The College Tour: Never Too Early

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I took my nephew Spencer on his first college tour this fall. Spencer loves to cook so it was fitting to visit the Culinary Institute of America. Spencer was excited to get out of school early that day. The hour and a half drive to Hyde Park, New York was special because we don’t usually get one-on-one time together. We made the most of it by filling ourselves with sugar obtained from the McDonald’s drive thru, gossiping about family members and saying and doing things that aunts allow but parents do not.

Spencer was bored by the information session and its facts, figures, and statistics even though this presentation included a sampling of student-made decadent chocolates. Spencer perked up for the tour. Between our enthusiastic tour guide, the smells wafting out of the various classrooms, the elaborate culinary machines, our excellent student-cooked and served meal in the dining hall and the more than adequate dorms, Spencer decided he could see himself attending this school in the future. I think he felt inspired seeing so many budding chefs in one place. Spencer agreed it was a good idea to schedule additional tours to compare CIA to other culinary colleges. We ended our day with rich ice cream on the deck of the dining hall. As we watched the sun set on the other side of the Hudson River, Spencer grinned and said, “Aunt Michelle, I started my day in second grade. Then I went to college. Tomorrow, I am going to work.”

Spencer and I had a great time at CIA, which is mostly why I took him with me. But, I also think there is value in introducing younger students to colleges. The following are The College Spy’s top reasons to visit colleges before junior year of high school.

Visiting colleges is an excellent way to learn about careers and majors that your student may ultimately choose to pursue. Information sessions typically include a description of the college’s unique programs and the careers those majors lead to. Many colleges also offer department-specific tours. For example, instead of touring the entire college, you and your talented math student can take an engineering department tour and view the facilities, labs and equipment while finding out about all the different engineering concentrations. These department-specific tours often include details of coursework and examples of student projects. Spencer oohed and aahed over the fancy pastries at CIA. Your student may drool over the robots and student-built cars at Cal Tech or the performance spaces at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

As possibilities emerge and excitement grows, planning naturally follows. Students make good decisions because they have learned on tour what college admissions counselors are looking for in applicants. Students begin to set goals for themselves equipped with information about the college process. They will have the knowledge and lead-time to thoughtfully and intentionally plan their academic courses and activities.

When students tour colleges early in their high school careers, there is no sense of urgency. They can relax and absorb the information and environment without the pressure of having to decide which colleges to apply to and what to study when they get there. In contrast, students who begin researching colleges late often have to balance this time-consuming task with a heavy senior year course-load, social life, job, athletics and other activities. The stress can take its’ toll on their well-being as well as the quality of their applications. Students who guess at their short list of colleges tend not to work as hard on their applications because they are not excited about the possibilities their futures hold. Students who have stood on the campus of each college or university on that list and affirmatively decided that the chemistry is right are much more likely to be truly invested in the admissions process and, ultimately, pleased with the result.

Touring early will also allow students and parents to learn about and take advantage of opportunities on campus for high school students. Many campuses offer online programs, summer athletic and academic programs, etc. By touring early, students will have a chance to take advantage of these programs.

Finally, a road trip to visit a college can be a great way to spend time with your child. While rocking-out (silently suffering?) to your child’s favorite band, you can squeeze in questions about school, sports, friends and activities. You will have the opportunity to be a good listener and show your child that you care about them and believe in their bright future. Your child will enter his or her senior year of high school with all the stress of college applications and hard decisions knowing their family has their back.

Spencer frequently wears the t-shirt he picked at the CIA bookstore after our tour. Maybe it’s because it reminds him of our fun day together, maybe he just likes navy blue. But, I like to think there is a little bit of pride in that shirt…it’s not just a shirt. It is a symbol of knowing what he can do when he grows up.


Michelle McAnaney is the founder of  The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She recently completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.