Choosing Which Colleges to Visit: The 5-Hour Drive Limit

Academics. Extracurriculars. Costs. Any of these are important factors to consider when deciding which college makes the list of schools to visit, but often even that is not enough –  a 5-hour drive limit can save time and money.direction road table in up with education road text

We talked with Celeste, mom of a high school junior, about the other factors that influenced the college selection process for her son.

Check out what made this family’s list, then tell us, what’s on your list of criteria?

SCV: You mentioned visiting three schools with two more on the list for fall. How did you/your son decide which schools to visit?

Celeste: My son is VERY interested in doing Air Force ROTC in college. (In fact, his first choice is actually the Air Force Academy.) He wants to go to a college where the ROTC program is actually on campus, which severely limits his options. My husband and I created a list for him of those schools that were within about a five-hour drive of family members on the East Coast–we can’t afford to fly him back and forth across the country and we want family members to be able to reach him if there is an emergency.

SCV: Aside from ROTC and location, what were the other factors related to deciding where to visit?

Celeste: My son looked at the web sites and found that most of them had programs for what he most wants to participate in for extracurriculars–cross-country and band–so that was not a deciding factor. He then looked at the acceptance rates, GPAs, SATs. The ones that were more demanding were more interesting to him because he likes a challenge. The schools that made his list were: University of Virginia (UVA), Virginia Tech, Duke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill) and the United States Air Force Academy (the only exception to our 5-hour drive rule).

SCV: What were the visit experiences like for you/your son?

Celeste: The first one was amazing, possibly because everything was new and a bit overwhelming. By the fourth one, we were tired of information sessions. Some schools, like UVA and UNC-Chapel Hill, did a great job of making it interesting and engaging. We walked away with a good sense of the school’s culture and what they stood for. Duke’s was average–it provided a good overview, but it was too long. Virginia Tech’s seemed boring–although it might have more to do with our early-morning drive there than the speaker herself, I didn’t feel I had a sense of what Tech was all about. My son felt that way about the information session as well, but he really enjoyed the tour there.

The groups tended to be too large to hear everything on the spring tours, although the guides did their best. I would really recommend visiting in the wintertime if possible–it might be cold, but the groups are much smaller. I noticed the guides showed only parts of campus, partly because of time, and partly, I suspect, to make you feel as if these universities weren’t as large as what you feared! It really didn’t matter, because by the end we had a pretty good feel for the school. Also, the combination of information sessions and tours usually ran about two to two-and-a-half hours, and by then we had reached our saturation point! (If you’re going to Duke, bring snacks and a drink. Theirs went three-and-a-half hours!) Virginia Tech actually showed a dorm room. No other college did.

SCV: What do you wish would have had happened or that you would have had time for on any college visit?

Celeste: Questions! All of them except for UNC-Chapel Hill were morning tours that went through lunch. By the time they were done, we were practically shaking from low blood sugar levels. Even though we wanted to stay to ask questions, we were too hungry to do so. This was unfortunate, because the only colleges that talked about ROTC were UVA (because someone did ask during the information session) and Virginia Tech. Knowing only a few students are interested in ROTC, we would have preferred to ask about it after the tours, but the tour guides typically did not know anything about it (except at Tech) and we were too hungry to go back in and ask the admissions people. I would also liked to have had a chance to ask about spiritual life on campus.

SCV: Was your son engaged with the visit?

Celeste: For us, these visits were overviews, so he did not ask many questions at this point. He tends to absorb things, reflect on them, and come back with questions later. I think he asked one question during the four visits. For these visits, he wanted to get a feel for the campus and the culture and decide whether he wanted to apply. He typically separated from us to stay closer to the guide (and on one tour the students were actually ordered to separate from the parents and be in the front) so he could hear better. We usually dropped back so other students could be up front as well. We believe that while parents play a part in this decision, it rests primarily with the student, so they need as much information as possible.

SCV: What’s your #1 concern/priority regarding where your son ends up going to school?

Celeste:I have told him very plainly: My concerns are he attends somewhere he can continue to grow in his relationship with God, he gets a good education, and he has fun. In that order. I am not concerned with name recognition, I just want a college that is a good fit for him.

Do you have a college visit story to share? What’s it been like to tour colleges? How do you decide where and when to visit? Click here to share your story with us. We’d love to hear from you.

Updated July 2019

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