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.
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.
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.