Tips for the college trip

Tamara Weiss, with sons Noah and Jules at brunch in Burlington, Vermont during a to visit UVM. — Photo courtesy of Tamara Weiss

Island kids have been heading off to college for 350 years – since around the time Vineyarders Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Iacoomes became the first Native Americans to attend Harvard (and live in the college’s first brick building) in the 1660’s. Though their parents probably didn’t spend their children’s junior and senior years touring schools all over the East, these days it’s a practically a rite of spring. Planning these off-island trips, which ideally involve being at the prospective campuses on weekdays to attend classes and schedule interviews, can be a daunting task. Tamara Weiss, owner of Midnight Farm and mother of twins Jules and Noah Stuber – now freshmen at UVM and Bard – became an expert at it. She shares her tips with us on planning a great college visit. Two kids at the same time – not only all those applications, but all those visits! They wanted to go to different schools, but they also visited each other’s schools. So they saw a lot of schools, and a lot of college towns. Here’s my advice:

Maximize your off-Island time Maybe because Island kids are kind of sheltered and don’t typically see a lot of colleges before junior year, it’s important to see as much as possible and maximize the time off-Island.

– Look at a map of New England and the Northeast and group the schools. Don’t go to Maine for just one school. If you’re looking at Bowdoin, look at Bates and Colby while you’re there. We stayed in Portland, which is a great city and had a really great dinner (at Fourth Street), and woke up happy and went on to Bates and Bowdoin. Obviously, all the Boston schools are easy to group and so are the five schools in the other great New England college town – the Northampton/Amherst area.

Plan to be on campus with actual students – Try to plan to be at each school over lunch. Go to the cafeteria. When your kids watch people eating, interacting, it’s easier to see if they can relate. You find out things you wouldn’t on the official tour. Some schools even have free passes for lunch – it’s good to call and ask. – Try to see a real dorm room, not just the one on the tour. This is a good reason to find other people on the Island whose kids might attend some of the schools you’re looking at. Get in touch and see if they’ll show you their rooms and the common spaces.

Plan ahead, and plan way ahead – Think ahead, way ahead. When we used to go up to Cambridge, we’d always take the kids through Harvard, just so they could see it. Take younger siblings on the college visits of the older ones. It inspires them. – Look at each college’s website – they virtually all have these “Visiting the College” tips for where to eat, stay, and even activities. And try to stay walking distance to campus. You’ll often get the best rates at hotels through the schools, and sometimes even get a discount code for nearby restaurants. Then dig further on your own – check with those networks and other Island parents. – Plan ahead to visit coaches, or arts centers, or the things your kid is interested in. If he’s a potter, see if there’s a wheel.

Keep them busy – It’s really important to make the night and weekend as fun and as packed with activities as you can; plan ahead for your kids to meet up with other Island kids; check out the library, walk around. Let your kids experience what it’s like on their own, without you. – Find a movie, or a great place to eat, or a trail to walk in the morning. Keep your kid occupied; don’t let them sit in their hotel room bored.

Get all the questions answered – If you can swing it, take some kids you know at the college out for dinner. It’ll help your kid make some friends, and it’s a good way to find out about the school. And the kids who’ve been eating dining hall food will appreciate it too! – Even if the school isn’t at the top of your child’s list, try to schedule their interview while you’re visiting, so you don’t have to go back off-Island to all these places, which is a huge expense and really time consuming. Doing the first one is the hardest; they get easier after that. – Ask questions on the tours, and if your kids aren’t asking them, at risk of embarrassing them, ask the questions you know they’re thinking.

Make this their trip – Make sure you don’t push your kid to your alma mater if there’s little or no interest. This is their thing; let it go. We went to Hampshire, my alma mater, in the pouring rain. I mean, puddles everywhere, no one was outside, and not a thing was green. We had a really bad tour; the tour guide was wearing pajama bottoms and didn’t really have answers for questions. The rain and the tour made it pretty unlikely my kid would go there. I’d been so excited, but you have to put it behind you. The next day, we woke up to sunshine, drove to Bard, had a really great tour, and that’s where Noah ended up. (Oh, and keep your eye on the weather if you can.) – Let your kid stay in a dorm if there’s an opportunity – go to a social thing Friday night, be without a parent, be separate. So much is making sure your child feels comfortable, and find kids they can relate to. I met a friend on my own first tour of Hampshire and we stayed friends from then on. – Since these trips often come soon after they get their licenses, and might be the first time they get to drive on a highway, it’s a great time to let them practice and to learn rotaries, and see what life will be like when they leave MV. And let them play their own songs on their iPods in the car. (My kids have better taste in music than I do, anyway.)

It is true, there’s a college for everyone, and your kid will probably end up where they’re supposed to be. My kids wouldn’t even get out of the car at UMass/Amherst – skyscrapers in corn fields? But I know kids from Chilmark who wanted to get out of the small town and have the big experience.

Mostly, enjoy your time doing this. I loved every minute; hanging out with my boys, seeing things through their eyes, remembering my own college trips. It’s an unknown, an adventure – when you leave this Island and head out to the world.

When you look back, you’ll realize it’s the beginning of your separation, so this can be a joyous time to spend with your kid.