Making the College Visit a Mini-Vacation and Other Great Advice on this Rite of Passage

We're delighted to welcome Mary Dell Harrington to the blog today! Mary Dell cofounded the wonderful blog, Grown and Flown, with Lisa Endlich Heffernan, which covers all things kids aged 15 to 25. (And we're so lucky to have both of them as regular guests here!) Today, we get to ride along with Mary Dell and her 17-year-old daughter as they travel through one of the wonderful rites of passage in the college admission journey -- the college visit. We personally found these visits to be peak parenting experiences and it sounds like Mary Dell and her daughter did, as well. You can, too -- especially with her excellent advice.


Our youngest child will soon finalize her college list and begin the process of uploading her heart and soul into the Common Application. By winter break, she will be liberated from thinking about SATs and self-reflective essays, never to dwell on them again! The only part of the college hunt that I hope she might recall, perhaps even fondly, are the college trips we took together. It is the singular aspect of the process that parents truly share with their child and the only one with the potential to both inform and entertain.

Based on my experience with our daughter and her older brother, here are ways we tried to make looking at colleges more like mini-vacations and less like drudgery:

1. Act like tourists

We drove through states and into towns neither child had previously visited. We once passed a sign marking the Mason-Dixon Line in Maryland and caught sight of Amish men driving buggies in Pennsylvania. The setting of a school matters, so taking in a few sights and learning a bit about the history of the greater campus environment can give your child a context in which to place the school.

2. Work as a team


Most of our trips were far from home so we flew and rented cars, meaning I was the driver and my daughter, the navigator. With iPhone in hand, she guided me from airport to campus to hotel and back, using the Starbucks App (or the College Admissions Gourmet Guide) to track down a spot for a quick coffee along the way. When we looked at schools five years ago with our son, he navigated with less hand-held technology. Let your kid take the lead with Apps and prepare to be impressed.


3. Escape from the routine

Traveling together this summer gave our daughter a break from her summer job and I, too, was liberated from the routine in my life. Use a college trip as a vacation from whatever causes boredom (or friction) back home. If you’ve signed up for an early morning info session, order a room service breakfast to get your sleepy teen fed and moving in time.

4. Find peace and quiet

Having dinner together each night while on the road became a perfect setting for a college post-mortem. Uninterrupted, both kids articulated their impressions about the school we had just visited while I sipped a glass of wine and listened. I asked a few questions but hearing them speak about each college revealed much to me about their shaping priorities.

5. Be flexible about the schedule

Even the most carefully planned trip has the potential for last-minute disruptions. Whether dealing with a cancelled flight or deciding to cut a college visit short, managing changes on the fly made us feel we were not prisoners to our plans.

6. Imagine living there

Arriving at a college with time to spare before scheduled appointments gave us a chance to explore more than the campus. Discovering walkable shops and cafes accessible to students became a part of each visit with our daughter. Learning something about a larger metro area where internships might might be readily available was also on our agenda.

7. Let your child pick what is important

Each school will emphasize what it is most proud of during info sessions and on tours. But there may be aspects to the college that matter to your child that are never discussed. For our daughter, learning about Greek life was important and, for our son, the football field and athletic facilities were must-visits.  

8. Connect with your alma mater

For a small percentage of parents who are college graduates from schools of interest to their children, a trip to an alma mater is a college visit like none other.  Although I am officially “neutral,” secretly, I am thrilled that both state schools my husband and l attended are on our daughter’s list. If you graduated from college, now’s the time to connect with the alumni office in advance of your trip to see if they have specific suggestions about your upcoming visit.

9. Get ready for college

We have sat through info sessions and followed backward-walking tour guides around campuses in a half-dozen states. We walked through snow on the ground last March and sought shade on sun-baked visits this summer. The child I took on her first college trip over spring break has grown increasingly knowledgeable and confident about what matters to her in choosing a school.  As she imagined herself on each campus, I, too, began to marvel at the way she has come to look as much like a college freshman as a high school senior.  Each college visit helps both of us prepare for next fall.  


Mary Dell Harrington is a graduate of the University of Texas and Harvard Business School. After a career in the media working for NBC, Discovery and Lifetime, she began a decade-long stint as a school volunteer and certified animal therapist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is the mother of two children, 23 and 17, and lives in Westchester County, New York. She is co-founder and writer, with Lisa Endlich Heffernan, of Grown and Flown: Parenting from the Empty Nest. Please visit





These are wonderful tips. Good suggestion to imagine living there. I recall my children determining fairly quickly if they felt a connection and sense of compatibility at the schools we visited.

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