Lessons Learned and Practical Advice for a College Road Trip

Parents of teenagers watch college loom larger on the horizon every day. Looking for advice for our high school kids, we turned to the experts at the excellent guidebook, College Admission, who encourage parents to back off and free kids to manage the application process independently. The one exception to this rule, the college road trip, is where I’ll soon be with my 17-year old daughter.

Five years ago I traveled with her older brother, a journey where the lessons far transcended each college’s printed FAQ. From this experience I know that, while our daughter tours the many campuses, I will watch her growing independence and try to prepare my head and heart for her ultimate departure.

Here is what I learned from traveling with our son, and what I will take along with me while touring with child #2. We hope you will find this practical advice helpful for a college road trip with your child.

College Visits: Eight tips to remember when taking a college road trip with your teen.

1. It is an adventure.

We drove through eight states visiting schools that, except for one, we had never seen.  The settings ranged the gamut – from urban center to the middle of nowhere. Some were universities and others, small liberal arts colleges.  There was something captivating about each college, even those that my son eliminated from his list, and we found surprises all along the way.

2. We are tourists.

Learning about the histories of the schools from the student guides was like taking as series of museum tours with backward-walking docents. Further, as we drove from school to school, we caught slices of Americana such as watching Amish men driving buggies in Pennsylvania and spotting a small sign on a Maryland road marking the Mason-Dixon line.

3. The drive requires teamwork.

I depended on my son’s navigation skills and ability to find a Starbucks while he depended on my driving.  An unfamiliar feeling of equality snuck into the journey and in into our relationship. Though it wasn’t exactly how we related back home, it was a foreshadowing of how it might feel to parent an adult.

4. The trip is a vacation.

He was liberated from 11th grade homework and sports practices, late school nights and early alarm clocks. It was a break for me, too. See below:

5. Neutral territory promotes conversation.

No cooking or cleanup meant we had a relaxed dinner for the day’s post-mortem. Each evening, while I sipped a glass of wine, I heard him think out loud, formulating what mattered most to him in a college.

6. Flexibility is a good life skill.

High school counselors divide schools into “safety/likely/reach” but there is one additional category – a school “you don’t want to get out of the car to visit.” Driving along a Civil War battleground late one afternoon, we shared a growing, uneasy feeling about the fit of the school next on the list.  We agreed to keep driving. It only happened once but I think my son was happy to see his by-the-rules mom loosen up a bit.

7. College road trips are not for parents.

The risk of information overload is real. We often skipped the info sessions and opted for just the tour. My son visited football coaches at each stop and there was a limit to how much he could absorb at any one school. I respected that he was the better judge of when to say “enough.”

8. College road trips are college trial runs for high school kids.

My daughter will explore each campus and town looking for suitability and fit.  We will drive countless miles, and will walk many more while we tour each school. In my eyes, the daughter I start the trip with will transform from a teenager to a girl who looks a little more like a college student. I believe she is ready for the next step, not quite sure about me.



  1. says

    Such great trips Mary. The one that especially sticks with me is that neutral territory promotes conversation – especially with boys. So true. Have a great time with your daughter – they are bittersweet trips – but full of so much promise.

  2. Emily says

    I am forwarding this to my brother and sister-in-law because my niece is a junior now…we were recently discussing college visits so I know they will love to read this post. I suppose a parent is never quite sure about being ready for that next step…?

    • says

      It is a rite of passage and spring break is such a popular time to go. Good luck to your brother’s family. As for the next step….

  3. happyoutlook says

    Great post Mary Dell. While my children were sometimes less than enthused about their college visit trips, I reminded them how fortunate they were to even be able to do them. Also, it was a chance for my kids to see other parts of the country – so I made sure that we took in a tourist attraction and ate the local fare whenever possible. From my standpoint, I viewed our trips as a treasure of special memories that I could store up to reflect back on when I sent them off to college.

    • says

      Agree on all points! I loved the trips I took one-on-one five years ago. Not sure I will have the chance to do that again at any time in the future, either. Precious opportunity.

  4. Risa says

    Great post! I took my two older kids on college tours and we experienced many of the same things you write about. It was such a pleasure to have one-on-one time with my oldest on our college tours! We have great memories–the rented red convertible (why not?) in Portland, flying into Walla Walla in the dead of night, discovering a wonderful diner in Philly, and being able to see the Berkshires in the height of fall color. And with my son, I took him to see his first Broadway play in NY, rode the train through the Hudson River Valley, and peeked behind the scenes at UCLA’s theater department. I encouraged both kids to take notes (and that’s another book story) because it is overwhelming to see so many schools and absorb it all. One thing I learned: on those tours, stay at the back of the pack. There was always one parent in each group who grilled the poor tour guide. Your kid will never ask a question if you speak for them. Enjoy your trip!

    • says

      Risa, I love hearing about your adventures – sounds like you traveled the country! I prefer the back of the pack on the tours and I know what you mean about the ONE PARENT (not kid) who dominates the tour. Not looking forward to that but everything else, yes!

  5. Carpool Goddess says

    We had a blast on both our kids’ trips. We drove by at least one school on each visit without stopping, and were always on the lookout for Starbucks too! I think that’s part of the process. They’re learning what they like and don’t like and learning to trust their gut. My son wanted a smaller town and my daughter wanted a big city, so the trips were quite different. Enjoy your college trip and the bonding that goes with it!

    • says

      Thanks so much, I can’t wait to travel with my daughter and spend time with her for nearly a week. Like your family, our kids have very different schools to look at so it should be an adventure!

  6. says

    My oldest is only 11, so I appreciate very much this glimpse ahead. At the moment the idea of her going off on her own into the world simply fills me with anxiety, but nice to know when the time is right there are lovely and different adventures to look forward to.

    • says

      Korinthia, I wish you many fun days ahead with lots of adventures with your children. the college trip is one that is such a rite of passage – for kids and their parents, too.

  7. Julia Munroe Martin says

    College trips were wonderful — I also have a boy and girl 5 years apart, and each time we went to colleges, it was the break as you’ve described. With my son, we also had a school he refused to get out of the car for — and it helped me realize that my sphere of influence was (appropriately) shrinking by the mile. Ultimately both my kids made great choices (my daughter’s a senior in college), and those college trips led to another much-loved tradition: the drives to and fro to pick up/drop off. Always a wonderful journey. Thanks for the memories!

    • says

      My oldest is a senior in college, too, so those days for our kids are winding to a close! Thanks for adding your happy memories to this space.

  8. Risa says

    I should mention that my husband took our youngest on his college tours and they managed to work it out so the ratio of baseball games to college visits was nearly 1-to-1! Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies…and, oh yeah, a few colleges along the way. They had a blast. I’ve been to more college campuses than I can count (college counselors travel in flocks and see tons of schools). Got a little burned out on a cappella groups, but it was a ton of fun!

    • says

      What a fantastic idea to combine baseball with college trips. I think we might be dipping into a shop or two on this trip – so different than looking at the athletic facilities and football fields from our trips with our son.

  9. says

    My son is a college sophomore now and once in a while he’ll mention that he misses visiting colleges. If only he acted like he was interested when we were touring.

    We blew off one scheduled college visit with each of our kids, something no one ever regretted. And you make a good point about checking out the town around the college. That definitely helps the kids get a sense of life off-campus and a feel for the community.

    Enjoy your trip!

    • says

      Anne, the town and environs are such an important part of the 4 years kids spend in college, enhancing the experience or limiting it. Funny story about your son’s memory of visiting colleges. Keeping my fingers crossed that my daughter and I will have a good week of touring!

  10. says

    My youngest is graduating uni this year but I remember the road trips fondly. We saw two colleges every day for seven days. My best advice is to take lots of photos of the campuses. I kept forgetting which had the state-of-the-art science center, which had the cosy dining hall, etc. Also, never express an opinion until after your child has. We made that a steadfast rule on our trips.

    • says

      Kyle, thank you for the suggestion to never express an opinion before your child does – am keeping this one close by as we set out soon.

  11. says

    what a beautiful post, Mary. I think we grow closer to our children on these trips as well. Underneath all the excitement is the knowledge of what it really means. They are a little more grown up and we are a little more aware that we are nearing an end and a beginning. I found there was a tenderness there as well.

    • says

      Sandy, yes, these trips drive home the realization exactly what you say -“they are a little more grown up” and we have to face that reality.

  12. says

    My oldest is only 15, so this was a good preview for me. My babies will be launching soon. I’m trying to stick my head in the sand and ignore this, but their departure is on the horizon.

    • says

      Karen, being independent is what we want for them and this moment is inevitable. We survived our eldest departure to college, just not so sure about how it will feel when it is the youngest child’s turn. Sometimes I feel like sticking my head in the sand, too.!

  13. says

    You brought back a lot of happy memories! Our eldest, from the back seat of the car as we drove through the scarlet hued Berkshires in October, “So, is it fair to say that there is absolutely nothing in Western Massachusetts?” (Yes, reader, he attended a city school…) Our daughter ordering our dinner by cell phone as I drove, trying desperately to reach our mid-state-Pennsylvania hotel before the last restaurant (& bar) in town shut for the night. The youngest eating our B&B out of their breakfast buffet before visiting coach & college. They have all graduated from college now, but I still have the photos to prove it!

  14. heyjod says

    So true!! I just retuned this afternoon from a college visit with my 2nd child. It was such a wonderful, peaceful experience. I certainly learned my lesson with my first son. When we got to a certain college in Massachusetts, my son looked around and said he wasn’t getting out of the car. I nearly lost my head. We fought the entire 4 hour ride home. It was only days later that it finally sunk in with me that there was no point in getting mad. It wasn’t going to work for him no matter how far I drove.
    It’s a hard pill to swallow but the college visit is for the kid, not the parent. I’ve learned to shut my mouth and drive the car. My second and third children will certainly benefit from my first experience. Luckily, I learned quickly and my first born is a freshman at his first choice, early-decision college and is so happy my head hurts again from smiling!