to throw money at her to come do something sporty at her school?  Umm,  I guess anything’s possible, but that just never really occurred to us. We had always heard that hardly anyone actually gets sports scholarships, but now that she’s a junior in high school, we actually know several families who are considering this, and M has friends who have been going on “official” visits to schools in pursuit of college athletic careers. Cute W and I both agree that academics is M’s priority, and even if she could play D-I or D-II (and I guess it would be insulting to say that she couldn’t? So I won’t actually say. . . umm, anything on that specific question. . . am I totally digging a hole now? The point is, even if she could), we fear that sports on that level would feel like a grinding job that sucks away joy. At the same time, she spends so much time playing sports and working out that it’s a huge part of her daily life and her identity, so we are hoping that she keeps playing in some capacity. The coolest would be if some smarty-pants D-III school got extra-enthusiastic about her because she’s a delightful student-athlete combo.

Still, she couldn’t resist checking out athletic facilities along the way. Sometimes she’d bounce up and down on and indoor track and practically squeal “Oh, Mom, this track is so nice!” The particular track’s merits were often lost on me, a non-runner,  but I was able to appreciate it when an indoor facility boasted clean fresh air instead of the cloying scent of dirty socks.

When it was close enough, she’d also check out the soccer fields. I can’t remember which school we’re at here, but the field conditions earned a thumb’s up.

I’m still true to my first love.

One thing that I noticed as I walked around all these college campuses is that I still like Grinnell College the very best. I can’t help it! I think the campus is just beautiful, I love the culture of the place, and I just think it’s the coolest. When we first started visits, I found myself comparing everything to Grinnell, but then I just had to stop. M found it pretty irritating. It’s a little maddening because she is leaning toward small liberal arts, now she’s decided that the city’s not for her, and she’s even said that she wants to go far away. But the whole middle-of-Iowa thing is a deal-breaker for her. Which: okay, if that is a deal-breaker for you, it’s clearly not the place for you. But each time we stopped at writing labs on the various college tours and the guides would explain proudly that the writing lab was staffed by students who’d been selected by college professors, it took all my restraint to not wave my hand and explain that at my alma mater, the writing lab was staffed by actual grown-up professionals. But restrain myself I did.

Anyway, the trips were good. Who knows if she’ll end up applying to any of these colleges, but it was still helpful. M has a better handle on what she does and doesn’t want in a college, and I think it got her a little excited about college, too. So: mission accomplished. Now let’s hope she rocked the PSAT on Saturday so that she’ll have plenty of good options.


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